In the latest issue of The National Interest I analyzed the political differences between the kind of bin Laden speeches produced for and broadcast by Arab satellite television stations like al-Jazeera and the kind of jihadi videos produced for and disseminated through internet forums. The former, broadcast on satellite television, were aimed at a mass audience and sought the kind of rhetoric, narrative, and imagery that would appeal to the Arab "median voter" - someone who cares deeply about issues like Palestine, Iraq or local corruption but isn't really sold on al-Qaeda style Islamism. The latter, disseminated through the jihadi forums, were aimed at an already interested and at least partially mobilized audience - someone who cares enough to go searching through various internet sites looking for the latest Zarqawi video. How does that argument hold up in light of the near-simultaneous release of major public statements by bin Laden and Zarqawi?
First, bin Laden's tape very much fit the mold, even without the video. Released directly (evidently) to al-Jazeera and broadcast there, it clearly spoke to the "median Arab/Muslim voter" and not only to the already converted. Its references were to issues already salient to mainstream Arab audiences - the Danish cartoons, Palestine, Iraq, even the Sudan - rather than focusing on issues of concern primarily to the jihadist base. Bin Laden's comments on Palestine clearly showed his willingness to be pragmatic: if Arabs were upset by the way the West (and Arab regimes friendly with the West) were treating Hamas, then ideological purity (rejection of participation in elections) be damned.
Second, Zarqawi's video also largely played to type. Released on the internet to Zarqawi friendly forums, it aimed at an audience of committed jihadists. The prominent featuring of Zarqawi personally struck me as another response (like this one a few weeks ago) to the widely-disseminated rumours of his demotion from a position of leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The themes and imagery echoed many al-Qaeda recruitment videos I've seen, and the tape seemed intended more for asserting Zarqawi's leadership of a successful jihad than for Western or mainstream consumption.
But as well as the broad contours of the two videos fit the simple dichotomy I proposed in that article, other aspects of them challenge it - in particular, the extremely rapid migration of Zarqawi's video from the internet onto satellite television, alongside Ayman al-Zawahiri's video released directly to the internet last month. Whether these videos should be seen as complementary or competitive is a fascinating question which I won't dwell on now, but to which I hope to return soon.
What really interests me here is the wide and fast broadcast of the Zarqawi video. Where in the past Zarqawi's video would have been consumed primarily by an audience of jihadis and prospective jihadis, this time it was picked and widely broadcast within days - reaching the same audience as bin Laden's, or even bigger since its visuals got so much play. And not only by al-Jazeera or even the Arab media: several colleagues told me this morning of seeing the video on CNN, MSNBC and other American networks. The rapid move of Zarqawi's video from the internet to television broadcast is important for a couple of reasons.
First, and most obviously, it dramatically increases the reach of the jihadis who had been producing primarily for the internet forums. Whether that strengthens them is not immediately obvious. Since they were produced for a distinctive audience, they might not travel well and could backfire when viewed by different audiences with different norms and expectations. But if the Zarqawi tape establishes a pattern, it could change the production of the videos - certainly these producers have proven very adept at making such adjustments in the past. According to some sources, beheading videos are largely gone already, replaced by videos glorifying successful operations against American or Iraqi military targets.
Second, the widespread broadcast of Zarqawi's video powerfully reinforces an argument I've made about the increasingly impossibility of controlling media content. As the Arab media environment becomes more and more competitive and diverse, no single station - not even al-Jazeera - can unilaterally set standards any more. If al-Jazeera chose not to air bin Laden or Zawahiri tapes, I argued, some other station would do so and get its own temporary ratings boost. When al-Jazeera refused to air a third Jill Carroll video, a private Kuwaiti TV station did. The trajectory of this Zarqawi video pretty much clinches the argument: if al-Jazeera had refused to air bin Laden's tape, its producers would have just put it up on the internet and within days every TV station in the world would be airing it. That's not a normative argument about whether or not al-Jazeera should air the tapes, just an acknowledgement of reality in today's Arab and global media environment.
One video does not make for a trend, of course. But just the other day, al-Arabiya broadcast an al-Qaeda video found on the internet, and last month an Ayman al-Zawahiri video got wide play not too long ago even though al-Jazeera chose not to air it (an al-Jazeera official told me that they didn't air it because it was an old video circulating on the internet and therefore neither newsworthy nor an exclusive). Nor is it entirely new - all those hostage videos from Iraq followed a similar path. But it does seem to me that something different is going on here.. something worth thinking about.