As al-Qaeda’s military capabilities have declined, it has become increasingly dependent on its message to stay in the global spotlight, a strategy undermined by the death of one of its chief propagandists , terrorism experts say.
Propaganda has long been a priority of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, but its role has grown in prominence. “It was out of necessity,” said Jarret Brachman, a terrorism analyst and author of the book Global Jihadism. “If they couldn’t do anything, they could talk about it.”
The killing of cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen on Friday by a U.S. drone struck a blow to al-Qaeda’s messaging ability.
“No question he (was) a propagandist and a very, very good one,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer now at the Brookings Institution, a think tank. Riedel said the U.S.-born al-Awlaki understood American culture.
For example, in one sermon that has been viewed more than 40,000 times on YouTube, al-Awlaki used an anecdote about pop star Michael Jackson to make a point about the inevitability of death and to suggest jihadists should not fear dying for their faith.
The drone strike also killed Samir Khan, editor of al-Qaeda’s Inspire, a colorful online magazine that carried lengthy articles and sophisticated graphics.
Khan, like al-Awlaki, was a U.S. citizen whose messages were often directed at Muslims in the United States and Europe. In Issue 6 of the magazine, Khan praised the “sacrifice” of Osama bin Laden, who was killed in May by Navy SEALs in Pakistan.
“Propaganda has become an end in of itself,” Brachman said. “They do it because they are good at it and they get attention for it.”
Al-Awlaki’s rhetoric may have inspired Maj. Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist charged with killing 13 people during a shooting rampage at Fort Hood in Texas. The two had exchanged e-mails before the shootings.
The United States said al-Awlaki had taken an operational role in planning attacks on America, moving beyond a job as chief propagandist.
Fred Hoffman, a terrorism analyst at Georgetown University, said al-Qaeda has always seen the value in spreading its message. When al-Qaeda was established in 1988, it set up divisions that included communications, he said.
“They’ve given it a priority from the start,” Hoffman said. “Their survival is dependent on propaganda.”
Osama bin Laden even considered changing al-Qaeda’s name because he was worried the terrorist organization’s reputation had been tarnished because it was linked to killing Muslims. “Bin laden was concerned about the al-Qaeda brand,” Hoffman said.
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates aggressively use the Internet, establishing chat rooms, message boards, videos and websites to engage Internet-saavy people around the world. They have produced documentary-style videos, Brachman said.
The production value of the videos and websites is often sophisticated, analysts say. But the U.S. successes against al-Qaeda hurt its ability to produce quality videos and other media products.
“In their heyday, they were as good as any indie documentary filmmaker,” Brachman said. “Those days are gone.”
As al-Qaeda’s central leadership has weakened, affiliates have used public relations to build their status.
Al-Awlaki’s propaganda skills elevated his affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, among militant groups. “It catapulted al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to first among equals,” Brachman said.