The mass media was never meant to be a weapon, but it is. The Nazis and Soviets proved that, and the Western democracies have been trying to cope, with mixed success, ever since. Al Qaeda is the latest extremist group to exploit the mass media to win battles in the war where they are hopelessly outclassed (in a military sense). But the underdog (Western armed forces, particularly the United States) have fought back with some success.
In the years following 2001, Al Qaeda ceased to exist as much of a terrorist organization, or any kind of organization, anymore. But in one area, that of video and audio propaganda, it sort of, thrived. Production of such recordings were way up after September 11, 2001, even as they were pounded militarily.
Al Qaeda Audio and Video Recordings Released
2002 12 (8 of them vids)
2003 17 (6 vids)
2004 23 (5 vids)
2005 24 (14 vids)
After 2005, al Qaeda video production went through the roof, with some months seeing 5-10 new ones appearing.
While al Qaeda was founded to train Islamic terrorists, and assist them in carrying out attacks, it also got into releasing video and audio recordings for the faithful, and potential recruits. Western media proved eager to play all, or part, of these recordings. Meanwhile, the recordings could be passed around on audio or video cassette. But in the years after September 11, 2001, the Internet became much more available, and provided an even more efficient form of distribution. At the same time, video production equipment became smaller and cheaper. It was now possible for someone in even the remotest part of the world, like some village along the Afghan-Pakistan border, to produce high quality videos.
All those videos, plus the 'combat videos' released by other Islamic terrorist groups, became enormously popular among young Moslem men. That led to more plotting and planning, with the intention of carrying out some spectacular terrorist attacks. There have not been a lot more actual attacks. And those that do occur, mostly in Moslem countries, result in a lot of arrests and convictions.
Shutting down the al Qaeda Internet media campaign was difficult. Some governments outlawed the al Qaeda content, just as they have outlawed other types of content they find objectionable. You cannot completely eliminate stuff that way, but you can make it unavailable to a lot of people, and hard to get at for the rest. Several counter-terrorist agencies have been shutting down Islamic terrorist media sites as quickly as they can find them. That doesn't work very well. What works better is hunting down and arresting the handful of Islamic terrorist supporters who have the good Internet skills, and are playing a major role in keeping the al Qaeda message available on the net.
Then, last year, Al Qaeda promised an important video release on September 11. But the video, thought to be a rant from some senior al Qaeda official (maybe even bin Laden), never showed up. There were two possible reasons for this. First, there was the recent dismantling of the al Qaeda Internet media operation (mostly in Iraq, but in other countries as well.) This cut down the production of al Qaeda vids. In fact, captured al Qaeda communications had a senior guy complaining about the media people trying to recycle old combat videos as new.
Second, there's the growing war by anti-terrorist hackers (individuals and groups) to shut down pro-terrorist web sites. Sometimes these vigilantes are exceedingly effective, and in the last few years they appear to have shut down all of the few sites used as distribution points for important new videos. That brings up another point. Islamic terrorists are often described as having "thousands (usually 5,000+) of web sites." But nearly all of these are basically fan sites. There are only a few sites that actually conduct the business of terrorism. These sites are under heavy attack by anti-terrorism hackers, as well as being closely watched many intelligence agencies, and a few private anti-terrorism organizations.
Islamic terrorists have been reaching out to their supporters on the Internet, openly asking for ideas and information. This is a dangerous thing for terrorism fans to participate in. If the local police catch someone sending suggestions or information to terrorist groups, it can get you arrested and jailed. Apparently it does put a lot of people on the police radar, and eventually leads to arrests.
The intelligence agencies prefer that the Islamic terror sites stay online, so their users can be watched and identified. But the anti-terror vigilante hackers want to fight back, and no one has the heart, or the means, to stop them.
But despite all these setbacks, the Islamic terrorists have been able to continue exploiting Western media. This is for the simple reason that Western media are businesses, which have to make a profit. To do that, they have to present material that a lot of people will want. Without that, income dries up, and you go out of business. What sells best is bad news. Or, as the old adage so succinctly puts it, "if it bleeds, it leads." The terrorists know that, and stage their attacks with the intention of getting maximum media attention. This makes their terrorism more effective (more people are aware of it, and terrified.) But that terror comes at a cost to the terrorists, particularly as the Americans took the fight to the Middle East, where al Qaeda found itself killing more Moslems than Americans, and their popularity sharply declined in the Islamic world, reducing the recruits, and cash donations, they obtained.
For the United States, Iraq turned out to be a means to turn the al Qaeda media advantage into a liability. The same thing is happening in Afghanistan. While contemporary journalists have largely missed this, future historians will not.