Al Qaeda and its allies now have their own 24-hour television station. Based at a secret studio in Syria, its signal is broadcast to the entire Arab world from a satellite owned by the Egyptian government. This development highlights al Qaeda's increasingly sophisticated propaganda efforts.
Al Qaeda placed great emphasis on communicating its message effectively throughout 2006. Osama bin Laden and deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri issued more tapes in 2006 than in any year since the 9/11 attacks. In the past, al Qaeda tapes were generally released to Al Jazeera, but 2006 saw more Internet releases: the terrorist group's message was thus more quickly disseminated. Al-Zawraa TV, the 24-hour insurgent station, is an extension of this trend.
Al-Zawraa hit the airwaves on November 14. According to Middle East-based media monitor Marwan Soliman and military analyst Bill Roggio, it was set up by the Islamic Army of Iraq, an insurgent group comprised of former Baathists who were loyal to Saddam Hussein and now profess their conversion to a bin Laden-like ideology.
The Islamic Army of Iraq is subordinate to the Mujahideen Shura Council, an umbrella organization of Sunni insurgent groups, including al Qaeda in Iraq. The Al-Zawraa channel is not only viewed as credible by users of established jihadist Internet forums, but as a strategically important information outlet as well. Moreover, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, is delighted by the station. A U.S. military intelligence officer told us that al-Masri "has long-term and big plans for this thing."
Al Qaeda's previous attempts at setting up propaganda outlets have been limited to satellite radio and the Internet. Al-Zawraa, however, appears to be well financed and may find a much broader audience. The channel is broadcast on Nilesat, a powerful satellite administered by the Egyptian government. Through Nilesat, Al-Zawraa's signal blankets the Middle East and North Africa, thus ensuring that the insurgents' message reaches every corner of the Arab world.
Al-Zawraa's content is heavy with insurgent propaganda, including audio messages from Islamic Army of Iraq spokesman Dr. Ali al-Na'ami and footage of the group's operations. The station calls for violence against both Shia Iraqis and the Iraqi government. According to Marwan Soliman, the station's anchors appear in military fatigues to rail against the Iraqi government while news crawls urge viewers to support the Islamic Army of Iraq and "help liberate Iraq from the occupying U.S. and Iranian forces."
In Fallujah's Government Center, military analyst Bill Roggio, who was embedded with the Military Transition Team, watched Al-Zawraa with a team of Army translators. Roggio reported on his blog that the station broadcast songs mourning Iraqi victims of the "U.S. occupiers," and that images featured on Al-Zawraa included "destroyed mosques, dead women and children, women weeping of the death of their family, bloodstained floors, the destruction of U.S. humvees and armored vehicles, and insurgents firing mortars, RPGs, rockets and AK-47s."
Roggio told us that the station's strategic role for insurgent and al Qaeda information operations is clear: "Al-Zawraa is designed to recruit for and prolong the insurgency in Iraq. It openly espouses violence, particularly against the Shia, but also against the Iraqi government and security forces and Coalition troops."
Al-Zawraa's value to the enemy is clear. The visual medium is extremely powerful, particularly in a part of the world with high illiteracy rates. This is not simply a station with an anti-American message: it is enemy propaganda, designed to further destabilize Iraq, empower the insurgency, and win support for the insurgency throughout the greater region.
The U.S. government, however, has thus far been unable to remove Al-Zawraa from the airwaves. A State Department official, asked to comment on efforts to combat the channel, told us, "We are strongly supporting the Iraqi efforts to work with the Egyptians to get this off the air."
Yet this statement doesn't accurately encapsulate the situation. Radio Netherlands' media analyst Andy Sennitt said of Al-Zawraa's broadcasts on Nilesat, "Nilesat is mostly Egyptian owned, so it means they will turn down any customer who is thought to produce material against Egypt's national interest. So apparently the Egyptian authorities are happy with al-Zawraa."
The United States provides Egypt with $2 billion a year in aid, more than it sends to any other country save Israel. This should provide the United States with a great deal of influence over Hosni Mubarak's government; however, it remains to be seen if the Bush administration is willing to exploit this leverage.
Removing Al-Zawraa from the airwaves through alternative means, including jamming its signal, may prove difficult since the physical location of the signal's feed would need to be located and, according to Sennitt, it could be anywhere. "All that's needed is a dish pointing at the satellite, and a transmitter on the correct uplink frequency," he said. "The satellite will carry whatever signal it receives." The easiest route to shutting down Al-Zawraa then is to persuade Egypt to remove the station from Nilesat.
In the five years since 9/11, the United States has failed to develop a message capable of winning over Middle Easterners, or turning them against bin Laden's radical worldview. The lack of a message is one thing, but the inability to combat inflammatory enemy propaganda is another. If the administration cannot act decisively to prevent Al-Zawraa from spreading its poisonous message, America will only be seen as the "weak horse" that bin Laden spoke of shortly after he succeeded in toppling the Twin Towers.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam (Tarcher/Penguin 2007). Nick Grace is the producer of Global Crisis Watch.
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