ATbar Falling into the Al-Qaida Trap—Again The Media as Terrorism Facilitator

Falling into the Al-Qaida Trap—Again The Media as Terrorism Facilitator

09/03/2003 | by Fighel, Jonathan (Col. Ret.)  


On February 28, the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that Islamist sources in London believe that al-Qaida is preparing “a large attack” on American targets that will coincide with the expected war on Iraq. These “Islamist sources” refused to reveal the precise location of the attack but said it would likely take place in Asia.[1] This announcement was also published on several Islamic Internet web sites that support the global Jihad and al-Qaida.[2]

These announcements followed a whole string of previous declarations which have festooned websites sites and media reports since later January 2003. The end result of all these declarations and warnings of imminent attack has been to build up a sense of dread in expectation of “the big one;” we are told that a “mega attack” is in the works and that “it is only a matter of time.” All of this may be grounded in fact, but it is equally true that the media hype has played into al-Qaida’s strategy of psychological warfare.

Using the media to good(?) effect

It is well known that bin Laden’s al-Qaida and the supporters of global Jihad make use of the media as a platform for transferring operational messages. However, some of the other uses made of the media by the global Jihad network appear to have gone completely over the heads of people who should know better. Among the more nefarious uses is the exploitation of gullible media outlets for the spread of panic among “the enemies of Allah.” The slightest rumor of an “imminent” al-Qaida operation is trumpeted from every street corner, spreading anxiety among a civilian population that is unsure what, if anything, they are supposed to do to defend themselves.

This has been accomplished through a past history of well-timed coordination of al-Qaida messages with the perpetration of attacks, so that now, as soon as the warning messages begin appearing on Islamist websites, they are heralded as the first shot of a renewed offensive. The fact that numerous such messages have been published—and duly dispensed by media outlets like hot cookies—without any attack materializing, does not seem to have been considered. Each rumor still manages to make headlines, get passed around and analyzed by experts ad nauseum, and contribute to achieving the desired level of anxiety, before once more fading into forgetfulness. Let it not be said that bin Ladin doesn’t know his audience.

The recent al-Qaida psychological offensive

The most recent announcement published in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Arabic newspaper on 28 February 2003 came on the heels of a similar declaration issued on 31 January on a Global Jihad website,[3] This followed an announcement in Arabic by the al-Qaida spokesman published by the London-based Al Majla Arabic newspaper on 30 January. There the organization stated that with the onset of the American attack on Iraq, Osama bin Ladin will make a video taped statement. The al-Qaida spokesman went on to say that al-Qaida fully supports the Iraqi nation but that the form this support is to take will not yet be revealed. The newspaper added that the al-Qaida support could possibly come in the form of a series of terror attacks against Western and American interests on the part of al-Qaida sleeper cells in Western capitals.

Nor has the Israeli media been immune to the trap set by al-Qaida. On 27 February, Israel’s Channel 2 television gave prominence to an al-Qaida warning that an “imminent attack” was in the works. This added yet another layer to the media buildup in expectation of a possible al-Qaida terror attack on U.S soil.

That same day, another global Jihad site,, came out with an announcement that terror attacks would greet the onset of the U.S. offensive in Iraq.[4] The website reported that a new audiotape of Osama bin Ladin was, at that very moment, making its way to one of the Arab radio stations. According to the report, the announcement is based on Islamabad sources close to the Pakistani security establishment. To increase the credibility, a picture of bin Ladin was added.

The same report appeared in the Al Zaman newspaper published in London, with the addition of reportage that al-Qaida was aware of the cooperation between the Pakistani security forces and the American security forces regarding the investigation of additional tapes to be published by bin Ladin. The new tape was thus smuggled to one of the Arab countries and from there to one of the radio stations and not to a TV station, so as to circumvent the control and tight censorship of local intelligence authorities in collaboration with the American intelligence authorities.

The report ends by stating that the tape would be broadcast at the onset of the U.S. attack on Iraq. Naturally, this report also found its way to additional Internet sites such as, from which it was picked up by the international media. [5].

Meanwhile, on 24 and 27 February, two additional Internet web sites ( and came out with an announcement dealing with the preparations of a forthcoming al-Qaida attack on the U.S. According to the announcement, all the preparations for the al-Qaida terror attack had already been completed and the strike forces were already in place and awaiting orders. Once again two pictures of bin Ladin were added to the report—different from the one that had been added to the report on 27 February 2003.

None of the announcements dealing with the preparations for the upcoming terror attack gave concrete information on the timing or targets of the planned attack, or on what means would be used. All that was revealed was that the targets will be American. Nor did the reports say whether the attack would take place on U.S. soil or against American interests around the world. Thus, as a source of intelligence, these announcements have nothing to add to the general information already published, to the effect that al-Qaida may use the offensive in Iraq as an excuse to carry out terror attacks. Here too, there is no information as to the venue of possible attacks. Nor does it really matter so long as the designated level of anxiety is achieved in the population targeted.

Stimulus and response

By creating the expectation of terrorism after each broadcast of a bin Ladin video or audiotape, al-Qaida has built a pattern of stimulus and response. The public is conditioned to believe that these announcements will be followed by another terror attack in the near future. A conditioned reflex is thus established between the terrorists and the public, whereby a state of anxiety is fostered among the general populous in expectation of future attacks. The public thereby unwittingly becomes an active player in the strategy of terrorism.

It is important to understand that terrorists are usually not interested in killing merely for the sake of killing. It doesn’t matter to them whether they kill one person or a hundred or more, as long as the message of fear is transmitted to the general population, who can then be counted upon to pressure their governments to accede to the terrorists demands. The imagination of the potential victims of terrorism thus becomes an unconscious tool of the terrorist organization. Each citizen of the targeted nation cannot help but see himself or someone close to him as a potential victim of the next attack.

In effect, by making effective use of the media to build up the expectation of an attack, the terrorists can achieve the anxiety levels of a terror attack without the need to even carry out the attack.

The media is all too easily manipulated and enlisted as a tool for psychological warfare. After all, it is the purpose of the media to provide the public with information has the need and the right to know. But by broadcasting the announcements, threats and declarations of terrorist organizations, the media serves the interests of the terrorists more than it serves the public. This is well illustrated in the many announcements in recent weeby radical Islamic movements concerning the terror attack to be carried out when the U.S. and its allies commence their attack on Iraq.

One of the purposes of these announcements has been to build a confused sense of action and response in the minds of Western citizens. The connection between the attack on Iraq and terrorism has been hammered home for weeks now, creating a foundation for the belief that any terror attack that occurs would not have happened had the U.S. not attacked Iraq. Alternately, if Iraq is not attacked, the anticipated terror attack will not happen. The stipulation is that, if only the U.S. accedes to al-Qaida’s demands then all will be well, and there will be no further terror attacks against U.S. interests. All this is, of course, used to manipulate world public opinion against the anticipated attack on Iraq. The fallacy is clear, however; for if the military campaign against Iraq is cancelled, will this really prevent future al-Qaida attacks against the U.S.? This answer is of course that the two things have nothing to do with one another.

Understanding the strategy of terrorism

The kind of terrorism we face today is aimed at evoking fear and undermining the confidence of the civilian population. The interim goal is the isolation of each individual and the disintegration of the community; the ongoing threats work to undermine the sense of security and disrupt the normal routine of daily life. But the ultimate strategic goal of the terrorists is to drive public opinion to pressure decision makers to surrender to the terrorists’ demands. The target population becomes a tool in the hands of the terrorists in advancing the political agenda in the name of which the terrorism is perpetrated.

We civilians are being expected to conspire in arguing the terrorists case, even when this is in direct contradiction to our own interests. The key to minimizing the psychological damage of terrorism is knowledge—knowledge of the strategy of manipulation used by the terrorist; knowledge of the means used by the terrorist to achieve his goals. In the absence of such knowledge, the terrorist has a far greater chance of success. Fear instilled in a public unaware that it is being manipulated is far in excess of what is justified by the actual threat.

It is essential that governments invest in increasing their populaces’ knowledge of the aims of terrorism. This means providing a deeper understanding of the strategy and psychology of terrorist organizations, and the relationship between terrorism, the media and public opinion. In addition, the public must be briefed on current strategies of combating terrorism, in order to counter the sense of vulnerability. It must be made clear that terrorism is not a no-win situation—that there are means of coping on a tactical level with future terrorist threats, including the emerging threat of non-conventional terrorism and cyber terrorism.



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