Last month, the U.S. Treasury Department smacked the Syria-based Al-Zawraa television station with the label of Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT). Treasury leveled the charge that al-Zawraa took cash from al-Qaeda and broadcast coded messages through patriotic songs to the Islamic Army of Iraq, a Sunni terrorist group that continues to attack Iraqi citizens and American soldiers. This was a small battle won in the War on Terror. However, the U.S. is losing the larger war against terrorist television.
Analyst Avi Jorisch first brought the problem to Washington's attention with the rise of Hezbollah's 24-hour al-Manar satellite channel, which broadcast the message "Death to America" to an estimated 15 million viewers before Jorisch's work eventually encouraged the Treasury Department to designate the channel as an SDGT in March 2006. While al-Manar viewership has since declined, two satellite providers, Arabsat, headquartered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and the Egypt-owned Nilesat, continue to ensure that Hezbollah TV reaches millions of Muslims around the world.
The West's inability to remove al-Manar from the international airwaves inspired other jihadi broadcasters. In fall 2006, Hamas launched al-Aqsa television. The channel recently made headlines for using a character similar to Disney's Mickey Mouse to glorify suicide bombing in children's programs. Hammered by international criticism, the show's producers killed off their jihadi rodent, but has since replaced it with a Jew-eating bunny. As is the case with al-Manar, Arabsat and Nilesat continue to allow the Hamas channel to broadcast.
While al-Qaeda doesn't have its own satellite channel, it has its own Pakistan-based media operation, which produces videos that Arab television stations al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya are only too happy to run. The company is called al-Sahaab (the clouds) and is reportedly run by Adam Ghadan, an American member of al-Qaeda also known as "Azzam al-Amriki." Al-Sahaab provides its final products to a third party, a media company al-Fajr (the explosion or the dawn), which distributes videos to jihadist Internet outlets around the world. These videos continue to inspire al-Qaeda supporters and other jihadists worldwide.
More recently, Ghadan's group has upped the ante. Video messages of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri can now be downloaded to cell phones, CNN reports. When the service was first announced earlier this year, eight videos were available, including a tribute to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was responsible for dozens of terrorist attacks in Iraq before U.S. forces killed him in June 2006.
Then there is YouTube and Google video, sites that host millions of video shorts, most of them silly or frivolous. But they now contain thousands of videos glorifying terrorism, some even showing actual attacks. As the Guardian newspaper in the U.K. reported, "footage once available only in Baghdad shops and on jihadi message boards has appeared on video-sharing websites such as YouTube and Google Video."
A number of the videos show gruesome attacks against U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Others show Palestinian Islamic Jihad fighters launching rockets into Israel, or recruitment videos exhorting Palestinian children to join the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the Hamas military wing.
Guardians of the Internet are growing increasingly alarmed over the surfeit of jihadi videos. They have thus created videos of their own. But, as pundit Michelle Malkin notes, anti-jihadist users of the same sites have reported having their videos yanked and accounts suspended for material deemed to be Islamophobic. Indeed, Pakistan recently ordered Internet service providers to block access to a YouTube video providing a sneak peek of a Dutch film they deemed "anti-Muslim" about the Koran.
While the designations of al-Manar or al-Zawraa clearly demonstrate that the U.S. government is aware of the threat of terrorist media, new challenges continue to surface with new media. A more strategic approach to the problem is still needed.
--Jonathan Schanzer, a former U.S. Treasury intelligence analyst, is director of policy for the Jewish Policy Center and editor of inFOCUS Quarterly. He is author of Al-Qaeda's Armies: Middle East Affiliate Groups and the Next Generation of Terror.