Home inFocus Counterterrorism (Summer 2010) Countering the Threat from Terrorist Media

Countering the Threat from Terrorist Media

Mark Dubowitz Summer 2010

The Long War against radical Islam is a war of ideas as much as a war of arms. Yet, for much of the past decade, the incitement and violent propaganda emanating from satellite television stations, radio outlets, and Internet platforms operated by violent Islamist extremists has too often gone unnoticed and unanswered.

Today, such neglect is no longer an option. As Harry Wingo — a former Navy SEAL who now serves as Google’s Washington, DC policy counsel — warned, “the code is mightier than the sword.”

Internet code may have created enormous wealth for Mr. Wingo’s bosses. But media and web technologies—satellite television, radio, and the Internet—have become operational weapons used by radicals to plan, recruit, train, fundraise, and incite. Free speech protections may safeguard their messages’ hateful content, but by using media as direct operational weapons, these terrorist groups are crossing all free speech red lines.

To counter their influence, policymakers and counterterrorism officials need to treat these media outlets as indistinguishable from the terrorist organizations that use them—by banning, jamming and shutting down the media outlets where possible, and by countering their messaging with alternatives.

Beating the Beacon

Al-Manar, or the Beacon in Arabic, is the communications arm of Hezbollah, owned and operated by the radical Shi’ite militia and financed by the Iranian regime. Established in 1991, al-Manar is used by Hezbollah to broadcast a message of hatred, recruit suicide bombers, raise money for its terrorist activities and those of its Palestinian affiliates, conduct operational surveillance, and incite attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians and American soldiers in Iraq. At the height of its popularity, al-Manar reached an estimated 10-15 million viewers daily with 24/7 worldwide coverage through a network of 13 satellite providers and advertising sponsorship from numerous Western corporations.

In the United States, Europe, South America, and Asia, governments and corporations alike have taken action against al-Manar. In March 2006, the U.S. government designated al-Manar as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity. In that decision, the U.S. Treasury Department placed al-Manar and Hezbollah’s al-Nour radio on the same terrorism list as Hezbollah itself, together with al-Qaeda, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups.

In a key finding, based not on the objectionable content of al-Manar but on its operational role in support of Hezbollah, the Treasury Department emphasized a number of links between the two: al-Manar employed numerous Hezbollah members; al-Manar actively recruited and fundraised for Hezbollah; and al-Manar fundraised for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, both designated as terrorist entities by the U.S. government (and, in the case of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, by the European Union as well). To underscore the close cooperation between Hezbollah and al-Manar, the Treasury order also highlighted its role in providing pre-attack surveillance for terror attacks.

In announcing the designation, Stuart Levey, the Treasury Department’s Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said that “any entity maintained by a terrorist group—whether masquerading as a charity, a business, or a media outlet—is as culpable as the terrorist group itself.” Crucially, Treasury made very clear that the grounds of this designation order were based on the evidence of direct operational support provided by al-Manar to Hezbollah.

In Europe, authorities have taken a different tack. In contrast to the U.S. government’s approach, the European Union and the governments of France, Spain, and Holland (which did not recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist group) focused on the station’s incitement to violence and racist and anti-Semitic programming. On the basis of the nature of the station’s content, European authorities determined that al-Manar violated European law.

These decisions encouraged four European satellite providers to discontinue transmission of the station. Five others, based in Hong Kong, Australia, Thailand, Barbados, and Brazil, also terminated their broadcasting of al-Manar. Two executives of HDTV, Ltd., a U.S.-based satellite provider, pleaded guilty to charges of material support for a terrorist organization after refusing private requests to stop broadcasting the station. They are currently serving jail terms. The German government has banned al-Manar under its constitution after recognizing the threat posed by al-Manar and Hezbollah to German security. And, after being alerted to their advertising on the terrorist station, some of the world’s best-known multinationals—including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, and Western Union—discontinued almost $4 million in annual corporate advertising.

Unfortunately this good news is tempered by some disturbing realities. Thanks to Saudi and Egyptian-owned satellites, Arabsat and Nilesat, respectively, al-Manar continues to have unfettered access to European and Middle Eastern airwaves. Alarmingly, Hezbollah TV’s deadly mix of racial hatred, anti-Semitism, glorification of terrorism and incitement to violence appears to be increasingly popular among Arabic-speaking youth in Europe. For the last several years, the Indonesian satellite Indosat has also provided al-Manar with distribution through parts of Asia, where recent bombings serve as a reminder of the danger of terrorism and violent incitement to the citizens of Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, the campaign against al-Manar waged by Western non-governmental organizations and governments marks the first coordinated international campaign against terrorist media—and a lesson to build on.

Hamas goes Global

Al-Manar’s success encouraged the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas to replicate its business model. In the fall of 2006, Hamas’s al-Aqsa television, up until then broadcast only within the Gaza Strip, began satellite distribution via the same Saudi satellite as al-Manar. With this distribution deal, Hamas could now spread its message of hatred across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Like the organization’s other print, radio, TV and online media outlets, al-Aqsa is designed to meet Hamas’s organizational goals: subverting the peace process, raising funds, disseminating movement propaganda, inculcating terror, and recruiting suicide bombers. It routinely broadcasts Hamas leaders calling for jihad, songs of incitement to murder, and videos of Hamas gunmen. Its programs typically feature splashy stories glorifying the actions of “martyrs” and assurances that through their sacrifices the “Zionist Entity” will be destroyed.

Hamas websites, meanwhile, have been used explicitly to raise money for terrorist activities and, according to Israeli intelligence reports, Hamas field coordinators have used Voice of al-Aqsa radio broadcasts to provide terrorists with exact coordinates and trajectories to fire Qassam rockets at Israeli targets. In addition, Hamas specifically targets children through its radio and television shows and publishes an online magazine geared to preteens, al-Fateh. The magazine glorifies suicide bombers and other “martyrs” in cartoons and poetry.

In December 2008 and November 2009, the French audiovisual authorities (CSA) issued Eutelsat a warning, saying that they violate Article 15 of the French media law of September 30, 1986, which prohibits all forms of incitement to hatred or violence on the grounds of race, religion or nationality. Following the warnings, Eutelsat ceased distribution of al-Aqsa on only one of its two satellites. Months later, after receiving a third warning in June 2010, Eutelsat announced it would cease broadcasting al-Aqsa on its second satellite. Nevertheless, Arabsat continues to broadcast the station to the Middle East and North Africa.

In December 2009, the United States House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation, sponsored by Representatives Bilirakis (R-FL) and Crowley (D-NY), that introduced sanctions for satellite companies that broadcast terrorist media inciting violence against Americans and willfully and knowingly carry the media arm of an SDGT organization, such as Hezbollah’s al-Manar Television and Hamas’s al-Aqsa Television.

In March 2010, the U.S. Treasury Department designated al-Aqsa Television as an SDGT organization. “Treasury will not distinguish between a business financed and controlled by a terrorist group, such as al-Aqsa Television, and the terrorist group itself,” said Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey, noting that as of late 2009, the Hamas headquarters in Damascus allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars for al-Aqsa TV’s budget, and senior Hamas officials continued to control the station’s operations.

Mullah Radio

The media successes of Middle Eastern terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas are being replicated in Southwest Asia. In Pakistan’s lawless territories in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), civilians and soldiers alike are increasingly at risk from terrorist radio outlets run by terrorist organizations. Unlike al-Manar and al-Aqsa, which recruit viewers through music videos glorifying suicide bombing and content devoted to inspiring them to jihad, these groups use illegal FM radio stations to lure listeners using a different tool: fear. Failure to tune in and listen can be punishable by lashings, or worse.

Such rule by radio is particularly effective in the NWFP and FATA, where a largely illiterate population gets much of its information over the airwaves. Television, the key source of news in Pakistan’s major cities, is less readily available.

The proliferation of the FM mullahs began in late 2003, when Haji Namdar, the former leader of the radical Islamist group known as the Suppression of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue, put extremist Deobandi cleric Munir Shakir on the air to trumpet a hard-line version of Islam. In the six-and-a-half years since, an estimated 150 illegal FM radio stations have sprung up throughout FATA and NWFP. Broadcasting out of small studios, or even off the back of pickup trucks, radical disc jockeys are filling the airwaves. Operating without government-mandated broadcast licenses, they have had unfettered access to Pakistan’s airwaves.

No one was able to more effectively leverage the medium than Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Tehreek e Nafaz e Shariat e Mohammadi (TNSM) terrorist network, reportedly killed in May 2010. Nicknamed “FM Mullah” for his radio sermons, he rose to prominence in 2007. Fazlullah’s popular support was born, in part, because his sermons filled a justice deficit, rendering verdicts for long unresolved disputes. His other orders prevented children from getting vaccines and called for the destruction of religious sites, music stores and girls’ schools. Fazlullah also convinced many women to sell jewelry in support of his cause.

The FM Mullah was successful in wresting control of the Swat Valley, a former tourist destination, away from the government. Using the airwaves as a recruitment tool, he implored listeners to come forward for jihad and fight the infidels and their local supporters. Throughout 2007 and 2008, Fazlullah’s supporters were strong enough to directly confront Pakistan’s army. At the height of his power, Fazlullah pushed for his brand of Sharia law—and not Pakistani state law—to govern Swat and the neighboring Buner, Chitral, Kohistan, Lower Dir and Upper Dir. TNSM’s strength led to pacts in 2008 and early 2009 with the government, which abdicated control of these districts.

Al-Qaeda’s Media Empire

If terrorist-owned satellite television and radio are today a significant operational threat, the explosion of terrorist-backed Internet sites and other media technology present even greater dangers. Internet and new media technology can be spread virally, providing an even greater reach to those terrorist groups sophisticated enough to use them, and posing even more extreme technological hurdles than traditional media for counterterrorism officials and terrorist media monitoring organizations working to effectively shut them down. Indeed, as of 2007, 80 percent of all terrorist recruitment was done online.

A declassified April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate put it this way:

The radicalization process is occurring more quickly, more widely, and more anonymously in the Internet age, raising the likelihood of surprise attacks by unknown groups whose members and supporters may be difficult to pinpoint. We judge that groups of all stripes will increasingly use the Internet to communicate, propagandize, recruit, train, and obtain logistical and financial support.

In 1998, there were only 12 jihadist websites. By 2007, that number had increased to 50,000, including blogs, chat rooms, and forums, with 900 new jihadist sites being added every year. Jihadist groups are also making increased use of the “deep web,” the significant portion of the Internet beneath the surface, out of reach of popular search engines, to expand their online presence while avoiding Western scrutiny. The “deep web” is estimated to contain 500 times as much content as the traditionally accessible “surface web.” As of 2008, Hamas maintained approximately 18 “deep web” sites, while Hezbollah controlled over 30. As the ease of creating deep web platforms has increased, so has the number of Hezbollah and Hamas sites, creating a challenge for those seeking to counter their threat.

The Internet is an arena that al-Qaeda has exploited to its tremendous advantage. Through al-Sahab, its dedicated media wing, the Bin Laden network has built a formidable infrastructure to export its violent ideology. In its definitive report on al-Sahab, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs equated al-Qaeda’s media presence with that of many Western corporations in terms of sophistication. Al-Sahab has attracted Western attention in part because its videos have included original sermons from senior al-Qaeda officers, such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. But it offers much more; in 2007, al-Sahab is known to have produced 97 original videos, a six-fold increase from 2005.

Al-Qaeda’s media and technological savvy is no accident. It is a deliberate strategic goal outlined by al-Qaeda’s senior leadership. In a 2006 letter to former Iraqi al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote: “We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media… we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our people.”

Taking the Initiative

A great deal can be done to counter the terrorist media threat. The Treasury Department should increase its designation portfolio beyond Hezbollah’s al-Manar, the Iraqi-Syrian channel al- Zawraa and Hamas’s al-Aqsa television station to include the online properties of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and any other terrorist groups which use media to incite to violence and provide operational support for terrorist attacks.

An effective online strategy should serve to limit and discredit the jihadist message, deny safe haven to terrorists on the Internet, thwart their ability to obtain support from a vulnerable online population, and continue to monitor their communications on web forums. Western counterterrorism and intelligence agencies also need centralized capabilities to monitor and respond to the terrorist web. Coordinated strategic information campaigns should be waged against these groups, including cataloging, tracking and continuously updating a database of terrorist websites, website operators and chat room participants.

The private sector must also be encouraged to monitor and self-regulate. Policymakers should encourage media entrepreneurs to follow Google’s lead and remove violent al-Qaeda videos, and the ten satellite providers and numerous corporations that ended their distribution and advertising support of al-Manar. In making the decision not to facilitate the transmission of terrorist media, these companies will also be making a sound business decision to avoid real reputational risk.

For those companies not willing to self-regulate, especially in the online realm, regulations should be adopted for “Terms of Service” agreements between Internet companies and their clients, focused on preventing the incitement of violence. Moreover, a “no host” list for Internet Service Providers, similar to the airline industry’s “no fly” list should be adopted. Internet providers that repeatedly aid terrorist entities by hosting their websites should be fined and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Discrediting the jihadist cause is also a critical aspect to winning the hearts and minds of the primarily young online audience. Information campaigns must be conducted against Islamist terrorists by widely publicizing their atrocities on the Internet. Too few Muslims, for example, know about incidents such as the February 2008 terrorist attack in which, according to Britain’s Daily Mail, al-Qaeda rigged two unsuspecting women who were afflicted by Down’s syndrome with remote-controlled bombs and detonated them in a Baghdad market killing 99 people.

One method of discrediting the jihadist cause is through Search Engine Optimization (SEO), a commonly used practice in the private sector to guide the online narrative. SEO could be used in mapping online discussion of terror-related topics by putting websites with negative messages about terror groups first in internet searches of key concepts and words. For example, with SEO, sites, news web pages, or anti-terror blogs which emphasize messages that equate “Osama bin Laden” with terrorist attacks and human rights abuses against Muslims could appear as the top searches to reshape the online narrative.

If such legal, diplomatic and political efforts fail, however, terrorist media represents a viable military target. The precedent exists: during the war in Kosovo, NATO planes bombed the Belgrade-based headquarters of Radio Television of Serbia—an attack that was justified by the Alliance as a legitimate way to end the broadcasting of Slobodan Milosevic’s violent call to arms. Today, recognizing the dangers of terrorist radio, U.S. officials are already doing much the same, jamming the FM radio signals of Pakistani terrorist groups to prevent them from assisting in the planning and execution of attacks. In the future, more direct action may be necessary.

Another tool is available as well. Hate speech and violent incitement have been prosecuted as war crimes, initially at the Nuremberg trials against the Nazi regime after World War II and, in 2003, against three Rwandan media executives who used Rwanda’s Radio Mille Collines to call for the extermination of Rwanda’s Tutsis. At that time, Reed Brody, legal counsel to Human Rights Watch, made the case that “if you fan the flames, you’ll have to face the consequences.”

By doing just that—by inciting attacks, by actively recruiting and fundraising and providing pre-attack surveillance and operational assistance for terror attacks—today’s terrorist media outlets are doing more than yelling fire in a crowded movie theater. They are providing the match, the gasoline, and the arsonist. It is high time they were held accountable for it.

Mark Dubowitz, is executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC, where he also directs FDD’s projects on terrorist media and Iranian energy sanctions.