Spin City: Al Qaeda’s New Image-Obsessed Media Wing

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When Al Qaeda in Yemen reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and his director Safa al-Ahmed met up with their Al Qaeda contact Fouad in the southern Yemeni town of Ja’ar, they had their cameras ready.

What they didn’t expect was that Fouad – a fighter and political officer with Al Qaeda’s local franchise Ansar al-Sharia — would as well.

Throughout their tour of Ja’ar, Fouad filmed both of them, leaving his camera running to document what he described as the group’s effective governance of an entire city — administering scarce resources like water and electricity, and implementing Sharia law.

Fouad gave Abdul-Ahad and al-Ahmed a hard drive with even more footage — propaganda videos showing Ansar al-Sharia in action: engaging in charitable acts for the local population and videos of Al Qaeda fighters attacking a Yemeni army base near Ja’ar and taking dozens of soldiers as prisoners.

The two journalists asked to see the prisoners Al Qaeda claimed to have captured. After some negotiations, Fouad agreed, and even offered them a scoop.

“We’ll give you ‘an exclusive’,” al-Ahmed recounted Fouad saying. “We’ll take you to meet the soldiers being held as prisoners, and we promise no one else will have video from there for the next week.”

It was a bizarre proposition, but al-Ahmed says it’s the perfect example of just how media-savvy Ansar al-Sharia has become over the last year. Not long after Abdul-Ahad and al-Ahmed left Yemen, a slick video of their visit with the prisoners — embedded below — was released online by “Madad News Agency,” Ansar al-Sharia’s media wing.

“Each one of [us] has three, four or seven children,” one of the soldiers says in the video. “What is our crime? We followed the state’s orders and fought for it down to the last bullet, and now they’ve abandoned us so easily.”

Since last November, Madad has released 12 videos dubbed “Eyes on the Event,” says Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute who posts about and sometimes translates the videos at his blog Jihadology.

The footage often includes their daily operations, surveys of citizens on the ground who are unhappy with the government, the aftermath of drone strikes on civilians and the executions of those they deem spies.

The group even has an “unofficial” Facebook page (with a meager 118 “likes”)  where updates are sometimes posted faster than they are on some of the most prominent jihadi internet forums.

And beginning last October, Madad began publishing newsletters about Ansar’s operations, emphasizing its message that the group succeeds where the government cannot.

For example, in this newsletter [PDF], dated April 2012, an article refers to Abdul-Ahad’s trip to see the prisoners. One captive soldier is quoted as saying that “Ansar al-Sharia treats the soldiers better than the government did, since the government is showing no concern about its own imprisoned soldiers.” The newsletter goes on to boast that Ansar al-Sharia had allowed three doctors and two nurses from the Red Cross to visit prisoners in Abyan the week before to treat those wounded from the fighting. “The mujahideen who are prisoners in government jails, by contrast, are denied medical treatment, and are subjected to physical and psychological torture,” the article claims.

“In some sense, their audience is global, to say to their grassroots supporters online around the world, ‘Look what we’re doing here,’” says Zelin. “But a lot of what they publish highlights what’s happening in towns and the operations they are running – it’s sort of their own weekly, or bi-monthly newspaper for their local towns that they’re controlling.”

When Abdul-Ahad journeyed to Yemen’s dangerous and remote Shabwa region – the home of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born preacher killed last year in a U.S. drone attack — he found that Ansar al-Sharia’s media apparatus plays a significant role in establishing its presence in a community:

Al Qaeda doesn’t roll its armored vehicles or pick-up trucks and take over a town. They establish one of these Dawa centers, one of these media offices … and they start spreading the message, giving leaflets, giving CDs, creating a small nucleus of people who would be sympathetic to Al Qaeda. Then Al Qaeda would come, based on the invitation of that group of people, and establish roots within a local society. So they don’t impose themselves by means of their military power, but they exist within the society gradually.

While Madad may help the organization build its base among local populations, it can also help Westerners understand the terrorist group.

“These guys are telling us about themselves through these publications,” says Zelin. “It’s propaganda, but it’s also news from their perspective, and it’s a great way to see what they’re doing and who they interact with. Ideologically it’s still important to see what [Al Qaeda's top] leaders put out individually, but in terms of getting a bigger picture of what Al Qaeda is doing on the ground in areas few can access, it’s some of the only information we’re getting.”

Photo: Image of Madad News Agency newsletter, dated April 2012
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