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Diplomacy in Action

Terrorist, Regime, and Western Media: The War of Ideas in the Disinformation Age

Alberto Fernandez, Coordinator for the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications
Conference at the Newseum
Washington, DC
December 11, 2013


Thank you, Cliff.

Thank you also to Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD’s) chairman, Ambassador Jim Woolsey, FDD’s executive director, Mark Dubowitz, and its distinguished board of directors and advisors for the invitation to speak with you today.

I appreciate Cliff’s kind words. And I commend him and his staff for organizing this conference on an important set of issues that gets far too little attention.

He and his colleagues at FDD have been a valuable resource to our team at the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, as well as to other agencies and departments at all levels of the U.S. Government. I admire the fact that FDD works across the political aisle, and its commitment to seek and publish the truth without fear or favor. FDD’s timely research helps better prepare us to confront the ever looming and ever increasing threats to the security of the U.S. and our allies.

I appreciate that FDD is a staunch defender of free speech – the foundation of a free society. At the same time, FDD understands the dangers of terrorist media and the difference between free media and propaganda intended to promote terrorism and violent extremist ideologies.

I note in particular the important work of FDD in the designations by the U.S. Government of al-Manar TV and al-Aqsa TV as terrorist organizations. FDD’s reporting and analysis has been important in providing insight in the changing media and political environment in the region in works such as last year’s “Facebook Fatwa” and in the ongoing coverage of the Long War Journal.

I am very honored to be here with so many speakers whose work I admire, including my old boss, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, one of our great public servants. I also note the presence of my predecessor at CSCC, Ambassador Richard LeBaron who was its founder and first Coordinator.

While the scope of this conference is much wider than my own work and that of my office, there is a common thread running through the media operations of nation states – whether allies or adversaries – terrorist groups like al-Qa’ida. and their rivals at Hizballah and others. That word is narrative. More important than ideologies and ideas are how those elements are packaged, delivered and digested for wider audiences. More than fully formed ideologies, we are all prodded and driven by narratives – by stories, images, slogans, memes, and stereotypes. Writer Joan Didion titled one of her collections, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” And the late, Alabama-born member of the Al-Shabaab terrorist group Omar al-Hamami said last year that “the war of narratives has become more even important than the war of navies, napalm, and knives.”

What we call al-Qaida as shorthand for a collection of individuals and organzations is also a storyteller like all others. In real terms, of course, there are multiple Al-Qa’idas, as Abu Musab al-Suri predicted, Al-Qa’ida should become a system or method rather than an organization (“nizaman wa la tanziman”). But the two most important manifestations of al-Qa’ida’s image are the virtual presence and the local franchises and how the two interact and are manifested in AQ propaganda. It is a fascinating example of cognitive dissonance at its finest.

I’d like to look at four points: what al-Qa’ida says it is about; what it actually does on the ground, what messages it sends, and finally what is being done and should be done about this long and relentless media war.

In talking about how Al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership seeks to present itself to the world, there can be no better guide than the words of Dr. Zawahiri himself. In his recent re-issued “general guidelines for jihad,” he notes that the first goal of al-Qa’ida’s “propagational work” is “to create awareness…regarding the Crusader onslaught.” So the policy is to focus on “the head of unbelief” (America) followed by “creating awareness within the masses, inciting them and exerting efforts to mobilize them so that they revolt against the rulers.” They would be guided in this effort by the “Mujahid vanguard” which shoulders the responsibility of confronting the West. Sometimes this really sounds more like Che Guevara than Ibn Taymiyya.

Zawahiri’s specific rules for conduct are fascinating in how they are completely divorced from the reality on the ground. According to his dictate, al-Qa’ida fighters are to avoid fighting “deviant sects” such as the Shia or Sufis. They are to “avoid meddling with Christian, Sikh, and Hindu communities living in Muslim lands.” It is remarkable to note that this exhortation was issued within days of a Pakistani Taliban attack on a Peshawar Church that killed 85 Pakistani Christians, 37 of them children.

In addition to not fighting heterodox Muslims or Christians, Zawahiri calls for refraining from killing and fighting noncombatant women and children, refraining from harming Muslims “by explosions, killing, kidnapping” and “from targeting enemies in mosques, markets and gatherings where they mix with Muslims.” Confrontation with “evil” Islamic scholars who disagree with al-Qa’ida is restricted to “refuting the doubts raised by them and publicizing incontrovertible evidence of their treachery.”

What was al-Qa’ida doing in the period that Zawahiri issued his rules? In addition to the massacre in Peshawar, increasingly localized takfiri groups bombed mosques in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, attacked Muslim funerals and weddings, blew up markets and attacked hospitals, they killed Syrian fighters combating the Assad regime. They blew up tombs and cut down trees, tortured prisoners in secret prisons. The head of al-Qa’ida in Somalia mounted a brutal campaign against Somali and foreign critics within his own ranks, killing them or causing them to flee. This is not what they did in the West, this is their handiwork in the lands of Islam, in “Dar al-Islam.” Hundreds of thousands of Muslims, from West Africa to Pakistan were displaced directly as a result of the actions of these groups and hundreds were killed. Every single day we see the physical, human, moral cost of their depredations. There is a notorious phrase supposedly heard during the Vietnam War: “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.” Al-Qa’ida seems to be seeking to destroy the Muslim world in order to save it.

What we are seeing, of course, in much of the franchising of al-Qa’ida is the triumph of “Zarqawism.” A specter is haunting al-Qa’ida and that ghost is the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Bin Ladin and Zawahiri sowed but increasingly independent Zarqawist leaders like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria, Mukhtar Bel Mukhtar in Algeria and Ahmed Abdi Godane in Somalia are reaping. The mantra of these groups is, as one scholar noted, “more takfiri than Marxist,” even more sectarian, local and nihilistic than the language issuing out of AQ Core.

I once remarked on Al-Jazeera that I did not believe that 14 centuries of Islamic civilization, of its glories and culture, its faith and science, reaches its apogee in Mullah Omar and Bin Ladin. Little did I know that there are people who would think that its summit would be Al-Baghdadi.

We have now touched on Zawahiri’s vision and on the reality on the ground. What about the projected image in social media? Like parts of Africa and the Middle East, the internet too is a kind of ungoverned space, one which creates an echo chamber effect, accelerating and widening the process of radicalization. Here too we see cognitive dissonance, with the focus on “the head of unbelief,” and the horrific reality on the ground transformed into a global jihad narrative. The typical AQ video is language about America coupled with killing of local people. Or you could say talking about the far enemy while slaughtering the near enemy. Sometimes they give out candy or or kiss children or check weights and measures in a market. This is the basic model, with infinite variations.

It is as if the daily, constant body count of Muslims killed in Iraq or Somalia or Yemen or Syria by these groups did not exist. Given some of the language you sometimes hear from lone wolf attacks in the West or al-Qa’ida propaganda videos, you would be shocked to know that 85% of their victims are Muslims and that that percentage has risen even higher in the past few years.

In the topsy turvy world of many al-Qa’ida videos, mirroring reality, Muslim life is cheap. It is the “propaganda of the deed,” where one or two killed in the West generates more attention and rejoicing than 500 nameless and invisible Muslims dying in Iraq or Yemen or Pakistan or Somalia.

One thing we should always strive to do is to reclaim the stories and lives of these forgotten victims from the oblivion that their killers sought to consign them. Who remembers today that over 500 Iraqi Kurds were killed by al-Qa’ida in August 2007 in simultaneous attacks that almost obliterated two villages? I am sure here in this audience do but less well informed people may not. We must always strive to remember the victims of this brutality and hate, whether Kurdish villagers or Jewish children in Toulouse or Muslim worshippers attacked while praying during Ramadan. Marking the resilience of communities worldwide attacked by the extremists, honoring victims and survivors, is one of the most important things we can do.

CSCC began over two years ago with the idea that given the huge emphasis that AQ places on media and propaganda, there was a real need for a USG entity functioning as a “war room or campaign center, as you would see in an election,” to push back.

We message daily in Arabic, Urdu, Somali, Punjabi and, as of a few days ago and in a very modest way, English. Since 2011, we have produced well over 18,000 engagements in the form of texts, graphics and video. We work closely with, and depend on, partners throughout the interagency and with a growing list of overseas counterparts and like-minded organizations in over a dozen countries.

Our digital efforts are overt, interactive engagements, fully attributed to the U.S. Department of State with the specific and regional objectives derived from the National Strategy for Counterterrorism and undergirded by the best analysis available from the Intelligence Community.

The immediate goals of our engagement are three-fold: to contest the space. This is digital space which had previously been largely ceded to the enemy. To redirect the conversation – to make this as much as possible about the adversary and his shortcomings rather than about the many alleged transgressions of American foreign policy. In this, CSCC is quite different from traditional public affairs and public diplomacy as it is done by most in the USG. What we try to do is not to affirm the positive about ourselves but to emphasize the negative about the adversary. It is about offense and not defense. The third goal is to try to unnerve the adversary, to get in their heads. There is little doubt that we are doing that given the efforts that al-Qa’ida supporters have gone to try to silence us.

We are just getting started. The work of CSCC is essential but it is a small part of the overall effort. As Secretary Kerry said a few months ago, “we must think creatively about expanding our tools and capabilities so we can address the issues that drive young people to despair and terrorism. The United States must take a leading role in presenting an alternative vision to that presented by extremists.”

We do, I believe, a good job of pushing back immediately and tactically, of poking holes in the daily narrative but more work needs to be done in attacking the larger narrative of the global jihad, the ideological underpinnings of the big story al-Qa’ida tells about itself, the world and us. This cannot and should not be done by the United States alone and requires actively supporting a growing community of interest dedicated to this goal. Important new initiatives such as the Global Fund on Community Engagement and Resilience and GCTF’s Hedayah International Center of Excellence on Countering Violent Extremism will be key here. We also have to understand that pushing back against takfirism and its associated ills will mean working with all sorts, with secularists and liberals, with Islamists, with governments and the private sector. In short, working with people with whom we may not share every goal and worldview. There are many key issues in this fight best handled by others rather than an overt USG messaging campaign.

Effective pushback also means working effectively to minimize the opportunity terrorists have to present their message, while offering protections for those who speak up against them. I am not talking about censorship but I find it bizarre that Arab critics of al-Qa’ida on twitter, in addition to the State Department, have to defend themselves against cyber attacks from avowed takfirists using the hashtag “spam for whoever criticizes the mujahideen.”

Creating communities of interest, supporting positive voices, narrowing the space violent extremists have to work in, repeatedly and aggressively presenting the reality of what is going on on the ground, none of these efforts are particularly expensive but they require real, extended effort over time. Al-Qa’ida’s narrative is a powerful and toxic one but it is a hot house flower that can eventually shrivel if we open the doors and let cold fresh air in. As Olivier Roy noted some years ago, this worldview“ is both a product and an agent of globalization, first of all because it embodies in itself an explicit process of deculturation.” “It valorizes the uprootedness of uprooted people.” That is, of course, why al-Qa’ida seeks to present a skewed vision of Islam and its past at odds with the historical record.

There is something wrong when the work of a visionary like Taha Hussein in “Al-Fitna al-Kubra” or of brave martyrs to free expression like Farag Foda are more difficult to find in Arabic than the latest screed from the latest extremist talking head.

What these efforts require is time, patience and consistency. This is indeed a long war, one which, despite the rhetoric, al-Qa’ida and its ilk wages chiefly against the Muslims of the world, and one that the Muslims will eventually win against al-Qa’ida.

This is a time neither for triumphalism nor despair, neither ignoring the threat nor exaggerating its scope and danger but addressing it calmly and deliberately over time. The poisonous worldview we face is not entirely new, but in so many ways, actually a product of the 1960s building on the older pathologies of Western authoritarianism and honed by the pressures of the current age.

It is useful to recall that Sayyid Qutub’s influential works on takfir and jihad first circulated in the 60s and begin to be put into violent action in Egypt in the 1970s by groups like Takfir wal-Hijra as a kind of local prototype of what al-Qa’ida, and especially the local AQ mutations we now see, would become. The world view we are confronting did not emerge, fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s head, in 1998 when al-Qa’ida declared war on the United States. No amount of kinetic action – alone, and divorced from ideological considerations – can make this threat disappear.

Much has been said about the challenge of these local franchises of al-Qa’ida and their violent action against local populations. Equally important are two other aspects of this threat: the amplification of the al-Qa’ida narrative into virtual space and the emergence of local activism and outreach by radicals which also amplifies their influence. This is the so-called “Ansar al-Sharia” model (or Hamas/Hizballah model) best described by al-Qa’ida cleric Abu Munzir al-Shinqiti in 2012 in his paper called “We are Ansar al-Sharia.” In it, he called for al-Qa’ida types to compete with rival Islamists to build networks and win friends through various types of social programs as a necessary complement to their terrorist activities, taking advantage of political space created by the convulsions of the Arab Spring.

This “new normal” I have described is a situation where the role of public diplomacy will be, or should be, essential. It is a highly charged, fluid political environment where the tradecraft and expertise of savvy foreign service officers on the ground and in Washington, working closely with colleagues across the Country Team and in the interagency, can be key in influencing new audiences and nontraditional players. In such a scenario, made even more difficult by very real security concerns, the face to face work of a PD officer drinking multiple cups of bitter coffee and arguing in the local language late into the evening in a stuffy, smoky room – that same officer strategically using the tested tools of the PD trade, whether exchanges or grants or speakers – and all of that augmented by Washington elements with a rough and ready attack philosophy, like CSCC, could prove to be decisive. The challenge for all of us who work in Public Diplomacy and in Foreign Affairs is to make sure that we have the right mix of people, programs, vision, and mandate to achieve the desired effects on the ground we all want to see.

Thank you very much and I would be happy to answer your questions.

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