Al-Qaeda Central, the organization led by Osama bin Laden and likely based somewhere in Pakistan, is today primarily a media phenomenon. Since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, it has not succeeded in carrying out a similarly ambitious operation, although it has been effective at spreading its message globally over the Internet. But it now faces a triple communications challenge: staying prominent in an ever more competitive online environment, explaining how its current entanglement in the Afghanistan-Pakistan nexus makes sense in the global jihadist narrative, and trying to change increasingly negative views of suicide bombing and al-Qaeda itself in the Arab-Muslim world.
Al-Qaeda has reacted ambivalently to communications challenges. It has sought to raise the profile of Afghanistan and Pakistan in its overall narrative of a global jihad, but this has diluted the cohesiveness of the al-Qaeda brand. Elsewhere, the group has largely stuck with its traditional forum-based media distribution strategy and has done little to alter its core message to respond to shifts in public opinion.
Al-Qaeda’s primary media vehicle, the as-Sahab Institute for Media Production, is no longer identical to al-Qaeda. As-Sahab now releases many media products without an explicit link to al-Qaeda, and some of its products are directly linked to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. As-Sahab’s overall production focuses on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Qaeda’s brand is also blurring in another direction, as individuals and groups within jihadist circles rarely refer to al-Qaeda, preferring to cite Osama bin Laden.
One voice among many. Even as as-Sahab’s content now extends beyond al-Qaeda, its overall stature on Arabic-language jihadist forums, where al-Qaeda’s core constituency gathers in an online community, is that of one voice among many. As-Sahab video releases are among the most heavily viewed items on jihadist forums, but they are few in number, and they occupy a modest place among the total range of offerings on such forums. Moreover, viewers on Arabic-language jihadi forums react tepidly to as-Sahab’s frequent offerings on the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. The forums themselves are a niche environment, with large numbers of non-contributing visitors who may or may not support jihadist ideology. Active forum participants likely number in the single-digit thousands worldwide.
Virtual and parasitic. Al-Qaeda’s media strategy is to associate itself with more operationally active groups, like the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and to co-opt any struggles it can fit into the jihadist narrative of a worldwide clash between the forces of belief and unbelief. The strategy bespeaks a virtual and parasitic movement, with little operational substance of its own and an eagerness to appropriate the successes of real and perceived allies.
A gradual diminishment of grander global pretensions. The state of al-Qaeda’s media operations may not reflect the overall health of a group that has conducted all other operations in secret. But Al-Qaeda’s virtual and parasitic turn suggests a gradual diminishment of its grander global pretensions. The next stage of the struggle to reduce al-Qaeda to irrelevance will involve undermining the appeal of the jihadist narrative in specific communities, where an accurate understanding of the information terrain will help to craft effective strategies for abetting al-Qaeda’s further decline.
For a pdf of this executive summary, click here. For the full policy paper, click here. For the appendices, click here. Daniel Kimmage discussed the findings of this paper at a New America Foundation event called "Al-Qaeda Central: Capabilities, Allies, and Messages."