Ridiculing AQ’s Irrelevance in the Arab Spring

by Steven R. Corman

A few weeks ago I did a keynote speech at a public meeting of the U.S. Advisory Commission in Public Diplomacy.  Later in the meeting I heard a presentation by Ambassador Richard LeBaron, Coordinator of the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC).  The topic of his talk tied together several topics recently discussed on COMOPS Journal, and accordingly I want to share it with readers.

Presumably in response to the myriad calls to better coordinate U.S. government strategic communication, the CSCC was charged in a recent executive order to

coordinate, orient, and inform Government-wide public communications activities directed at audiences abroad and targeted against violent extremists and terrorist organizations, especially al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and adherents, with the goal of using communication tools to reduce radicalization by terrorists and extremist violence and terrorism that threaten the interests and national security of the United States.

Among other things, the CSCC oversees the State Department’s Digital Outreach Team (DOT), which has been the subject of  previous posts on this blog, both appreciative and critical. Amb. LeBaron’s talk focused on a recent DOT effort that allows me to add another post in the appreciative category, and I don’t believe it is very well known.

The DOT recently produced three videos juxtaposing AQ’s ideology with facts-on-the ground in the Arab Spring protests.  The first features clips from an Ayman al-Zawahiri video where he insists that “apostate regimes” can only be overthrown by violent jihad and that change through peaceful means is hopeless.  The second is based on a rant against democracy by Abu Yahia al-Libi.  The third (and most hilarious) uses clips of captured video from bin Laden’s compound showing him watching videos of himself.  In all three cases the AQ clips are intercut with news footage of the Arab Spring protests.

In my opinion this is a superb effort for a number of reasons:

  • They reinforce messages that have long been priorities for U.S. strategic communication in the counterterrorism arena, namely that violent jihad is not necessary for social change, and that the best change is democratic.
  • They present these messages while side-stepping problems with U.S. credibility, by mashing-up AQ’s own video with clips from independent news reports.
  • They are “prosumer” efforts, done by DOT members with desktop video editing software, rather than slick professional productions.  As such they embrace cutting-edge trends in social media.
  • They effectively employ the principle of ridicule as strategic communication, poking the Bad Guys in the eye by making them seem silly and out of touch with reality, and contributing to their developing image as a toxic brand.

We have argued that on the rugged-landscape of counterterrorism communication more out-of-the-box efforts like this are needed.  So hats off to the DOT for taking the leap.

You can watch the DOT videos, with English subtitles, here: