The war for hearts and minds: the evolution of al-Qaeda’s media strategy

While the Islamic State's savvy media presence may have overshadowed that of al-Qaeda over the past decade, the efforts of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operating in war-torn Yemen show the group remains a long-term threat.
aqap in yemen
Shi'ite Houthi rebels drive a truck past an Ansar al-Sharia flag painted on the side of a hill in Almnash, the main stronghold of the local wing of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Rada, Yemen. Credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo
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This essay originally appeared in ‘Knowledge and Information – Perspectives from Engelsberg Seminar, 2018’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation.

Jihadist media strategies evolve according to changing circumstances, both practically in their format and ideologically as they attempt to exploit unfolding events. Most research has focused on the slick media of so-called Islamic State (Isis) and on high-profile material that appears in English. Yet the material in English, although prolific and more easily accessible to Western researchers, represents only about 6 per cent of jihadist media output. By contrast, much less attention has been paid to the media of al-Qaeda, particularly in Arabic, yet closer inspection of this media reveals a smart long-term strategy. Although considerably more primitive than Isis media, it is nevertheless highly tuned to local narratives and evolving conditions on the ground.This essay therefore focuses primarily on the Arabic media of al-Qaeda, and on the Arabian Peninsula in particular, since this is generally considered to be the home of al-Qaeda’s most active and dangerous branch.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is based in Yemen, has adapted its propaganda media and narratives to suit emerging pressures, political circumstances and local concerns since the start of the Arab spring. This essay begins by analysing briefly how the media formats of AQAP have evolved. From bulky cultural magazines through to punchy news bulletins and encrypted messaging services, AQAP has shown that it is a learning organisation. It then examines how extreme pressure from drones and spies since 2017 has started to impair jihadist media output. The jihadists are certainly down, but they are not out, as the essay demonstrates by identifying AQAP’s strategies for youth outreach to ensure the movement’s longevity. Finally, the essay focuses on an important area in which al-Qaeda media, not only on the Arabian Peninsula but more generally, appears to be struggling. This is its attempt to appeal to women. Al-Qaeda’s women’s media is replete with breathtakingly misogynist information on how to please one’s holy warrior and features clumsy stabs at explaining awkward questions like – if men get 72 virgins in Paradise, what’s in it for women? The analysis presented in this essay stems from my penetration of encrypted group networks and fieldwork inside eastern Yemen, close to where al-Qaeda ran its de facto state until 2016.

AQAP has generally succeeded in maintaining a strong and steady media presence at both domestic and international levels, although this activity has started to fragment since late 2017 owing to heavy losses resulting from spies infiltrating the jihad movement. With regard to AQAP’s domestic media, this has undergone several iterations to suit the changing times since the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda merged to form AQAP in 2009. Its voluminous Arabic magazine, Sada al-Malahim (‘Echo of Epic Battles’, 2008–11), which included locally attuned cultural material such as poetry, social announcements and even a women’s page, ceased with the eruption of the Yemeni revolution in 2011. It was replaced by Madad (‘Support’, 2011–12), a shorter newspaper published with greater frequency and designed to situate AQAP at the centre of the rapidly unfolding events of the so-called Arab spring. AQAP exploited the instability generated by the revolution to establish Islamic emirates in central southern Yemen. Casting aside recipes and women’s pages, Madad focused instead on promoting anti-American and anti-democratic sentiment. Most significantly, it aimed to entrench a revised image of AQAP as ‘the people’s champion’ capable of governing territory in accordance with Islamic law and not a terrorist organisation as the rest of the world claimed. The newspaper was complemented by a series of short videos, ‘Ayn ‘ala al-Hadath (‘Eye on the Event’, 2011–12, 2016) which showcased AQAP’s ‘good works’ in the community. Its jihadist spin on events included improbable news items such as a man thanking AQAP for the honour of being the first person in the fledgling jihadist emirate to have his hand chopped off in penance for his act of theft.

A further iteration occurred in Yemen’s jihadist media as it began to learn from the successful media storm created by its Islamic State rival in Iraq and Syria in 2013. The rise of Isis coincided with the unravelling of Yemen after the end of the UN-led national dialogue in 2014 when rebels, known as Houthis and linked increasingly to Shiite Iran, started marching aggressively south from their northern strongholds near the Saudi border. AQAP media became more militant and sectarian. This was best exemplified in AQAP’s snappy new military action video series called Min al-Midan (‘From the Battlefield’, 2014–15) which filmed the planning and implementation of successful domestic operations to a soundtrack of rousing jihadist anthems. AQAP’s traditional spiritual and emotional sustenance still continued alongside, with a standard menu of martyrologies and several theological video series featuring its most charismatic talking heads, such as ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee Ibrahim al-Rubaysh (droned 2015) and the outspoken critic of Islamic State, Harith al-Nazari (droned 2015).

The next milestone in AQAP’s jihadist media evolution arrived with the outbreak of war in 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition intervened militarily to try to restore the Yemeni government toppled by Iran-linked rebels. As Saudi bombs rained down on Yemen’s west, AQAP seized the opportunity to take control of vast territory in the east of the country. A flourishing jihadist ‘state’ emerged and its ambitious governance and expansion agenda was reflected in a new al-Qaeda-linked Arabic newspaper called al-Masra (an alternative Islamic name for Jerusalem, 2016–17). This carried a much more international news agenda. By drawing together updates from all al-Qaeda’s global franchises, as well as standard international news (often translated wholesale from the Western press), it helped to position al-Qaeda as a broad international movement to rival Isis at a time when the latter was recruiting aggressively and dominating world attention. Al-Masra ran to 57 issues before it ceased in July 2017. Although AQAP news featured prominently and al-Masra was handed out on the streets of AQAP’s ‘capital city’ Mukalla, nevertheless it later denied any official link to the newspaper.

AQAP’s various media formats are disseminated both online, most reliably via encrypted applications like Telegram, and in hard copy during da‘wa (proselytisation) activities. Hard copies are important in Yemen, given the challenge of internet access, particularly on the frontlines or in remote tribal areas. Photos have circulated of AQAP driving a proselytisation truck openly around the city of Taiz, profiting from the chaos at one of the major frontlines in the battle against the Houthis. The side of the truck advertises the contents being handed out free: CDs, films, nasheeds (anthems), lectures, copies of the Koran and poems. Isis has also released photos of its fighters in Yemen watching jihadist films together and sitting in the desert reading hard copies of the Isis weekly newspaper, al-Naba‘ (‘The News’, founded in 2013 and still ongoing).

By contrast, AQAP’s media format and approach for English language audiences has remained more constant. So-called ‘lone wolf’ attacks in the West continue to be incited through bulky, if increasingly infrequent, issues of Inspire magazine (2010 – ongoing). Inspire’s ambition is precisely as its title implies – to inspire acts of terror. Its content ranges from illustrated instructions on ‘How to Build a Bomb in Your Mom’s Kitchen‘ to suggesting atrocities such as mowing down pedestrians using bladed vehicles, lighting wildfires to burn down forests and derailing trains. The magazine has been supplemented since 2016 with a series of occasional Inspire Guides that offer brief analysis of the pros and cons of various terror attacks in the West, including the Orlando gun massacre, the Nice truck massacre in 2016, and the Westminster attack in 2017. This demonstrates well how AQAP media can be a catalyst for international attacks without the need for direct operational links. Online sermons by the Yemeni-American AQAP ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki (droned 2011), a co-founder of Inspire, have been linked to numerous international acts of terror. These include the 2013 murder of a British soldier in London, the 2013 Boston marathon bombing and the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

Such attacks highlight an important strength of al-Qaeda media in recent years: it endows its most charismatic figureheads with an enduring ability to inspire long after they have been droned. This occurs in three ways. First, much al-Qaeda material remains readily available online, particularly as security agencies have been heavily focused on stemming the flow of propaganda from Islamic State. Second, al-Qaeda sermons and films are frequently reposted online; there are entire channels on encrypted applications like Telegram devoted to reposting archival material. Third, old footage – and sometimes previously unseen footage – of al-Qaeda figureheads is reworked into new videos, giving the impression that these ‘martyred’ heroes continue to address the faithful from Paradise.

Since late 2017, AQAP media has been forced to adapt to increasing pressure from drones and internal spies. The US has acknowledged carrying out over 120 airstrikes on jihadists targets in Yemen during 2017 as well as multiple ground operations. This is more than three times as many as occurred in 2016. The jihadists have therefore suffered severe losses, including key commanders. AQAP’s own media releases suggest it is feeling these losses keenly, both practically and emotionally.

In practical terms, AQAP released a spy film, Secrets, Dangers, and the Departure of the Best in January 2018 which exposed the methods and catastrophic consequences of internal traitors. It featured several interviews with spies explaining how easy it was to collect fatal intelligence. AQAP presented statistics for the number of jihadist deaths arising from each type of information leak, resulting in a total of 410 ‘martyrs’, killed mainly by drones. It claimed that 30 jihadist deaths arose simply from telling a secret to just one person. AQAP’s leader, Qasim al-Raymi, is featured doing an impression of a woman gossiping on the phone as he chastises jihadists for sharing information with their chatty wives. The film ends by circulating an official statement which describes conversation, mobiles, and social media as ‘out of control…reckless…and a grave danger to the jihad’. It imposes a comprehensive ban on all ‘jihadist brothers’ from communicating via mobile phone and the internet. The extent to which the jihadists are preoccupied by this growing existential threat is reflected in the fact that the first-ever publication by a new AQAP- linked media group, al-Badr Media Foundation, was a booklet on how to avoid drone assassination. Ironically, it was written by a jihadist who was killed in a drone strike in 2015, on his very first night in Mukalla after the city was seized by AQAP.

AQAP central communications continue to be severely impacted as a result of the precautions required to evade spies and drones. Despite the recent drop-off in media output, however, AQAP has launched a new documentary film series entitled Destroying Espionage. The introductory film, released in September 2018, outed seven internal spies recruited by Saudi intelligence and also claimed to have dismantled a separate 12-man spy cell. Since several successful drone strikes have nevertheless followed, the jihadists’ problem of infiltration by spies clearly persists. As such, and somewhat improbably, AQAP’s leadership is offering a full pardon to any spies who voluntarily give themselves up. For those who wait to be discovered, a horrible end is promised. Although AQAP media, as part of its strategy for posing as the good guy versus the brutality of Isis, prohibits the dissemination of graphic images or footage of blood and guts resulting from its own acts of violence, some informal jihadist wires have posted photos of the spies being gruesomely crucified.

In emotional terms, the flood of dead jihadists has necessitated a reaffirmation of the benefits of martyrdom. To help one another cope psychologically, pro-AQAP wires circulated a video clip of an old speech by Harith al-Nazari, in which he said: ‘Don’t think of those who are killed in the path of Allah as dead…don’t worry about them. They are alive with their Lord and are receiving sustenance. And that’s not all…they are rejoicing in what Allah’s bounty has bestowed on them. Yes, the martyr is in good condition. He is happy. All is well.’

Naturally, a recruitment drive is necessary to replenish numbers. Poster series like al-Mujahid Media’s ‘Join the Caravan [of martyrs]‘ circulated on pro-AQAP wires in late January 2018, posed questions like ‘What’s making you hang back from this great noble deed?’ Most worrying has been the considerable effort exerted by AQAP on youth engagement. Unlike Isis, al-Qaeda has understood full well that founding a caliphate is still a faraway prospect and that re-education of the next generation is key to preparing for it and for the sweeping implementation of Islamic law. US drone strikes, air strikes, and raids have been exploited to the maximum by jihadist media, particularly when poorly targeted strikes kill women and children or destroy village housing. Several AQAP videos feature interviews with grieving villagers pasted alongside footage explaining the global jihadist agenda. Following US Navy Seal raids in 2017, which killed Yemeni villagers, AQAP issued statements designed to plug into tribal anger, positioning itself as the conduit for revenge. Jihadist poems lamenting the dead are still appearing. In 2016, AQAP even held a ‘Festival of Martyrs of the American Bombing’ in Hadramawt, which included a competition for schoolboys to design anti-US and anti-drone posters. This kind of youth outreach nurtures the next generation of angry young men for potential recruitment.

While AQAP ran its state out of Mukalla, it held several festivals and disseminated videos of people ‘having a good time’ in its jihadist enclave while the other side of the country was embroiled in war. These included games, such as boys eating ice cream blind-folded, and Koran recitation competitions with Kalashnikovs and motorbikes as prizes. Thirteen per cent of tweets from AQAP’s governance Twitter feed were about celebrations. Even after being driven out of Mukalla, AQAP continued its youth engagement by exploiting battlefronts. One way to get boys interested in jihad was to entice them to read AQAP material. In Taiz, any youth who wrote a summary of AQAP’s jihad booklet, ‘This is Our Mission’, was entered to win a Kalashnikov as first prize, followed by a motorbike, laptop, revolver, and money. This focus on young hearts and minds indicates that the battle against AQAP will be a long one, even though it no longer runs a state or holds significant territory.

One way in which jihadists could boost their workforce at a time when they are under severe pressure is by mobilising women. From a jihadist perspective, a woman’s primary task has been and still is to support jihad through being a good wife to her jihadist husband and a good mother to future jihadists. Women have not been encouraged to take on active combat roles, with the exception of suicide bombing since the latter does not compromise female honour through mixing with men on the front lines. Isis also formed a fearsome women’s police squad, known as the Khansa‘ Brigade, but its remit was limited to policing women, including most famously by fixing a spiked clamp on to the breast of any woman daring to breastfeed in public. However, as Isis is driven back in Syria and Iraq, there are hints that it may be relaxing its strict approach to women’s participation. In late 2017, the official newspaper of Isis announced that it was an ‘obligation’ for women to fight jihad ‘in every way possible’ and, in early 2018, an Isis-affiliated group circulated photographs of women, still veiled from head to toe in black, firing on the frontlines next to men.

Al-Qaeda also recognises the need to win women over to the cause, but its focus remains firmly on keeping women indoors. When French security forces arrested three women in Paris in 2016 for planning an operation in the name of Isis, AQAP released an issue of its Inspire Guide entitled ‘Our Sisters in France’, advising that it was wholly inappropriate for women to take such active roles. Symbolically, al-Qaeda did not direct its criticism at the women, but instead censured the Isis menfolk for allowing their women to behave in such a way.

Al-Qaeda’s media drive to enthuse women to support the jihad, but from behind closed doors, is best exemplified in its glossy new magazine, Baytu-ki (‘Your Home’, 2017-ongoing). This startlingly misogynist magazine is published by an al-Qaeda-linked media organisation based in Syria and is complemented by an online wire using an encrypted messaging service. Both the magazine and the wire are replete with stereotypically feminine decorations like butterflies, roses, smiling babies, and little pink and violet love hearts. Yet these sugary frills belie a content that is far from innocuous and is written from a decidedly male point of view. Problems allegedly submitted by female readers seeking advice include: ‘My husband is a jihadist and always busy; what should I do?’ The jihadists’ answer is that she should stop complaining. After all, he sees blood and exploded body parts all day so she should avoid being an added stress and focus instead on making the home a paradise on earth for him. Another question seeks advice on how to react if one’s husband takes a second, third or fourth wife. The answer again is that she must not complain because this is his right. She should focus on the advantages, which include being able to share the housework with the new wife. She should also be grateful because the pleasure that her husband will derive from enjoying this new woman might improve his mood more generally, with knock-on benefits for her own quality of life.

The domestic tips and recipes served up by al-Qaeda women’s media tend to be so simplistic as to suggest that they were written by someone with no genuine experience of running a home, in other words by a male jihadist. Basic instructions are provided for how to make everyday dishes like mashed potatoes or scrambled eggs. Top tips for how to do the washing up include bewilderingly obvious advice like using hot water and starting with the glassware. It is likely that al-Qaeda’s target female market would already be aware of such pearls of wisdom so it seems safe to presume the women’s media is written by men. At any rate, it includes a great deal of material that is unlikely either to impress or to benefit its female audience.

Examining the changes in jihadist media strategies is useful not only for tracking a group’s evolving outreach agenda but also for understanding the nature of the pressures and challenges it faces. By 2018 it was clear that AQAP’s capacity to deliver a coherent centralised media strategy had been severely impaired as it struggled to cope with the damage wrought by spies and drones. But the long-term threat remains. AQAP has sown the seeds of jihad among a young generation ravaged, angered and dispossessed by the ongoing war in Yemen. Moreover, rather than disappearing, the higher echelons of the jihadist leadership are going to ground, causing the movement to fragment and thus rendering it more difficult to track and counter.

Targeting the West remains a top ambition, not just to avenge drone attacks and to punish the West for supporting Israel and assisting repressive coalition activities in Yemen, but also to regain international kudos as the primary jihadist movement. This may seem like a distant prospect given AQAP’s current operational incoherence. However, the governance vacuum is increasing as the war drags on. Even if a peace deal is reached, it will need to be coupled with strong investment at grassroots level and will have to take account of regional grievances. Otherwise, the various jihadist splinters may find common cause again and bring with them disillusioned sectors of the population, including women. Videos produced by AQAP have already featured women ranting over the forced disappearances of husbands, sons or brothers into prisons run by newly formed militias recruited inside Yemen by the United Arab Emirates. The time may be ripe for more active female involvement in jihad. After all, women across the Middle East’s conflict zones, as elsewhere throughout history, are already being obliged to take on increasingly active roles in society as their menfolk are either killed or remain absent at the battlefront. It may be that women’s growing empowerment, whether as a result of conflict or of recent reforms such as Saudi Arabia permitting women to drive and work more broadly, has motivated al-Qaeda’s new women’s media push that insists on women sticking to the traditional roles of wife, mother and homemaker. Nevertheless, one potential scenario is that some women, especially those whose newfound confidence is coupled with anger and political disillusionment, may just take matters into their own hands and become active in jihad, with or without the blessing of al-Qaeda’s leadership.

Elisabeth Kendall

Elisabeth Kendall is Senior Research Fellow in Arabic at Pembroke College, Oxford. She is the co-author of Twenty-First Century Jihad: Law, Society and Military Action.

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