Target Al Jazeera – ‘Information War’ Weapon
Suppose you want to launch a culture-wide attack against the most powerful country in the world. The constituents from which you will draw your people reside in 22 sovereign nations, united by a common language, culture, and religion. How do you pull it off?
In what we call the Western world, you probably would use television, radio, and more recently, the internet, to get your message out. Since we operate under a relatively free press, if you have sufficient time, you can preach your message across the airwaves, until your following grows to substantial numbers. If you are an Osama Bin Laden, however, you don’t have access to the traditional airwaves we take for granted in the West. Across the Arab world, television and radio are tightly controlled by the petty dictators who rule all but a tiny fraction of these 22 nations. Yes, I know we like to call these men kings, princes, sheikhs, emirs, or what-have-you, but bottom-line, they are nothing more than unelected dictators, despots ruling by force of arms.
In any case, they all control their airwaves as tightly as possible. This means for a budding Bin Laden, that you will have to find another way to get your word out.
As the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism continues, and the Bush administration prepares for a military campaign against Iraq, it is important for us not to overlook the critical “information war” being waged by radical Islamic factions against us.
Qatari ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani seized power from his father in 1995 (another one of those “democratic” reforms). About the same time, the BBC signed a deal with Orbit Communications in Saudi Arabia. Through its World Service radio network this Saudi-owned company had built a strong tradition of objective Arabic-language news coverage. The BBC intended to provide Arabic newscasts for Orbit’s main Middle East channel, insisting the while on editorial independence. In April 1996, the BBC broadcast a story including footage of the beheading of a criminal. Following that, the Saudis pulled Orbit out of the deal. As I said: Despots all.
The new Qatari leader saw an opportunity – so the story goes – to modernize and democratize his new government. On Nov. 1, 1996, he created Al Jazeera as part of that effort, allocating $137 million towards a goal of self-sufficiency for the station within five years. Most of the former BBC employees joined the fledgling network, carrying on in the tradition of BBC objectivity.
For the first time, the common Arab had a voice. Al Jazeera quickly became the most widely listened to station throughout the Arab world. By comparison to the tightly controlled national stations, Al Jazeera seemed like a breath of fresh air. The U.S. State Department sang its praises. Al Jazeera was being called the CNN of the Arab World.
Programs such as “The Opposite Direction” and “The Other Opinion” featured debates on controversial issues similar to CNN’s Crossfire. Islamic militants argued with secular liberals, and supporters of the peace process with Israel debated its opponents. Al Jazeera interviewed political dissidents from across the spectrum, even airing Osama bin Laden in June 1999. During the last Israeli election campaign, Al Jazeera sent Muhammad Kreishan to interview representatives of all major Israeli political parties, including an David Bar-Illan, who was an adviser to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was heady stuff.
Then 9/11 happened, and the U.S. military commenced operations against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Almost immediately, the Taliban expelled all news-gathering groups except for Al Jazeera. Nearly everything you saw during the first dramatic weeks of the war originated with Al Jazeera.
The seeds had been well planted. All that remained was to set the hook firmly in the mouth of Western media. Al Jazeera interviewed Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice. What the common Arab on the street saw and heard, however, were short excerpts from these interviews, taken totally out of context. These snippets reinforced the growing perception in the Arab world that America is the Great Satan and our war on terror is somehow a Zionist plot.
No longer was Al Jazeera a free-wheeling Arabian copy of CNN. It still carried the veneer; its 500 employees included 70 journalists; its 27 bureaus include offices in Washington, New York, London, Paris, Brussels, Moscow, Djakarta and Islamabad. But the focus, which had been moving slowly and steadily away from a CNN-like image, had now shifted totally.
Instead of balanced reporting, the Arab on the street now receives a 24/7 barrage of the worst kind of propaganda. Bin Laden has complete unedited access to Al Jazeera; George Bush is quoted out of context. On Al-Jazeera suicide bombers are martyrs and Israelis “devils.” Jews are “descendants of apes and pigs,” and the Holocaust never happened. Bin Laden is an heroic romantic. 9/11 was a Zionist plot, and 4,000 Jews did not show up at the WTC on the morning of 9/11. Slow periods are filled with endless loops depicting dying Palestinian children accompanied by inflammatory martial music.
Al Jazeera now feeds 150,000 American homes, homes occupied by Islamic adults and children. With its arrival via the Dish Satellite Network, most Arab Americans no longer listen to CNN or FOX or any of the other relatively unbiased news sources. For the adults with their minds already made up this probably makes little difference. For the children, however, there is no counterpoint. They are immersed in this stuff around the clock: hate, anti-American, anti-Israel, with nothing to offset the pictures of Palestinian children being butchered by jack-booted Jews.
Perhaps you’ve noticed: the free-world press no longer touts the goodness of Israel. Instead, we see and hear more and more of the plight of the unfortunate Palestinians. We hear about Israeli “massacres” of innocent Palestinians. Our president issues “orders” for an Israeli withdrawal.
And yet the preponderance of Western media still writes that Al Jazeera represents the best hope for a free press throughout the Arab world.
Qatar’s five-year deadline for Al Jazeera self-sufficiency is more than a year past, and still the network receives an annual subsidy from the Qatari government approaching $100 million. The government of a supposedly friendly Arab nation underwrites the vilest, most acrimonious, inflammatory lies and half-truths ever broadcast.
The hook is set. Millions of Muslims who were still unsure now know with a certain conviction. Our recently-launched new hip Voice of America is a day late and a dollar short. The con is complete. Al Jazeera rules. And it is a wartime propaganda weapon aimed at the United States and the West.
As we ready our military for the onerous task of finding and taking out Saddam Hussein we cannot ignore the battle that is taking place in full fury right before our eyes. We are in a war for survival – nothing less. Arab public opinion is already on the side of the holy warriors, and thanks to Al Jazeera, world opinion is steadily moving in their direction. Already, the most popular Middle East figures are Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, and Mullah Mohammed Omar. President Bush calls them evildoers, but to their fellow Muslims and much of the rest of the world, they are heroes. That won’t change no matter how many leaflets we drop on them, or how many hip songs VOA broadcasts.
We still have an option, or maybe two: We can jam the Hell out of Al Jazeera broadcasts, or we can destroy the facilities. Either way we will anger a lot of people. But if Al Jazeera can’t be heard – ever, and neither can its lesser imitators such as the Arab News Network (ANN) and Sharjah TV, the end result can be millions of Muslims harboring less anger, because they’re not being fed this garbage on a daily basis.
Two satellites form the nexus for all the anti-American inflammatory broadcasts: Arabsat 2A/2B and Nilesat 101. We wouldn’t hesitate to take out an Iraqi SAM battery that threatened U.S. aircraft. These birds are far more dangerous. How difficult would it be to eliminate these offending satellites?
To assuage those who would lose beneficial broadcasts that also use these facilities, we could offer space – without charge, if necessary – on any one of our own satellites; or we could even launch a replacement unit that we control.
The bottom line is: This is war. We are losing one of its most important battles. It’s time we changed this!
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor