There’s been a
lot of debate lately over how much trouble al Qaeda in Iraq is really causing. One way of gauging the group’s relative strength is to look at their media output. In a new report from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, analyst Daniel Kimmage does just that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Two weeks ago, we asked whether the press was uncritically repeating Pentagon claims that the biggest threat in Iraq right now is al Qaeda. Since then, The New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt also has addressed the issue, saying that al Qaeda in Iraq is hardly the only source of violence, and that The Times has been guilty of not enough skepticism.
It is true that while it’s often too dangerous for western reporters to check claims about the presence of various Sunni groups on the ground, reporters don’t have to leave their hotel rooms to gauge the insurgent groups’ presence on the web.
Analysts at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have just released one of the most comprehensive catalogs to date of the insurgency’s online output. It paints the picture of a sophisticated distribution network targeting the Arab world’s educated elites, and it suggests that the whole notion of a Sunni insurgency itself may be flawed, because the messages being disseminated by these various groups range widely and often contradict each other.
Daniel Kimmage co-authored the report. Daniel, welcome to the show. DANIEL KIMMAGE: Well, thank you for having me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you describe how extensive the insurgent media machine is? I mean, what’s the output in a given day? DANIEL KIMMAGE: Well, the output in a given day is 25 to 30 press releases, maybe a couple of videos. If you hit the right day, there’ll be a magazine coming out, maybe a full-length film.
But I would just stress that, you know, “machine” sort of implies a single coordinated apparatus, and we’re talking here about the collective cumulative efforts of an uncoordinated group. So it varies, but it’s fairly impressive. I mean, if you look on a monthly basis, it’s almost what a multimedia conglomerate would produce. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And let’s talk about the video. A lot of people here probably think of the infamous beheading sequences, either that or a static shot of a masked man reading a statement into a camera. Is that the kind of thing that makes up the majority of insurgent video? DANIEL KIMMAGE: Well, that’s the majority of what garners coverage in western news outlets, of course, you know, when a western hostage is involved.
But if you go through a month on one of the forums that’s the primary distribution channel for these insurgent videos, most of the videos will probably be simply a short clip of an attack on a U.S. military vehicle.
What they want to do is provide visual confirmation of what they’re claiming to carry out in their statements and press releases, so the primary aim, with the short attack videos at least, is simply to show this is what we’re doing. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let’s move then from video to text. There you have the messages broken down into two distinct groups or statements, right? DANIEL KIMMAGE: Yeah. Well, of those statements, the bulk are operational. They talk about attacks that they claim to have carried out. But a very significant subset are the political statements, which express various views on topical issues of the day, and they also reflect conflicts and differences between insurgent groups when those arise. BROOKE GLADSTONE: We’ve been hearing from U.S. officials a lot lately that the violence comes mostly from a group that calls itself al Qaeda in Iraq. Is that backed up by the statements? Are the statements an accurate reflection? DANIEL KIMMAGE: Well, it’s a complicated issue because if you look at all the statements, the insurgent groups are clearly claiming more attacks than are being reported by other news sources. So I don’t think it’s an accurate reflection of what’s happening on the ground.
By the same token, and if you look at the statements, al Qaeda in Iraq, which now calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq, certainly releases a large number of statements. They’re also very media savvy, and they package their statements in a way that they have a very large presence in the media and on the Web.
But there are other groups that release almost as many statements. The Islamic Army in Iraq, which is a more nationalist and less jihadist group, they also release quite a large number of statements. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mentioned two groups that are responsible for a lot of the media. They have two different ultimate goals. DANIEL KIMMAGE: Well, it’s quite a striking difference actually. Al Qaeda in Iraq or the Islamic State of Iraq, they see Iraq as the jumping-off point for a larger jihad that has implications throughout the Arab/Muslim world. It’s part of a global struggle to them, whereas if you look at the Islamic army in Iraq, they’ve said specifically, and their spokesman said in an interview with al Jazeera, that our goals don’t extend beyond the borders of Iraq. So that’s a conflict. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It kind of reminds me of the two arguments over Communism in its early days. But have we seen any of that conflict play out yet? DANIEL KIMMAGE: There was a flurry of statements and it was a fascinating moment, because these polemics are being carried out in public, where anyone who reads Arabic can look at these statements, can follow the dispute between these two groups, and on the ground they’ve clashed, because some of these statements leveled very direct accusations.
The Islamic Army in Iraq said that fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq, al Qaeda in Iraq, had killed some of their people, and so we’ve certainly seen this both play out in the media and on the ground. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And we should stipulate that this argument is within the Sunni insurgency. DANIEL KIMMAGE: Yes, and one of the purposes of this report is to demystify and unpack the term “Sunni insurgency.” We wanted to show that there are different groups with slightly difference media strategies, that it’s not an undifferentiated mass. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Then, which among these groups, the globalists or the nationalists, has the loudest voice on line? Which one’s winning?
DANIEL KIMMAGE: You know, this is a fascinating question, because this raises the issue of the virtual versus on the ground. Now, the information we have from on the ground indicates that very few Iraqis would support a global jihad in the service of al Qaeda’s ideological platform, but on the Internet, they’re extremely effective at spreading their message.
So their media presence may sometimes lead us to believe that they are more of a presence on the ground, which is definitely what they would like to suggest, than in fact they are.
But what’s interesting, I think, about the insurgent media is that up until now it’s really been trading off its strengths. Now, as we see more fissures within the insurgency, it’ll be interesting to see how that message survives and how viable it continues to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel, thank you so much. DANIEL KIMMAGE: Thank you very much. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel Kimmage co-authored Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s survey of Sunni insurgent media. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]