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Al-Qaeda's Media War: The Big Bang Theory

It's not a theory. It's a practice.

In presidential campaigns, 'making the news' is often regarded as free campaign ad space or a reach multiplier. For al-Qaeda, the dynamic is the same and is a primary driving factor in its quest for the spectacular. The spectacular gets camera time. In fact, many of al-Qaeda's attacks in Iraq are tactically useless, providing no gains on the ground. They are, however, strategic in nature.

Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno lays this dynamic out well here today, as he described the continued decline of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

"They are struggling to maintain a coherent capacity," added Odierno, who is soon to become the Vice-Chief of Staff of the Army.

He went on to say that al Qaeda will likely try to keep its name in the news by executing occasional attacks, such as the Feb. 1 suicide bombing in which the organization detonated explosive belts on two mentally disabled women.

"What al Qaeda wants ... is to do an event where they can get on TV every once in a while," Odierno said. "That's what they're down to."

It's also what they've always been "up to." Al-Qaeda has always and will always seek the spectacular attack which gets wide international attention and coverage, where bloody imagery is a bonus. But what Odierno means here is that this is about all they've got left in their current state inside Iraq.

At the time of the surge's beginning, I noted in private that we would see a drop in the number of al-Qaeda attacks and operations, but a rise in the ratio of spectacular attacks (within the context of Baghdad). The reasoning then was that it would soon be more difficult to get human and material resources into the Iraqi capital city, and more difficult to transit from neighborhood to neighborhood (sector to sector). So when they did strike, it would be a (relatively) 'spectacular' attack - car bombings, etc. If they were going to expose themselves, they would make it 'worth the risk.' Such has been the case.

When a cell is rolled up - killed or captured - in a Diyala province village, the reportage is minimal, often relegated to added paragraphs to a broader story on Iraq. But when a cell in Baghdad blows up a car or human mules in a Baghdad market, the headlines sit atop newspapers, websites and news broadcasts. This is reality.

And it is why al-Qaeda seeks the spectacular - they can still leverage much from their beleaguered presence in Iraq.

Never discount the media component of al-Qaeda's war - in Iraq and everywhere else.

2 Comments

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 03/07/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

Wow, nice synopsis and spot-on analysis.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq wasn't recognized by bin Laden for some time after Zarqawi publicly pledged his allegiance and only after a series of claims of credit for attacks that had already been claimed by a variety of groups. This ultimately led to his downfall because with every claim he lost a bit more Iraqi support and soon every attack was attributed. As the group loses the ability to fully plan and execute spectacular attacks in Iraq expect, and I believe we're already seeing, an increase in media cell exploitation of American anti-war/anti-military sentiment through western media sources. The terrorist media campaign is effective in battlefield deception and strategic effect targeting. How many times in 2004-2005 were there regional news reports of attacks against shrines and humanitarian crises at refugee camps where no shrines or refugee camps existed? Not to mention after genuine military scandals like Abu Ghraib and Basra, an apparent ramp-up of planted stories to defame and remove effective coalition military leaders? When it comes to effecting enemy decisions and movement using rumor, innuendo and flat-out lies, the terrorist media cell rivals all.