"Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising," observed the American writer Mark Twain. Unfortunately, this principle is known to terror groups and tyrants as much as it is to businesses that use high-flying public relations firms.
Terrorists of all types have long utilized the media for propaganda purposes—from the Irish Republican Army timing bombings to ensure they appeared on the nightly news to al-Qaeda's exploitation of the Al-Jazeera news network during the second Iraq War. Indeed, as long-ago as 1987, the analyst and psychiatrist Dr. Jerrold Post was pointing out that many terror groups had what he called a "vice president for media relations," tasked with orchestrating press coverage.
Some of them are more skilled than others.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has attracted recruits via flashy videos that feature the beheading and immolation of their victims, among other heinous acts. The group also published a glossy magazine called Dabiq, which takes its name from a town in northern Syria where they believe the end-of-days battle will occur. The magazine—whose one-time editor was a University of Massachusetts-Boston grad named Abu Sulayman ash-Shami —featured editorials on topics as varied as the necessity of cutting off the limbs of the sharia non-compliant to the need for women to stay at home and support their terrorist husbands.
Al-Qaeda, the progenitor and rival of ISIS, was also media savvy. Videos of Osama bin Laden in caves evoked tales of the Islamic prophet Mohammad, who, it is said, received his first revelation in a cave called Hira near Mecca.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP) also published an English-language magazine called Inspire, which terror analyst Bruce Riedel noted was "clearly intended for the aspiring jihadist in the U.S. or U.K." The publication was thought to be the work of a New Mexico-born cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, who, prior to his death in a 2011 U.S. drone strike, was known for running a blog, a Facebook page and YouTube videos—all extolling the virtues of jihad (holy war) against the West and allies like Israel.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based Shi'ite Muslim terror organization, is particularly skilled at propaganda. Hezbollah operates its own TV channel, Al Manar (The Beacon), which routinely broadcasts calls for "Death to America," age-old antisemitic tropes and promises of the impending destruction of Israel. In 2006, Al Manar was labeled a Specially Designated Global Terrorist Entity by the U.S. Treasury Department, which noted that the channel's employees were conducting "preoperational surveillance" on behalf of the global terror network.
Similar to Hezbollah, Hamas, the U.S.-designated terror group that controls the Gaza Strip, is also heavily funded by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Hamas also operates its own TV channel, al-Aqsa, which is watched throughout the Arab world. As the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has noted, much of the networks "programming that glorifies violence focuses on children, or is geared towards children, including music videos." One such production had a four-year old girl singing about Hamas's first female suicide bomber, Reem Riyashi, who is shown blowing herself up and murdering four Israel soldiers. Singing to the camera, the girl proclaims, "I am following Mommy in her foot steps."
In addition to pulling in recruits and indoctrinating hate, these propaganda outlets push disinformation to a frequently uncritical media. As the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) has highlighted, Hezbollah provided exaggerated civilian casualty reports during its 2006 war with Israel—many of which were echoed by Western press outlets. Ditto for Hamas, as CAMERA analyst Steve Stotsky noted in a July 29, 2014 TIME magazine analysis which found the terror group was likely trying to pass off terrorist deaths as civilians in an attempt to portray the Israeli military as "indiscriminate."
Intimidation and access are also key in the propaganda war. Douglas Jehl, then a New York Times correspondent and now Washington Post foreign editor, acknowledged in June 2003 that threats made him "more cautious as a reporter." On Iran's nuclear program and Syrian support for Hezbollah, Mr. Jehl admitted he "wrote about these issues, but couldn't dig as deeply as he'd like, and did recognize that the more of these [critical] stories one writes, the more difficult it would be to get back in."
Authoritarian regimes from Havana to Pyongyang employ similar tactics, keeping a tight grip on press coverage and access and operating their own propaganda outlets. For example, when Syrian dictator Bashar Assad extended visas to foreign media in October 2016, it was to certain reporters who were shown what the regime wanted them to see.
Another public relations boon exists in the difficulty which largely Western reporters face in covering areas and cultures for which they and their audiences have a limited frame of reference. When ABC correspondent John Miller finished a 1998 interview with Osama bin Laden, he famously remarked: "You are like the Middle East version of Teddy Roosevelt." Publicity like that can't be bought.
Sean Durns is a Senior Research Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.
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