Since the atrocities on 11 September 2001 Al Qaeda hasn’t missed the opportunity of an anniversary to celebrate their murderous attacks. Usually a video is released like clockwork on 11 September. It inevitably features an array of Al Qaeda stars like Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri who celebrate the advance of their global jihad to a backdrop of Arabic nasheeds (Islamic songs) and footage from battlefields around the world. The purpose of the release, this year entitled “The Results of Seven Years of the Crusades,” is to show the world and supporters that Al Qaeda is alive and well seven years after its biggest achievement.
This year, however, it has proved to be a far more problematic affair – in part because it seems as though many of the main forums through which As-Sahab released these videos were knocked down on 10 September, and in part because once someone did get the thing online, they failed to attach the right passwords to it. There are stories circulating cyberspace that Al-Jazeera has already received its allotted selection of clips and is sitting on them, while others ascribe the delay to online activists who it is claimed hacked and blocked the release in some way. What is most likely, however, is some combination of all of the above with even the possibility that this is further evidence of Al Qaeda’s weakening in some way – a tangible example of human error.
The real question, however, is what is the actual importance of this (or any other) video release by Al Qaeda? On the one hand, security analysts have expressed some eagerness to see this specific release to see if it features the recently silent American Al Qaeda Adam Gadahn, aka Azzam al-Amiriki, who has not been seen in an As-Sahab release since January of this year. There have been news reports that he was killed by one of the US’s many Predator drones, but there has not as of yet been any confirmation from Al Qaeda (which is unusual, as the deaths of prominent leaders are usually accompanied by videos hailing their martyrdom).
More strategically important than this, however, is that these videos serve to reinforce the Al Qaeda single narrative and provide an opportunity for extremist fires around the world to be stoked. Such videos provide fodder for individuals straying down the path of radicalization by giving them footage of successful mujahideen operations or pictures of Muslims around the world suffering, all overlaid with a narrative that places Al Qaeda as the group at the forefront of the ramparts defending Muslim lands against the infidel invaders. With slick production values and computer graphics, nasheeds extolling the virtues of jihad, the productions are not grainy videos buried in the deeper recesses of youtube, but rather peer competitors to western network news coverage.
It remains unlikely that anyone watching these videos will suddenly decide to radicalise after watching a few, however, when one blends this in with a personal grievance of one sort or another, along with discussions which reinforce this narrative in closed chatrooms where they tend to circulate, one starts to see the role that such videos can have in the broader Al Qaeda strategy. It is not so much that video provides a way of training terrorists around the world – while such videos do exist, it is still hard to really transfer the skills to manufacture a bomb through watching a film alone. Some physical training and testing is also usually necessary before someone is able to manufacture an effective device.
The real value of these films is their ability to project the maxim that “terrorism is theatre” onto everyone’s computer and into everyone’s home. This gives terrorist groups the ability to reach a massive audience around the world of potential supporters. It remains an open question about how they go about then tapping this well of possible recruits, though the recently rolled up international online conspiracy centred around Bradford-born Aabid Khan offers one possible vision of the future.
Al Qaeda has proven itself to be the ultimate anti-globalizing agent that has harnessed the ultimate globalizing tool – the internet – to its full advantage. By repeatedly proving its ability to produce high quality videos that reinforce their nihilistic message, and disseminating them effectively to its global audience Al Qaeda is showing that it remains a force to be reckoned with. There may be a growing narrative in the West that Al Qaeda is on the decline, but it is still too early to completely count them out.
Raffaello Pantucci is a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies