by Steven R. Corman
In previous posts I have advocated amplifying al-Qaeda’s record of killing Muslims, and argued this practice was doing serious damage toAQ’s brand. Captured documents from bin Laden’s compound indicate that he was worried about the same thing.
Last week David Ignatius of the Washington Post wrote a story based on his “exclusive look” at those documents. The headline was about bin Laden’s supposed plot to kill President Obama. But later in the story he describes bin Laden’s hand-wringing over his organization’s image:
Bin Laden’s biggest concern was al-Qaeda’s media image among Muslims. He worried that it was so tarnished that, in a draft letter probably intended for Atiyah, he argued that the organization should find a new name.
The al-Qaeda brand had become a problem, bin Laden explained, because Obama administration officials “have largely stopped using the phrase ‘the war on terror’ in the context of not wanting to provoke Muslims,” and instead promoted a war against al-Qaeda. The organization’s full name was “Qaeda al-Jihad,” bin Laden noted, but in its shorthand version, “this name reduces the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them.” He proposed 10 alternatives “that would not easily be shortened to a word that does not represent us.” His first recommendation was “Taifat al-tawhid wal-jihad,” or Monotheism and Jihad Group.
Bin Laden ruminated about “mistakes” and “miscalculations” by affiliates in Iraq and elsewhere that had killed Muslims, even in mosques. He told Atiyah to warn every emir, or regional leader, to avoid these “unnecessary civilian casualties,” which were hurting the organization.
“Making these mistakes is a great issue,” he stressed, arguing that spilling “Muslim blood” had resulted in “the alienation of most of the nation [of Islam] from the [Mujaheddin].” Local al-Qaeda leaders should “apologize and be held responsible for what happened.”
The moral is that words really do matter when it comes to government strategic communication. As William Saletan writes in Slate, the Obama administration took a lot of political heat for ratcheting-down the “war on terror” rhetoric, but has been vindicated. Maintaining the idea that the United States is fighting a religion only reinforces the clash of civilizations narrative, which in turns plays directly into the communication strategy of the Bad Guys.