In the propaganda department of the war on terror, videotapes have become the weapon of choice. Hardly a month goes by without masked, armed men recording a message and sending it to a satellite-television network for immediate airing. RFE/RL looks at how the propaganda campaign is escalating and the ongoing debate over whether the media should broadcast or ban terrorist groups' statements.
Prague, 19 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The international media has received so many audio- and videotapes purporting to be from armed militant groups battling the U.S. in Iraq and elsewhere that observers have long ago ceased counting.
The latest videotape, received by the Qatar-based Arabic satellite-television station Al-Jazeera, is a perfect example. Broadcast over the weekend, it presented a statement by five hooded men in battle dress and holding assault rifles and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers.
The men, identifying themselves as part of the hitherto unknown Iraqi National Islamic Resistance Movement, pledged to escalate their efforts to evict U.S. forces from Iraq. "The Iraqi resistance, as is well-known, has started to make substantial progress on the domestic front, putting the enemy on the defensive rather than offensive, and its varied and frequent attacks have prevented the occupiers from planting themselves on Iraqi soil, thank God," they said.
The masked men also took an unexpected slap at the media by accusing them of covering up the news of almost-daily guerrilla attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq in order to help U.S. President George W. Bush win re-election in November next year.
"The enemy is suffering so many casualties on a daily basis that this news is being severely blacked out by the media to protect Bush's chances in the forthcoming election and to protect the policies of the White House from the American public," they said.
The tape is the most recent of a string of videos recorded by unknown groups purporting to be leading the guerrilla campaign against U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Earlier this month (9 August) another five masked men appeared on a tape identifying themselves as members of the White Flags, Muslim Youth, and Army of Muhammad organizations.
They said they wanted "to tell other organizations that guerrilla warfare is the only way to free the country," and they warned "the countries of the world, for the last time, not to send troops into Iraq."
At times, the videotapes emerging from Iraq are having to compete for press attention with recordings from better-established groups like Al-Qaeda. That was the case this weekend when, just as Al-Jazeera broadcast the message of the Iraqi National Islamic Resistance Movement, another regional satellite TV, Abu Dhabi-based Al-Arabiyah, aired an audiotape by a man praising Osama bin Laden.
That tape, broadcast on 17 August, announced that bin Laden is alive and well -- as is Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban who once hosted Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The speaker then linked Al-Qaeda to Iraq by calling on all Muslims to join in evicting the U.S. from Baghdad.
The television station attributed the tape to Abd al-Rahman al-Najdi, an Al-Qaeda official believed to be still at large in Afghanistan. But it offered no proof of the source and international news agencies reporting the broadcast added their own caveat that -- as Reuters put it -- they "could not verify the authenticity of the tape or the identity of the speaker."
As the number of anonymous tapes threatening the U.S. in Iraq grows steadily, the fact that their origins are often uncertain is fueling a debate over whether the media should air such messages. Washington frequently says the tapes have no news value and are pure propaganda.
Analysts say the debate pits journalists' desire to present all perspectives in their coverage of the war on terror against Washington's concern that propaganda might serve as a recruiting tool for militant groups.
Jonathan Stevenson, a counterterrorism expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, told RFE/RL the armed groups hope to use the media to create an image of a growing struggle on the verge of victory. They hope that will persuade more people to join their movements. "A lot of these groups probably do exist and are sympathetic with Al-Qaeda," he said. "On the other hand, some are probably just hoaxes and people playing games. [But] the more people see others getting involved and casting their lot decisively with a terrorist group, the more inclined those onlookers will be to jump over the fence."
But Stevenson said the recruitment value of the messages themselves depends entirely upon the success the groups actually have in carrying out anti-U.S. strikes. He says Al-Qaeda's ability to draw new members comes from its stunning destruction of New York's World Trade Center towers on 11 September 2001, and only marginally from messages purportedly recorded by its leaders. He said this means that if Western governments really want to cut off terrorist recruitment they would probably have to ban the media from reporting terrorist attacks altogether.
So far, most news organizations have put their interest in covering all aspects of the war on terror ahead of fears that they are allowing their resources to be used by terrorist groups. The media relies upon an image of fair and balanced coverage to draw audiences from many backgrounds and across the political spectrum.
Stevenson said the Western media have at times banned terrorists from the airwaves at a government's request, but that the results have been counterproductive. He cited efforts by Margaret Thatcher's former administration in Great Britain to ban representatives of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) from British media.
He said Thatcher's broadcast ban on the IRA, its representatives, or Sinn Fein "actually empowered the group -- by drawing attention to the broadcast ban itself and, by extension, to the group. [It] actually made a government that was attempting to project itself as a democratic bastion of liberal principles [appear] suppressive."
Amid the latest flurry of messages from little-known militant Iraqi groups and purportedly from Al-Qaeda, top U.S. officials are reserving their response until intelligence agencies can determine just where the tapes are coming from.
Speaking about the tape linking Al-Qaeda to Iraq, U.S. civil administrator for Iraq L. Paul Bremer told reporters yesterday, "I don't have any reaction to these tapes until I see a chance for our intelligence agencies to analyze the tapes and tell us what they make of their authenticity."
But he said he would not be surprised if Al-Qaeda made this type of tape to boost the morale of its members and to try to expand the scope of its influence to Iraq. Bremer told CNN that terrorists are indeed operating in Iraq and some are Al-Qaeda elements.