“We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media,” Ayman al-Zawahiri, then al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, purportedly wrote in a 2005 letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who led al-Qaeda in Iraq at the time. The previous year, Zarqawi’s network, originally known as Tawhid and Jihad, had publicly released more than 10 beheading videos, including a video believed to show Zarqawi himselfbeheading the American businessman Nicholas Berg. This was bad PR, Zawahiri cautioned his hotheaded field commander, and risked alienating Muslims.
Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006, but the hyper-violent form of sectarian jihad he pioneered emphatically lives on in the form of ISIS, the direct descendent of al-Qaeda in Iraq. While the group hasn’t exactly followed Zawahiri’s counsel about winning hearts and minds, it has proven fantastically adept at exploiting new social media to disseminate its message. Indeed, it is no exaggeration—although it may now be clichéd—to say that as well as being one of the most savage terrorist groups in the world today, ISIS also has the slickest propaganda. Its media arm Al Ḥayat has produced hundreds of films, ranging from three-minute beheading videos to hour-long features improbably combining elements of travelogue, historical documentary, and atrocity porn. Many are high-quality productions involving Hollywood-style techniques and special effects. One video, titled Clanging of the Swords, Part 4, drew particular praise from the late New York Times media critic David Carr, who wrote, “Anybody who doubts the technical ability of ISIS might want to watch a documentary of Fallujah that includes some remarkable drone camera work.”
“Media is more than half the battle” also happens to be the motto of the U.S. State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), founded in 2010 as the world’s firstgovernment-sponsored enterprise not run by an intelligence agency to counter online jihadist propaganda. The phrase is emblazoned across the opening PowerPoint slide in all CSCC presentations, according to the CSCC’s coordinator Alberto Fernandez. Alongside this quote is a second one, taken from the purported memoir of the American jihadist Omar Hammami, who until his death in 2013 was a leader in the Somali Islamist militant group al-Shabab: “The war of narratives has become even more important than the war of navies, napalm, and knives.” Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sounded a similar theme in describing the office’s mission a year after it was founded; it was vital, she said, to diminish the appeal of terrorism, and the CSCC was focused on “undermining terrorist propaganda and dissuading potential recruits.”
“It’s not about Louis Armstrong and isn’t jazz great and America loves Muslims,” Fernandez told me over a coffee recently, describing what he saw as the general tenor of previous public-relations efforts at the State Department after 9/11. “It’s not about quoting the secretary of state, because that’s boring, that’s lame. Our focus is not on the positive message. What we do is counter-messaging. We’re the guys in the political campaign that [do] negative advertising. We’re in people’s faces.”