Pope Benedict has set off a firestorm with his comments about Islam, including this already notorious quote from a 14th century emperor: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman." Muslims, for some reason, are offended. Except for al-Qaeda, which is positively jubilant. (And al-Jazeera, I suspect, which no doubt sees another ratings winner in the controversy) I've argued repeatedly that the key to al-Qaeda's strategy is its attempt to promote a clash of civilizations between Muslims and the West. Al-Qaeda wants Muslims to embrace Islam as the core of their identities, and to believe that Islam is locked in mortal combat with an aggressive, hostile West. Everything which strengthens the central al-Qaeda narrative of a Crusader war against Islam serves that strategy. Al-Qaeda does not need to win support for itself as a movement for this strategy to succeed - all it needs to do is to shape the political environment towards its "clash" narrative.
This is why Bush's recent "Islamic Fascism" speeches were such a gift to bin Laden, playing right to the al-Qaeda script, and seeming to confirm al-Qaeda rhetoric over a Western "Crusade" (and don't even get started on Bush's recent "religious revival" musings). And now the Pope has jumped in to lend a helping hand to al-Qaeda. Couldn't they have just sent flowers? I don't think that this is quite what the Counter-Terrorism Center at West Point meant by "stealing al-Qaeda's playbook" - we weren't supposed to actually run al-Qaeda's plays for them.
From this "clash of civilizations" perspective, 2006 has been a very good year for al-Qaeda. You can see al-Qaeda's success in this realm in the grim, bitter mood of the Arab press reflections on five years since 9/11. The Danish cartoons crisis revealed a phenomenal amount of receptivity to a radical interpretation of a perceived symbolic slight against Islam. Israel's war with Hezbollah deeply radicalized the Arab public mood, regardless of whether Hezbollah temporarily eclipsed al-Qaeda and other Sunni Islamist groups. Each of those cases triggered what I've called "Islamist bandwagons", with virtually every would-be Islamic leader falling over himself to get on record with a tougher, more radical denunciation. I expect to see a similar Islamist bandwagon over the Pope's remarks.
The unprecedented outpour of tapes, videos, and other media productions from al-Sahab shows al-Qaeda actively and successfully working to capitalize and shape this mood. Where earlier this year al-Qaeda Central seemed a bit slow on the uptake (it took Zawahiri over a month to weigh in on the Danish cartoons), it is now releasing a flood of videos and tapes of dizzying variety. My National Interest piece not too long ago noted a fairly sharp difference between how al-Qaeda Central used satellite TV to reach mass audiences, while Zarqawi and the jihadi hard core preferred using the internet to reach an already committed base. Over the last few months I see this breaking down. Videos increasingly move easily and quickly from the internet on to television and on to easily accessible internet sites (including YouTube). Al-Qaeda Central doesn't depend on al-Jazeera now, if it ever did, and it has gotten more effective at getting its media productions into wide distribution.
The accelerating al-Qaeda media strategy is having an impact. Bin Laden's April tape was a tour d'force, offering a detailed explanation of al-Qaeda's "clash of civilizations" strategy, and has been followed up by a number of interventions. Zawahiri is in the news as often as Lindsay Lohan these days. I've almost lost count of his recent statements and videos; the last one I saw was an hour-plus long interview, with Zawahiri calmly and patiently giving long, detailed answers to a series of political questions (about which I hope to blog later if I have time). The distraction posed by Zarqawi's brutal targeting of the Shia has been removed, without hurting the flow of jihadi images from Iraq.
This all came to a head, kind of, when Al-Qaeda's unusually well-made commemorative video of the fifth anniversary of 9/11 turned into a runaway hit. On a recent episode of al-Jazeera's Behind the News, Jordanian bureau chief Yasir Abu Hilala pointed out that the most amazing thing about the video was that al-Qaeda had managed to hold on to this footage for five years without either using it or losing it. It could have been very useful at many points along the way in the media/ propaganda war, but al-Sahab clearly took a longer view of things and withheld it until the fifth anniversary - calculating both that it would have more of an impact then, and that they would still be around producing videos then. Right on both counts. Al-Quds al-Arabi editor Abd al-Bari Atwan argued that al-Qaeda issued the tape to demonstrate that it was still a central actor in world affairs five years after 9/11, and that it considered the media a primary source of its power. In his view al-Qaeda had the upper hand over America in the battle for Muslim hearts and minds, with its sophisticated use of the internet and satellite television. America spent hundreds of millions of dollars on television stations (al-Hurra) and radio stations (Sawa) but had little to show for it, while al-Qaeda excelled at placing its expertly produced videos on the internet where they reached Muslims all over the world quickly and easily.
So what does this all add up to? First, al-Qaeda's shift to the media realm does not make it weaker or mean that it is weaker - it's a logical and integral part of its evolving strategy of civilizational mobilization. Second, the Bush administration's aggressive new rhetorical campaign against al-Qaeda is playing right into bin Laden's hands by ratcheting up the civilizational rhetoric and helping al-Qaeda stand out from the background noise of Muslim politics... without offering any cooresponding positive strategy. Oh, and the Pope isn't helping.
UPDATE - To put it another way: It is just really dumb to "fight radical Islam" by handing it rhetorical weapons and then doing everything you can to drive ordinary Muslims - the vast majority of which have no truck with al-Qaeda's ideology - in their direction. The point should be to drive al-Qaeda farther away from the Muslim mainstream, not to try to force them together. The sorts of confrontational statements that some folks seem to consider to be courage or moral clarity or whatever aren't.. they're just strategically dumb. They actively help al-Qaeda and hurt al-Qaeda's opponents, whatever the intent behind them.