The Zarqawi outtakes and propaganda: "go help the sheik"
I don't know about you, but this reminds me of a "Saturday Night Live" bit:
The videotape released last week by the terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi showed him firing long bursts from a machine gun, his forearms sprouting from beneath black fatigues, as he exuded the very picture of a strong jihadist leader.
But in clips the American military released on Thursday and described as captured outtakes from the same video, Mr. Zarqawi, head of the Council of Holy Warriors, cut a different figure.
In one scene, Mr. Zarqawi, the most wanted terrorist in Iraq, appears flummoxed by how to discharge the machine gun in fully automatic mode. Off camera, one aide is heard ordering another, "Go help the sheik." A man walks over and fiddles with the weapon so Mr. Zarqawi can fire it in bursts.
Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists groups use the power of video with great flair, boldness, and skill. Modern communications such as videocameras and the internet may be a primarily Western invention, but the US has lagged far behind the terrorists in the propaganda arena almost from the start.
This current campaign by the US is an interesting one. I'm not at all sure that it will matter much in terms of actually reaching any of those we're trying to persuade. But at least it represents that someone on our side is thinking a little outside the box. And it's true that in honor/shame cultures, looking ridiculous is one of the worst things that can happen to a leader such as Zarqawi, who clearly prides himself on appearing to be the meannest, baddest man around.
In another blend of old and new, the video goes on to exploit a sartorial mixed message:
Another sequence shows Mr. Zarqawi handing the weapon off to other aides and striding away, revealing white jogging shoes beneath his black guerrilla attire.
Shades of the Munich massacre terrorists in their jogging suits.
Zarqawi seems to be attended by at least one of the Three Stooges:
One insurgent later appears to grab the machine gun absent-mindedly by its scalding-hot barrel and drop it.
Of course Al Jazeera--which has no problem whatsoever being the mouthpiece for Al Qaeda propaganda--isn't jumping to show these particular videos (perhaps they're too shocking for Al Jazeera's tender sensibilities):
The selected outtakes released late Thursday were not shown on the most popular Arab channels, Al Jazeera and Arabiya, although Arabiya mentioned them in a newscast later. But they were broadcast on state-run Iraqi television.
Al Jazeera picks and chooses the propaganda it deems worthy of broadcast, and this one didn't make the cut. But Iraq has a competing network that is willing--and perhaps eager--to show it.
How did we ever come to this? One seminal event in the history of terrorist propaganda was that same Munich massacre I mentioned earlier. While doing research for this post, I came across an article featuring the Dutch-born widow of the Israeli fencing coach Andre Spitzer, one of the Israeli athletes so cruelly murdered that terrible September of 1972. She believes (and I concur) that Munich was the true start of the successful Mideastern terrorist use of propaganda through the use of worldwide media:
"The message was you could pull it off and get major exposure," [Ankie] Spitzer said.
"No one was punished, no one was held responsible. I am really convinced that if the world had reacted differently then, zero tolerance then ... everything would have looked different now..."
In the Arab world, Munich was viewed as a triumph. Weeks later, the three captured Palestinian terrorists were freed by the German government after a Lufthansa plane was hijacked in the Balkans. The men got a heroes' welcome when they arrived in Libya.
Spitzer says a new era had begun. "I call it the first shot fired for international terror. Before that, it was never on such a level."
I remember Munich well; I lived through it, or at least the media coverage of it. I remember the profound shock I felt then, my disbelief that people could invade the previously peaceful and off-limits realm of international sports to wreak such horror. At the time I didn't know the details of the mindboggling incompetence of the German authorities, and then their later capitulation in releasing the terrorists in response to a possibly faked airplane highjacking (anyone who'd like to know the particulars should read this some time).
But with repetition over the ensuing decades, such events have lost some of their power to shock. And the fact that brutality wins converts has also become apparent. So let's give ridicule a chance.