Center for Strategic Communication

by Monika Maslikowski

For Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s communication strategy, its been a year full of ups and downs. Individually, the mishaps seem like minor blips in an otherwise burgeoning online presence, but when combined, they could point to Zawahiri’s diminishing abilities as a skilled communicator and principal figure of al-Qaeda’s online media strategy.

Earlier this year, Zawahiri held an extensive online Q&A session, soliciting questions from anyone who wanted to ask. It was initially thought of as a strategic move to engage directly with followers and teach them about al-Qaeda, or to show an ability to respond intellectually to critics. However, the Q&A revealed serious shortcomings in Zawahiri’s ability to defend the realities of al-Qaeda’s extremist ideology and provide clear justifications for their worldwide operations.

Questions were submitted from exasperated followers, wondering why al-Qaeda hadn’t focused more attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and questioning al-Qaeda’s tactics of targeting civilians. Zawahiri’s answers were vague and roundabout, and he provided few clear answers or new ideas. According to Brian Fishman, Director of Research at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, the Q&A was a mistake. In an interview with NPR, he said that

Al-Qaida is an organization run top down with people that don’t want to share power. And in that kind of an environment, it’s dangerous to expose yourself to too many questions. It reveals the amount of discontent within the movement. And one of the things that al-Qaida needs to do, especially from a religious perspective, is that they try to funnel people into a specific set of beliefs. And the more debate that clouds that picture, the weaker al-Qaida is going to be.

In a message released in April, Zawahiri confidently stated that “backing the mujahidin in Iraq is…the most important task of the Islamic nation today.” He sarcastically asked:

So where are the Awakening Councils, which Petraeus announced six months ago that they will achieve victory in Iraq? Were not these Awakening Councils supposed to expedite the date of the US forces’ withdrawal?

Well, it turns out that the Awakening Councils showed up after all. This plus increased levels of U.S. troops in Iraq greatly helped to stabilize the nation, making an expedited withdrawal more possible. And so, like any other embarrassed politician would have done in his position, Zawahiri tried to change the subject and focus on other areas of conflict.

A message released in August was addressed explicitly to Pakistani citizens and members of the Pakistani military and government. This one was decidedly NOT a strategic communication failure. It was skillfully executed and honed in on issues that are naturally contentious for most Pakistanis, namely their government’s alliance with the U.S. and India. In light of the recent Mumbai terrorist attacks, this message is particularly interesting. He concludes the statement with:

Finally, I request every Muslim in Pakistan to ask himself seriously: Does he want Pakistan to truly become Pakistan? Or is he going to stand by idly and passively until it becomes part of Greater Hindustan?

The relationship between al-Qaeda’s calls to action and specific attacks around the world is still unclear. One could suppose that there is some connection between this particular message and the recent attacks in India. Perhaps an affiliate extremist group wants to answer Zawahiri’s call and help re-ignite the jihad in South Asia. But its more than likely a coincidence. Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Pakistani group suspected to be responsible for the Mumbai attacks, doesn’t seem to take its cues from al-Qaeda central.

In November, Zawahiri taped a message in response to the election of Barack Obama. This message received a lot of attention in the press and online, mainly because Zawahiri essentially characterized President-Elect Obama as an African-American that is subservient to his white “masters”. Although the phrase abeed al-beit, translated as “house negro”, has been used in previous messages, this particular usage struck a chord for many people.

In general, however, this message came up short. The target audience of most of al-Qaeda’s messages are the individuals unsure of whether or not they want to join jihad – the people on the fence. If you consider this, then you’d expect Zawahiri to make a dedicated and passionate statement about the need to continue with jihad, regardless of who leads the U.S. In the past, his rhetoric was fiery and convincing, self-assured and motivating. Yet the best he could come up with this time was a recycled racial slur and the same rhetoric we’ve heard for years, antagonizing fence-sitters who are hopeful about the changes Obama might bring and/or African-American Muslims in the U.S. who he had hoped to influence.

In this critical moment, Zawahiri’s job was to communicate to those individuals that were unsure how to react to Obama’s election so that al-Qaeda would remain steadfast in its battle against the U.S. and the West. Now, it’s understandable that he may be a little distracted lately, but it’s hard to understand why Zawahiri didn’t come up with a better response to Obama’s election than this message.

A strike against Zawahiri’s reputation came in November from Sayyid Imam, aka Dr. Fadl. He recently released his new book through a series in Al-Masry al-Youm (for summaries, start here), denouncing Zawahiri and challenging him to a sort of spiritual death-match. While this text was perceived by some as an inconsequential list of character attacks that won’t have an impact on the broader extremist movement, others claim that these sort of character indictments will have a negative effect on Zawahiri’s credibility and could influence al-Qaeda’s target audience. I tend to agree with the latter, because as one of the main faces of al-Qaeda, and thus the broader jihadist movement, Zawahiri’s success as a leader is dependent on whether or not he can gain trust and support.

In late November, in an interview produced by As-Sahab, Zawahiri expounded on some potential new tactics promoted by al-Qaeda (a translation, by the NEFA Foundation, was released on December 10). He spoke extensively about the need for Muslims who are unable to bear arms to join the fight in other ways, specifically via protests and strikes. Although he’s mentioned these tactics before, messages in prior years rarely devoted so much discussion on them. In effect, Zawahiri is suggesting an easier way to wage jihad.

Finally, last week, Zawahiri released another message, titled “The Death of Our Heroes and Betrayal of Our Rulers.” As the title suggests, he discusses the recent executions in Indonesia of the convicted perpetrators of the Bali bombing, and Saudi Arabia’s participation in an inter-faith conference held at the United Nations earlier this month (which included Israel).

These two latest messages discuss issues that people all around the world can rally around, not just the minor factions of extremists. They are umbrella issues, mentioned because of their ability to attract more moderate listeners who share some of al-Qaeda’s concerns and goals, but may not necessarily agree with their tactics. From a strategic communication perspective, this was a good move for Zawahiri. Focusing on issues that appeal to many more listeners is a way for al-Qaeda to get back to the basics of their ideology and mobilize support.

There are a lot of ways to spin this year’s developments. Maybe Zawahiri is being forced to take the helm in al-Qaeda’s communication strategy because bin Laden is otherwise unavailable. Or perhaps he worries that people will not put their faith in a leader who is an untrustworthy hypocrite (as Sayyid Imam would argue), and is struggling to repair his image. Maybe Zawahiri has largely ignored the issue of Iraq in the past few months because he knows al-Qaeda is losing there. Regardless of the explanation, there appears to be a golden opportunity for Zawahiri’s opponents to counter his successes and exploit his mistakes.

Last week, in an op-ed for the Small Wars Journal, Dalton Fury wrote about the need to methodically tear down bin Laden’s character. In light of the various mishaps that centered around Zawahiri this year, the time is ripe for a similar campaign against him. Fury writes that

Our country spent more time, energy, and money on digging up dirt on the Presidential candidates and quickly putting out short psychotronic movie clips than we do on targeting UBL’s character.

U.S. actions against the characters of bin Laden and Zawahiri could include anything from direct responses to al-Qaeda messages (a tactic that is much debated in strategic communication circles), to launching more targeted PSYOP campaigns that focus specifically on de-legitimizing these two al Qaeda leaders.

This string of mistakes and negative PR for Zawahiri could help strip away any credibility he may have with those individuals on the fence. Although al-Qaeda’s ideology has “gone viral” and spread into a worldwide ideological movement, the leadership of the organization is still the central mouthpiece of the global jihadist network. Their tarnished credibility could be used as a catalyst for further breaking down the ideology’s resonance and breadth throughout the world. After all, al-Qaeda’s leadership has gone to great lengths to criticize and insult America’s leadership in the past eight years – I can see no reason why the U.S. shouldn’t respond in-kind.