The Sunni Insurgency and their Media: The War of Images and Ideas

I read through the RFE/RL report posted on yesterday and it’s the best I’ve seen in the open domain. Daniel Kimmage and Kathleen Ridolfo looks at the Arabic media products in its native form, comparing producers, their messages and audiences, cross-referencing online products with print products, looking at trends, and more.

Saving the analysis for the chapter I’m finishing on the topic, I’ve selected some of the more interesting passages from the report, but if you’re in any interested in this, download the report and at least skim it. The report does not discuss US/Coalition responses except to note insurgents mimic the official tone and content for legitimacy.

Kimmage and Ridolfo see a decentralized psychological warfare operation that is seeing success with sympathizers and financial contributors.

The report shows that media outlets and products created by Sunni insurgents, who
are responsible for the majority of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq, and their supporters
are undermining the authority of the Iraqi government, demonizing coalition forces,
fomenting sectarian strife, glorifying terrorism, and perpetrating falsehoods that obscure the accounts of responsible journalists. Insurgent media seek to create an alternate reality to win hearts and minds, and they are having a considerable degree of success…

The impressive array of products Sunni-Iraqi insurgents and their supporters create suggests the existence of a veritable multimedia empire. But this impression is misleading. The insurgent-media network has no identifiable brick-and-mortar presence, no headquarters, and no bureaucracy. It relies instead on a decentralized, collaborative production model that utilizes the skills of a community of like-minded individuals….

This report brings Iraqi insurgent media from the margins to center stage so that outsiders without a command of Arabic can glimpse the “other half” of what is happening in Iraq as it is presented by the other side.

However, being decentralized and do-it-yourself (DIY) creates its own challenges.

But insurgent media also display vulnerabilities. The lack of central coordination impedes coherence and message control. There is a widening rift between homegrown nationalist groups and the global jihadists who have gathered under the banner of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Moreover, insurgent media have not yet faced a serious challenge to their message on the Internet…

As the propagandists / information warriors / public diplomats (loosening the definition) learn, they recognize and warn of the threats posed by the lesser qualified among them. The report breakouts producers, the insurgents themselves, and disseminators when they may be different. The Media Centers act like a PRNewsWire or other news clearing house for insurgent media. The study by Al-Boraq below should be noteworthy for its very existence, regardless of quality.

Thanks to the decentralized, “do-it-yourself” nature of the insurgent media enterprise, virtually anyone can, in theory, create a pro-insurgent media product. In practice, this is discouraged. The Al-Boraq Media Center published a study in October 2006 titled Media Exuberance, warning that the ease of Internet-based media production is a threat to the credibility and authority of jihadist—and, by analogy, insurgent—media.

The purpose of the media varies and one of the opportunities the report’s authors note is the increasing fissure between insurgent media groups.

The written word everywhere remains the preferred medium of record and authority. For insurgents, who are eager to present themselves not as ragtag bands of guerillas, but as the tip of the spear of a far larger and more significant movement, the creation of a body of written materials is a crucial indicator of the insurgency’s durability and seriousness.

While insurgent groups represent a variety of ideological platforms, hard-line Islamist rhetoric has come to predominate…the actual commitment of individual insurgent groups to global jihadist ideology is questionable…

…Iraqi insurgent groups such as the IAI and the Mujahidin Army hold a fair amount of animosity for ISI/Al-Qaeda, which they blame for hijacking and defaming the “honorable resistance”.

Groups seek to distinguish themselves from others, as is natural with entities competing for scarce resources.

In form, insurgent operational statements strive to convey credibility by mimicking
press releases issued by official organizations elsewhere. They bear the official logo of the issuing group even when they appear on Internet forums…

What the press releases represent is the image of themselves that insurgent groups would like to present—who, why, how, and how often they attack, and what results they claim to achieve…

Against this backdrop, it is noteworthy that an insurgency that emerged to combat a foreign occupying force now claims to direct the majority of its attacks against fellow Iraqis.

Despite differences between insurgents, there are certain themes that pervade the spectrum of their media.  

This explicitly religious framing of the conflict in Iraq renders insurgent rhetoric virtually indistinguishable from the rhetoric of the global jihadist movement. Foreign jihadists have flocked to Iraq, but it should be recalled that Iraq has never had a robust domestic Islamist, let alone jihadist, movement. Moreover, there is no evidence that jihadist ideas hold any great appeal for Iraq’s Sunni population, which provides the bulk of the insurgency’s rank-and-file fighters. Nevertheless, jihadist rhetoric is the rule, not the exception, in most of the statements issued by Sunni insurgent groups, whatever their declared ideological beliefs may be.

It is perhaps no accident, then, that the most media-savvy and politically vocal insurgent group is also the most openly jihadist. ISI/Al-Qaeda is the latest iteration of an organization founded by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and commonly known in the West as Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia or Al-Qaeda in Iraq…

…the core media products made available globally through the Internet by Iraqi
insurgent groups, whatever their ideological orientation or stance on Al-Qaeda, are, it should be stressed, also effective propaganda for global jihadists and their sympathizers. This is especially true in light of Muslim views on Al-Qaeda attacks against civilians, which evoke strong disapproval [PIPA report, pdf]. Arab respondents to a recent poll overwhelmingly supported attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq, however. Thus, insurgent media products showcasing attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq reinforce an aspect of the jihadist message that is viewed positively in the Arab world.

Insurgents treat local Iraqi audience different than their global audience.

Materials obtained by RFE/RL’s Radio Free Iraq correspondents in Baghdad and Al-Mosul illustrate an important difference between the statements made available on the Internet and the printed leaflets distributed within Iraq. The former are intended for an international audience and focus on the attacks carried out by insurgent groups and broader ideological issues.

There are no newspapers or radios specifically affiliated with insurgent groups. There are four television stations described in the report: Al-Zawra, Al-Rafidayn, Al-Jazeera, and Al-Firdaws (Caliphate Voice Channel, or CVC).

The impact of insurgent media operations is global, feeding money and sympathy, and less often recruits.

The reach of Iraqi insurgent media is global and seeks to promulgate a message that the resistance is conquering occupation forces in Iraq…

…the most popular websites carrying insurgent and pro-insurgent materials are equal,
and in some cases superior, in reach to many mainstream Arab media sites

While home-grown groups do not have a policy of recruiting foreign fighters, they may receive financial support from abroad—from the Iraqi diaspora or from sympathizers in other Arab countries—and their media efforts would only benefit such activities.

…mainstream Arab media access the materials and use them in their print and broadcast reports.

The media operations target two general groups of “consumers”, sympathizers and opinion makers.

…factors point to a relatively well-defined profile for the average consumer of insurgent media products: A native speaker of Arabic with a strong interest in politics and access to a high-speed Internet connection. This consumer most likely resides in a Persian Gulf country, where high-speed Internet access is most widespread in the Arab world, and is probably a member of at least the middle class…. the largest number of visitors to most sites [come] from Saudi Arabia (although Egypt and the Palestinian territories are often high on the list as well)…

Within the community of “typical consumers,” two groups stand out. The first are sympathizers who seek out insurgent materials on the Internet in order to obtain more details than they can find in mainstream Arab media. From the insurgent perspective, of course, sympathizers are important as a potential source of financial support. Recruitment appears to be of lesser importance to insurgent groups, some of which have stated that they neither need nor want foreigners to join the fight…

Just as important as potential financial backers are opinion makers, the second community within the “typical users” targeted by insurgent groups. These are the media professionals who create the content of mainstream Arabic language media. It is, of course, their job to follow and report on the media activities of insurgent groups. For the insurgent groups, making materials available to media professionals ensures that the insurgent message reaches a larger audience through the “amplification effect” of mainstream media.

Differences in the messages are becoming more apparent, as well as similarities with notable IO in recent history.

[A film by] Ansar Al-Sunnah juxtaposes incendiary comments by Hazim al-A’raji, an aide to Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, with footage of the gruesomely mutilated corpses of Sunnis…the film’s unmistakable message to Sunnis is that they face the gravest peril and must take up arms. The combination of hate speech and glorification of violence calls to mind disturbing parallels with the media campaign that preceded the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

…the rift between nationalist and jihadist groups within the insurgency appears to be widening, with insurgent media reflecting the split. Against a backdrop of basic differences in ideology, with nationalist groups limiting their goals to Iraq and jihadist groups spearheaded by Al-Qaeda seeing Iraq as part of a global struggle, open conflict has become more common.

There’s more in the 76 page report, but you get the idea. Insurgent media operations has its challenges. There are opportunities to learn from their marketing strategies, to insert ourselves into the process and hive off potential sympathizers, the curious, and the neutrals, turning them against the insurgents. While proclaiming they deliver the truth, they often lie and yet these groups have “brand” loyalty, trust, and growing numbers of followers.

Perhaps soon the US will fully commit to combating enemy information operations, until that time, tactical solutions will not inoculate against hate, build our reputation and gain trust quick enough.

One thought on “The Sunni Insurgency and their Media: The War of Images and Ideas

  1. Voize, Thanks reading and commenting.regarding your statement “you seem never to mention the need for those who represent the US nation and people as part of their accepted professional political role“, but I have frequently on this blog, just not in this post or recent posts. I have taken the US to task for leading with the wrong foot and for the disconnect between actions and words. On the former, I’ve written frequently on our tactic of using the military as our public diplomats without acknowledging such. On the latter, I’ve taken Karen Hughes, among others, to task on the disconnect between our reputation and what we want people to believe.
    We’re defined by what we do, not what we say, despite the Administration’s protests otherwise. When abuses happen, there is an expectation that the incident was an anamoly, but to local eyes it isn’t, either because they’ve seen too many isolated incidents or because of enemy information operations, and likely both. To many in America, Abu Gharib was an isolated incident. To many Iraqis, it added to the failure to secure the peace, it fit in with heavy handed counterinsurgency tactics, etc. You should be easy to find previous posts noting many if not all of the very points you highlight on this blog, except I don’t blog very much on US domestic incidents, so the Cheney shenanigan won’t be here, and US public opinion manipulation through deviant methods is old news and not pertinent to the larger issues and not public diplomacy or its various flavors. However, I have commented on the feedback effect of using foreign press to plant stories in the US domestic market, something I’ve talked to pros about, names being mentioned in at least one of those posts.

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