Taking al-Qaeda’s Media Savvy Seriously

by Tom Rogan
Fueled by money from the Sunni kingdoms, al-Qaeda is signaling its intent to advance.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has released a new video. In it, the group’s leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, greets about 100 armed supporters.

Our attention to this video is important for three reasons.

1. What the video tells us about al-Wuhayshi
In short, he means business. In his personal greeting to the assembled troops and in his smiling, charismatic persona, it’s clear that al-Wuhayshi is presenting himself as the new bin Laden — a global figurehead for Salafi jihadism and a man adored by his followers. Moreover, and I accept that I’m going out on a limb here, the manner in which al-Wuhayshi is speaking openly to a such a large group is perhaps intended as a contrast with the leader of the al-Qaeda core, Ayman al-Zawahiri. After all, al-Zawahiri’s video messages are now produced indoors and with far less energy. Indeed, the video suggests that al-Wuhayshi is trying to return the Salafi revolution to the Arabian Peninsula. And his agenda is certainly transnational — al-Wuhayshi finishes his speech by committing to destroy unbelievers, Christianity, and America.

Still, this wasn’t just a campaign event. In equal measure, it was a celebration. Whether in the form of the jihadi sing-along or of the informal but personal testaments of faith and commitment, this was to AQAP what a campfire is to Americans — shared enjoyment and companionship. That al-Wuhayshi is astute about this dynamic illustrates his leadership skills and awareness. Combined with some of his other actions — the apology he ordered that was made in the aftermath of a hospital attack, for example — it’s obvious that al-Wuhayshi is no idiot. Yes, he might be a brutal ideologue and killer. But ultimately it is what this video encapsulates — his strategic intellect — that makes him so dangerous.

2. What the video tells us about U.S. intelligence
Sitting across the Gulf of Aden, about 70 miles from Yemen, is Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. Here a large group of U.S. special-operations forces, intelligence officers and analysts, and drone operators work to confront regional jihadists. AQAP is a major focus. And this video will cause them some concern.

The fact that al-Wuhayshi was able to assemble such a large group so publicly and with such seeming comfort is illustrative of two broader truths: first, that the U.S. intelligence community lacks adequate human-intelligence penetration of AQAP’s network, and second, that AQAP has gone dark in terms of electronic communications. While it’s commonly assumed that U.S. intelligence services are all-powerful, they’re not. Beset by political leaders who hate loyalty (see Senate Democrats on the CIA) and love leaks (last August, someone in the U.S. government informed al-Wuhayshi and other senior al-Qaeda leaders that their communications were monitored), they have a challenging job (it’s not only the U.S. — look at U.K. intelligence and Syria). Moreover, if terrorists understand how intelligence services operate, they will take steps to evade detection. This video indicates that they are doing so.

3. What the video tells us about AQAP as an organization
Carefully edited in high-definition presentation and with big names, this video illustrates a new paradigm of al-Qaeda propaganda. The intended narrative is clear: “We’re a professional outlet.” In the setting — a deep, beautiful valley — we see the AQAP’s self-presentation as Spartan warriors, godly servants struggling in purity against Western materialist corruption. And again, in this very public display, we also see a message to AQAP’s jihadist brothers around the world: “The drones are not omnipotent.” Also implicit: a one-fingered salute to Yemeni, Saudi, and U.S. intelligence services.

The video also shows that AQAP gets operational security. Watch it again. As the company processes past the camera, demonstrating military capability and strength in numbers, the terrorists keep their heads down. Clearly they’ve been told to avoid personal identification. In the same vein, watch again the moment when al-Wuhayshi is walking the rope line. Notice how his senior lieutenants have their faces blurred? There’s an important reason why: These are the men who make al-Wuhayshi’s operation work. As Stan McChrystal understood in Iraq, terrorism takes a network. Tellingly, AQAP’s bomb maestro, Ibrahim al-Asiri, doesn’t appear to be present — perhaps a hedge against the drone threat?

Yet simultaneously, some assembled have their faces shown in high definition. This indicates two other AQAP understandings: first, their knowledge that some of the cadre are already known to the group’s intelligence-service adversaries; second, the recognition that propaganda needs a face. Just look at the final collage of photographs, a mix of young and old, fighting in common cause. The imagery sends a powerful message.

Most importantly, this video illustrates how confident AQAP has become. Fueled by money from the Sunni kingdoms, insulated by the weakness of the Yemeni government, and empowered by Yemeni and regional civil instability, AQAP is signaling its intent to advance.

— ‪Tom Rogan is a blogger and a columnist for the Daily Telegraph. He’s based in Washington, D.C.

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