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Seeing through propaganda

By William S. Lind
web posted August 16, 2004

In any war, one of the most useful opportunities is a chance to see the conflict through the other side's eyes. A Marine captain recently sent me a fascinating look at the misnamed "war on terror" through the eyes of al-Qaida, in the form of an interview by an al-Qaida journal, Sawt Al-Jihad, of Fawwaz bin Muhammad Al-Nashami, who is identified as the leader of the attack at Khobar, Saudi Arabia, on May 29 of this year in which 22 "infidels" were killed.

I have no way of determining whether the account is genuine, though internal evidence suggests it probably is. There is also no doubt that much of what Al-Nashami says is propagandistic. It is intended to rouse other young Islamic militants to emulate his "great" deeds and kill more infidels. But al-Qaida is a sophisticated operation, sufficiently so to understand that good propaganda contains as much truth as possible.

The story is a blow-by-blow, hour-by-hour tale of the Khobar raid. From the standpoint of Fourth Generation war (4GW) theory, what stands out most strongly is its intense mix of ancient and modern.

Much of Al-Nashami's account could come straight from Homer. It stresses the vast strength and great riches of the opponent, contrasted with the weakness of the four men who made up the al-Qaida raiding group. Allah is a constant player, just as gods fought for Greeks and Trojans. Defeated enemies are publicly humiliated: "We tied the infidel by one leg [behind the car]...everyone watched the infidel being dragged." While the enemy was strong in numbers, they were also cowards: "We encountered forces that hastened to defend the Americans...Their great cowardice was evidenced by their behavior. They were very far away, and as we approached them they kept withdrawing and distancing themselves." Heroes boast and show enemy heads: "Brother Nimr swaggered around inside the compound...we found a Swedish infidel. Brother Nimr cut off his head, and put it at the gate so that it would be seen by all those entering and exiting."

Right in the midst of the fighting, when the raiders are hungry they eat and when they are tired they sleep. After the first encounter, "We turned to the hotel. We entered and found a restaurant, where we ate breakfast and rested a while." Later, surrounded by Saudi security forces, "The brothers slept for an hour...Then we decided we would be the ones to attack."

Yet the modern is mixed intimately with the Homeric. Sawt Al-Jihad asks, "How did you begin [the operation]?" Al-Nashami replies, "We left the apartment at precisely a quarter to six." Arab time keeping is usually like Scandinavian cuisine: there isn't much of it and most of what there is is bad. Mission orders show up: "We met with the brothers and I explained to them the goals and plan of the operation." The raiders did multiple recons, and "we had learned more than one route to the second site." Most interestingly, the raiders use television both to send and receive information. In the middle of the raid, they call Al-Jazeera and do an interview. When they need tactical intel, they turn on the TV: "Then I went to one of the rooms. I watched the news on television...and the news was that the emergency forces 'were now breaking into the compound.' I split up the brothers to certain positions in the hotel, and we got ready to repel an attack by the dogs of the state..."

This mix of ancient and modern is a central characteristic of 4GW, and it is one of the strengths of religiously motivated non-state forces. It is also a very difficult thing for militaries such as our own to understand. It is central to our opponents' strength at the moral level, which shows through strongly in the interview: "Many [of the Arabs and Muslims at the compound] prayed for our victory and success...We spoke with them...until their fear was gone and they began to joke with us and to direct us to the sites of the infidels..."

On the other side, the reported cowardice of the state security forces illustrates a problem with hiring people to fight for a cause they do not believe in: "The tracer bullets frightened these cowards greatly...We shouted 'Allah Akbar' and 'There is no God but Allah, and...We broke through the first ring [of security], and the second, and the third." Hireling troops often do not have much fight in them, as we have also seen in Iraq.

Not surprisingly, the raiders escape with only one killed by a deus ex machina ending: "We ascended above one of the artificial waterfalls which overlooked the road. The distance between us and the ground was very great, 13 meters...But with Allah's mercy, the ground was soft and wet, because of the waterfall." The only thing missing is Zeus or Athena gently handing the raiders down.

Again, there is no question that the account is propaganda. But propaganda is itself revealing. It allows us to see our enemies as they see themselves, and the self-image of al-Qaida that emerges from this account is one that should concern us. The seamless blending of ancient and modern, of divinely protected heroism and technological competence, is potent. That is particularly true when, as in this case, al-Qaida's indigenous opponent is the hired troops of a makeshift regime - a regime America depends on to keep the oil flowing.

If, in war, one of the keys to success is pitting strength against weakness, al-Qaida knows all too well what it is doing. And its chances of victory may be greater than any tally of resources or troops numbers would suggest.

William S. Lind is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

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