We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media .... [W]e are in a media battle for the hearts and minds of ourumma.
--Ayman al-Zawahiri, July 2005
THE CENTRALITY of the Arab mass media to Al-Qaeda's political strategy has long been evident. From spectacular terror attacks designed for maximal media exposure, to carefully timed videos from Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the burgeoning realm of jihadi Internet forums, Al-Qaeda the organization has increasingly become indistinguishable from Al-Qaeda the media phenomenon. But the nature of Al-Qaeda's relationship with the Arab media has been poorly understood, and the wrong policy conclusions too often drawn.
For the United States to have any hope of waging a serious "war of ideas" against jihadism, it must better understand a rapidly changing battlefield--which means grasping the realities of the Arab media environment and its complex relationship with the jihad. Bin Laden and Zawahiri's grand strategy of winning over the Arab "median voter" depends on the mass media, which creates both great power and unique vulnerabilities. Al-Jazeera and other satellite television stations have unleashed powerful counter-forces and political competitors into a once-vacant arena. Indeed, the migration of the jihad onto the Internet associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's rise to prominence directly responds to his dismay with Al-Jazeera's challenge to the jihad.
Al-Qaeda's Media Strategy