News  Jihad, frame by frame

McGill PhD students study terrorist recruitment videos from Central Asia and East Africa

Last Friday, Christopher Anzalone and Aisha Ahmad hosted “Insurgent Media: Somalia & Afghanistan/Pakistan.” The screening featured three films produced by the media outlets of Somalia’s al-Shabab, and the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. Anzalone is a PhD candidate in the institute of Islamic Studies and has collected and studied insurgent films from across the Muslim world. Ahmad is a Ph.D candidate in Political Science, and has extensive knowledge of the Somali and Afghan conflicts.

The McGill Daily: Why is it important to study insurgency propaganda as source documents?
Christopher Anzalone: The reason I study them is because it’s important to know and to understand and to analyze how these movements and these groups basically – number one – define themselves, and – number two – how they interact with audiences which they are addressing. Both the people they are fighting and the people that are allied with them, and the people they hope will be allied but are not at the moment. The best way to do that is through primary source documents. I think it’s very important to look at them as much as possible without having them mediated in any way. Not to read an article about them – of which of course there are lots when Osama bin Laden or [Ayman] al-Zawahiri releases something – you’ll see dozens or hundreds of articles about that. They’re important, but just like any document you would look at, you’re not going to read just what somebody else has to say about it. If you have access to [the document] and can use it, you should really do that yourself, because it’s always going to be shaded.

MD: Why do you think films like these aren’t studied as much?
CA: The policy people [study them] a lot. There are academics who study them. It’s certainly a field which is starting to grow, and there’s much more room for growth in terms of the academic study. A lot of the policy people, not all of them, but many of them, don’t have as much background in either the regional or the religious topics to unpack some of the things [in the films]. I think there should be more of a conversation between the more traditional academic and the more policy-oriented kind of stuff.

MD: How has the internet affected these types of propaganda films?
CA: [The films] exist before, for example in Afghanistan in the eighties, but they would be on video cassette or news channels playing the footage. The internet though, the really revolutionary thing about it, is the freedom it gives over the [process of] distribution. Before then, when Al-Qaeda Central [al-Qaeda’s media outlet] was delivering tapes to Al-Jazeera, they still do that for some things. A couple of bin Laden’s tapes were delivered first to al-Jazeera first through video tape or DVD-R, but the bulk of the stuff now doesn’t have to go through [these channels]. They know that the websites where you can get these videos are monitored either by governments – I’m sure the U.S. and the Canadian as well, and by academics and by analysts as well. But to reach their audience, their supporters now, they don’t have to rely on someone else to decide whether to show it or not. Distribution and how they can reach audiences is the most important change.

MD: People in North America have probably seen bin Laden’s face thousands of times since 9/11. We now have a generation that has grown up with the War on Terror. But we never hear his voice. What kind of impact does that has?
CA: Even comparing bin Laden or al-Zawahiri, they all have very different ways of speaking. Bin Laden is the most, in my opinion, conversational. Even when he’s speaking to you, it feels like he’s speaking in a conversation. When al-Zawahiri speaks, it feels like he’s speaking to you. On film, he does all these [aggressive] hand motions that reinforce that. But bin Laden has a much more calming voice. I think it’s really important to understand that, and that just can’t be captured by reading about bin Laden.

The McGill Daily: Why do you study these types of documents that are so rarely looked at?
 Aisha Ahmad: The information operations in insurgencies are an integral part of the battle for hearts and minds. Unless we look at both sides of the propaganda war in conflict, we’re not going to necessarily understand why populations living under insurgencies may shift their political opinions in favour of an insurgency rather than in favour of the government. Understanding domestic public opinion in civil wars means that we have to understand what people are talking about, how people are understanding the conflict. The competition for the narrative is really important, so essentially these films allow us to start to have a discussion about the competition that we’ve had over the narrative.

NATO has certainly worked hard trying to present the conflict to the Afghan people in a certain way, to the Pakistani audience in a certain way. The African Union has tried to present the conflict in Somalia to the domestic audience in a certain way. But insurgents also have a response, and that response, at times, has been more effective and compelling in getting the support of the domestic audience, which is so coveted. It’s important to understand how they’re framing the conflict. [The videos] also give us an insight into what they might want to gain from the conflict; what their objectives are. It also gives us an insight into their recruitment and mobilization strategies.

 MD: Why do you think that these types of primary source documents aren’t more widely studied in North America?
 AA: I think that they ought to be studied by students of Political Science. I came up with the idea of doing this because I’m a TA for POLI 442, International Relations of Ethnic Conflict. In talking to my students, they were all really interested to know how narrative, imagery, myth, symbol factor in developing the narrative around an insurgency, and building momentum for an insurgency, affecting domestic political opinion in a contested situation. So when the political contest on the battlefield is ongoing, it’s akin to an election campaign, in a way. Both sides are making their pitch. I think the reason, maybe, that we shy from watching things like this is, number one: to be quite frank, they are violent, and the violence is real, as opposed to Hollywood. We were very careful in the selection of films to make sure that we didn’t choose anything that was actually just vile. I do know that people who study information operations do do this, but we as a community of scholars are still relatively new to the study of information operations. This is a new area for us, but we really need to invest more effort into doing this, especially given that – on the whole – Western or NATO information operations have not fared as well in the battle for hearts and minds as have counter-propaganda.

—Compiled by Michael Lee-Murphy