Merchant of Death
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Al Qaeda's Expanding Propaganda Reach
What is interesting about the new bin Laden and Zarqawi tapes, besides some of the analysis done by my colleagues on the Counterterrorism blog, is the fact that al Qaeda has grown increasingly adept at getting its propaganda videos quickly enough to be relevant to current events. This is new, and shows increased capacity and increased interest in keeping their message out in front, even it it may hint at internal problems.

Any insurgent/terrorist/guerrilla group that wants to be taken seriously in the broader world must have a medium to reach that world. In El Salvador, the FMLN, one of the most successful of recent insurgent-guerrilla armies had Radio Venceremos, which came on every day for several broadcasts of an hour each. People knew when to tune in and receive the message. The FMLN knew how important that link was and spend blood and treasure to protect the station, improve it and cultivate a loyal following.

In contrast, the FARC in Colombia has had no reach outside its areas of direct control, now mostly the coca-growing regions of the country. In part as a result of this lack of communication, the FARC has made few inroads as a political entity in Colombia. Certainly that is not the whole reason-the wholesale assassination of its political allies has certainly played a role. But the FARC has no method of projecting itself into the broader political debate, it only has violence, and hence is widely reviled.

Al Qaeda, both bin Laden and Zarqawi, seem to be focusing a great deal of time and resources on staying visible and talking to their followers or potential followers. No longer does one wait a month or two to heard the latest AQ take on events. The symbols in the videos, as others have pointed out, such as the display of U.S. weapons, MANPADS etc., are not happenstance. They are carefully thought out to send particular messages.

The advantage is that it gives those outside the organization a window to help decifer and analyze what is said, how it is said etc. But the huge disadvantage is that every time they show up in public, the largest message is simply that they have avoided capture by the United States.

The instant dismissal of the appearances by some in government, saying they are displays of desperation or a lack of cohesion, is wrong and dangerous. It shows, more than anything else, the enemy has a functioning propganda arm that is effective and extremely active. By simply showing up on the website or on al Jazeera, bin Laden, Zarqawi and other terrorist leaders powerfully remind people they still are there, still fighting and still able to show their faces.
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