Terrorists use the press and public relations as weapons, said a study released Wednesday by Arizona State University.
“People are surprised the jihadis think of the media as a weapon,” said Steven Corman, director of the school’s Consortium for Strategic Communication and a Defense Department consultant on communications networks and counterterrorism.
His study analyzed almost 300 al Qaeda statements, letters and other documents, many of them captured during U.S. military actions in the Middle East and recently declassified by the Pentagon.
The report found that jihadist operations use consistent patterns of outreach that establish them socially and religiously, generate public sympathy and intimidate opponents. Threats, in fact, are part of terrorist “talking points.”
“Jihadis pursue these strategies using sophisticated, modern methods of communications and public relations,” Mr. Corman said. “There’s evidence in the documents that jihadis segment audiences and adapt their message to the audience.”
This week, audio and video messages from Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab Zarqawi were posted on the Internet and immediately picked up by international news organizations.
The report cites similar demonstrations as the “ideological machinery” of terrorist organizations, which maintain formal information committees and are adept at using print, broadcast and online resources on a global basis. The Internet provides such a promising terrorist forum that Mr. Corman suggests the United States create a permanent “geek battalion” to disrupt jihadist message boards and Web sites.
The United States monitors terrorist messages through clandestine agencies or within the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. That office follows the objectives set forth by Undersecretary Karen Hughes: to “isolate and marginalize the violent extremists; confront their ideology of tyranny and hate;” and “undermine their efforts to portray the West as in conflict with Islam by empowering mainstream voices and demonstrating respect for Muslim cultures and contributions,” the office’s mission statement says.
Mr. Corman and co-author Jill Schiefelbein said the Arizona study is a response to “controversies about efforts by the U.S. to influence foreign media coverage of jihadi activities. … While we deliberate such issues, the jihadis are busy executing a communications and media strategy of their own.”
The authors worked closely with the Combating Terrorism Center, a research facility established in 2003 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
Mr. Corman offered six measures to counter al Qaeda’s media savvy. He recommended that the United States try to improve its credibility with Muslim audiences, “degrade” the jihadis’ outreach efforts, draw attention to terrorist messages that contradict Islam, deconstruct idealized historical concepts, systematically disrupt Internet operations and seek assistance from sympathetic American Muslims.