Columbia International Affairs Online: Journals

CIAO DATE: 05/2010

Wanted: A War on Terrorist Media

The Journal of International Security Affairs

A publication of:
Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs

Volume: 0, Issue: 17 (Fall 2009)

Mark Dubowitz


Full Text

The Long War against radical Islam is a war of ideas as much as a war of arms. Yet, for much of the past decade, the incitement and violent propaganda emanating from satellite television stations, radio outlets, and Internet platforms operated by violent Islamist extremists has too often gone unnoticed and unanswered.

Today, such neglect is no longer an option. Media technologies-satellite television, radio, and the Internet-have become operational weapons used by radicals to plan, recruit, train, fundraise and incite. Free speech protections may protect the hateful content of their messages, but by using media as direct operational weapons, these terrorist groups are crossing all free speech red lines.

To counter their influence, policymakers and counterterrorism officials need to treat these media outlets as indistinguishable from the terrorist organizations that use them-by banning, jamming and shutting down the media outlets where possible, and by countering their messaging with alternatives.

Beating Hezbollah's "Beacon"

Al-Manar, or the "Beacon" in Arabic, is the communications arm of Hezbollah, owned and operated by the radical Shi'ite militia and financed by the Iranian regime. Hezbollah established al-Manar in 1991 as a tool to incite hatred and violence and recruit children and adults as terrorists. According to al-Manar officials, the station's programming is meant to "help people on the way to committing what you call in the West a suicide mission."1

At the height of its popularity, al-Manar reached an estimated 10-15 million viewers daily with 24/7 worldwide coverage through a network of thirteen satellite providers and advertising sponsorship from numerous western corporations.2 No mere propaganda tool, al-Manar is used by Hezbollah to broadcast a message of hatred, recruit suicide bombers, raise money for its terrorist activities and those of its Palestinian affiliates, conduct operational surveillance, and incite attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians and American soldiers in Iraq.

Al-Manar's strategic importance was showcased during the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war, when Israel targeted the media outlet directly. In repeated aerial attacks, the Israeli Air Force bombed the al-Manar television station in Beirut and its broadcasting infrastructure in the Beka'a Valley, a Hezbollah stronghold. But while the IAF destroyed part of the al-Manar infrastructure, and Israeli hackers were able to temporarily disrupt the station's service, al-Manar continued broadcasting during the war. For their part, European and American media replayed al-Manar footage, treating the station as a legitimate media outlet.

Where Israeli bombs failed this time, international soft power has been more successful. In the United States, Europe, South America, and Asia, governments and corporations alike have taken action against al-Manar. In March 2006, the U.S. government designated al-Manar as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity. In that decision, the U.S. Treasury Department placed al-Manar and Hezbollah's al-Nour radio on the same terrorism list as Hezbollah itself, together with al-Qaeda, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups.3

In a key finding of fact, based not on the objectionable content of al-Manar but on its operational role in support of Hezbollah, the Treasury Department emphasized a number of key links between the two: al-Manar employed numerous Hezbollah members; al-Manar actively recruited and fundraised for Hezbollah; and al-Manar fundraised for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, both designated as terrorist entities by the U.S. government (and, in the case of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, by the European Union as well). To underscore the close cooperation between Hezbollah and al-Manar, the Treasury order also highlighted its role in providing pre-attack surveillance for terror attacks.4

In announcing the designation, Stuart Levey, the Treasury Department's Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said that "any entity maintained by a terrorist group-whether masquerading as a charity, a business, or a media outlet-is as culpable as the terrorist group itself."5 Crucially, Treasury made very clear that the grounds of this designation order were based on the evidence of direct operational support provided by al-Manar to Hezbollah.

In Europe, authorities have taken a different tack. In contrast to the U.S. government's approach, which had focused on the operational role of al-Manar in support of Hezbollah, itself a designated terrorist entity, the European Union and the governments of France, Spain, and Holland (which did not recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist group) focused on the station's incitement to violence and racist and anti-Semitic programming. On the basis of the nature of the station's content, European authorities determined that al-Manar violated European law.6

These decisions encouraged four European satellite providers to discontinue transmission of the station. Five others, based in Hong Kong, Australia, Thailand, Barbados, and Brazil, also terminated their broadcasting of al-Manar. Two executives of HDTV, Ltd., a U.S.-based satellite provider, pleaded guilty to charges of material support for a terrorist organization after refusing private requests to stop broadcasting the station. They are currently serving jail terms. The German government has banned al-Manar under its constitution after recognizing the threat posed by al-Manar and Hezbollah to German security. And, after being alerted to their advertising on the terrorist station, some of the world's best-known multinationals-including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, and Western Union-discontinued almost $4 million in annual corporate advertising.

Unfortunately this good news is tempered by some disturbing realities. Thanks to Saudi and Egyptian-owned satellites, Arabsat and Nilesat, respectively, al-Manar continues to have unfettered access to European and Middle Eastern airwaves. Alarmingly, Hezbollah TV's deadly mix of racial hatred, anti-Semitism, glorification of terrorism and incitement to violence appear to be increasingly popular among Arabic-speaking youth in Europe. The Indonesian satellite Indosat recently has also provided al-Manar with distribution through parts of Asia, where recent bombings again serve as a reminder of the danger of terrorism and violent incitement to the citizens of Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, the campaign against al-Manar waged by Western non-governmental organizations and governments marks the first coordinated international campaign against terrorist media-and a lesson to build on.

Hamas goes global

The success of Hezbollah's media arm encouraged the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas to replicate its business model. In the fall of 2006, Hamas's al-Aqsa television, up until then broadcast only within the Gaza Strip, began satellite distribution via the same Saudi satellite as al-Manar. With this distribution deal, Hamas could now spread its message of hatred across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Like the organization's other print, radio, TV and online media outlets, al-Aqsa is designed to meet Hamas's organizational goals: subverting the peace process, raising funds, disseminating movement propaganda, inculcating terror, and recruiting suicide bombers. It routinely broadcasts Hamas leaders calling for jihad, songs of incitement to murder, and videos of Hamas gunmen. Its programs typically feature splashy stories glorifying the actions of "martyrs" and assurances that through their sacrifices the "Zionist Entity" will be destroyed.

Hamas websites, meanwhile, have been used to raise money for terrorist activities, both explicitly and, according to Israeli intelligence reports, Hamas field coordinators have used Voice of al-Aqsa radio broadcasts to provide terrorists with exact coordinates and trajectories to fire Qassam rockets at Israeli targets.

Hamas specifically targets children through its radio and television shows and publishes an online magazine geared to preteens, al-Fateh. One issue of the magazine opens with a cartoon of a smiling child riding a rocket while the previous issue glorified suicide bombers and other "martyrs" in cartoons and poetry. Al-Aqsa TV made headlines for using Disney-like characters Mickey Mouse and Simba, to glorify suicide bombing in its children's programs. The near-universal outcry, including from The Disney Company, led only to a change in tactics-from one animal character to another-but not to a change in content.

Mohammad Eshtewy, the director of the al-Aqsa satellite station in the West Bank, was quoted as saying on September 19, 2007, that the Palestinian Authority's Intelligence Services decided to shut down the station and to bar its activities in the West Bank because it "broadcasts and practices incitement."7 The International Middle East Media Centre, which reported on the development, said Mr. Eshtewy was told that the Palestinian security services would arrest and prosecute all employees of the station if it was not shut down.8

Yet Hamas used mobile technology to get al-Aqsa back on the air from Gaza, from where it broadcasts today. Moreover, Eutelsat, one of Europe's leading satellites, continues to broadcast al-Aqsa not only to Europe but, along with Arabsat, to the Middle East and North Africa. These broadcasts continue, despite a December 2008 warning from French audiovisual authorities that they violate Article 15 of the French media law of 30 September 1986, which prohibits all forms of incitement to hatred or violence on the grounds of race, religion or nationality.9

The threat of Mullah radio

The media successes of Middle Eastern terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas are being replicated in Southwest Asia. In Pakistan's lawless territories in the NorthWest Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), civilians and soldiers alike are increasingly at risk from terrorist radio outlets run by terrorist organizations. Unlike al-Manar and al-Aqsa, which recruit viewers through music videos glorifying suicide bombing and content devoted to inspiring them to jihad, these groups use illegal FM radio stations to lure listeners using a different tool: fear. Failure to tune in and listen can be punishable by lashings, or worse.10

Such rule by radio is particularly effective in the NWFP and FATA, where a largely illiterate population gets much of its information over the airwaves. Television, the key source of news in Pakistan's major cities, is less readily available.

As Jamestown Foundation analyst Mukhtar Khan has reported, the economics of FM radio in northwest Pakistan explain the successful proliferation of the stations.11 Mullahs seeking a platform to spread the edicts need spend only $200 or less to set up a simple FM station. A transmitter, amplifier and car battery are often all that is needed to blanket a village. And, while television and both short- and mid-wave radios are often cost prohibitive for FATA residents, they can typically pick up an FM radio for the equivalent of a single dollar at their local market.

The proliferation of the FM mullahs began in late 2003, when Haji Namdar, the leader of the radical Islamist group known as the Suppression of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue, put radical Deobandi cleric Munir Shakir on the air to trumpet a hard-line version of Islam.12 In the five-and-a-half years since, an estimated 150 illegal FM radio stations have sprung up throughout FATA and NWFP.13 Broadcasting out of small studios, or even off the back of pickup trucks, radical disc jockeys are filling the airwaves. Operating without government-mandated broadcast licenses, they have had unfettered access to Pakistan's airwaves.

No one has more effectively leveraged the medium than Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Teh-reek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Moham-madi (TNSM) terrorist network. Nicknamed "FM Mullah" for his radio sermons, he rose to prominence in 2007. Fazlullah's popular support was born, in part, because his sermons filled a justice deficit, rendering verdicts for long unresolved disputes. His other orders prevented children from getting vaccines and have called for the destruction of religious sites, music stores and girls' schools.14 Fazlullah also convinced many women to sell jewelry in support of his cause.

The FM Mullah has been successful in wresting control of the Swat Valley, a former tourist destination, away from the government. Using the airwaves as a recruitment tool, he has implored listeners to come forward for jihad and fight the infidels and their local supporters.15 Throughout 2007 and 2008, Fazlullah's supporters were strong enough to directly confront Pakistan's army. At the height of his power, Fazlullah pushed for his brand of shari'a law-and not Pakistani state law-to govern Swat and the neighboring Buner, Chitral, Kohistan, Lower Dir and Upper Dir. TNSM's strength led to pacts in 2008 and early 2009 with the government, which abdicated control of these districts. (As of this writing, however, the peace pacts have disintegrated and Pakistani army forces are attempting to retake and hold the Swat Valley.)

Al-Qaeda's media empire

If terrorist-owned satellite television and radio are today a significant operational threat, the explosion of terrorist-backed Internet sites and other media technology present even greater dangers. Internet and new media technology can be spread virally, providing an even greater reach to those terrorist groups sophisticated enough to use them, and posing even more extreme technological hurdles than traditional media for counterterrorism officials and terrorist media monitoring organizations working to effectively shut them down.

A declassified April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate put it this way:

The radicalization process is occurring more quickly, more widely, and more anonymously in the Internet age, raising the likelihood of surprise attacks by unknown groups whose members and supporters may be difficult to pinpoint. We judge that groups of all stripes will increasingly use the Internet to communicate, propagandize, recruit, train, and obtain logistical and financial support.16

The Internet provides the most accessible source of information for these activities. Chat rooms, discussion forums, propaganda, tactical manuals, Islamist literature, and other material readily available via Web searches have made the World Wide Web a virtual "training ground" for terrorists.

It is an arena that al-Qaeda has exploited to its tremendous advantage. Through as-Sahab, its dedicated media wing, the Bin Laden network has built a formidable infrastructure to export its violent ideology. In its definitive report on as-Sahab, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs equated al-Qaeda's media presence with that of many Western corporations in terms of sophistication.17 As-Sahab has attracted Western attention in part because its videos have included original sermons from senior Al-Qaeda officers, such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. But it offers much more; in 2007, as-Sahab is known to have produced 97 original videos, a six-fold increase from 2005.18

As-Sahab leverages its products through Internet "clearinghouses," which act as middlemen in distributing terrorist media to "mirror sites." One example is the al-Fajr Media Center, established in 2006, which operates almost entirely virtually. Al-Fajr, recognized for maintaining "message discipline," moves as-Sahab's content to pre-selected sites.19 From there, the videos go viral, "mirrored" to popular Western websites such as and YouTube, and then to hundreds or perhaps thousands more websites, disseminating incitement and hate to untold users.

Al-Qaeda's media and technological savvy is no accident. It is a deliberate strategic goal outlined by al-Qaeda's senior leadership. In a letter to former Iraqi al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote: "We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media... we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our people."20

Taking the initiative

All of which begs the question: what are we doing about it? Terrorist media platforms increasingly are a critical part of the battlefield on which the Long War against violent Islamist extremism is being fought. If they hope to persevere, the U.S. and its allies will need to take aggressive and direct action against these media properties.

A great deal can be done. The Treasury Department can and should increase its designation portfolio beyond Hezbollah's al-Manar and the Iraqi-Syrian al-Zawraa channel to include Hamas's al-Aqsa television station, the radio assets of Maulana Fazlullah, and the online properties of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and any other terrorist groups which use media to incite to violence and provide operational support for terrorist attacks.

The private sector must also be encouraged to monitor and self-regulate. Policymakers should encourage media entrepreneurs to follow the lead of Google, which has removed numerous violent al-Qaeda videos, and the ten satellite providers and numerous corporations that ended their distribution and advertising support of al-Manar. In making the decision not to facilitate the transmission of terrorist media, these companies will be making a sound business decision to avoid real reputational risk-specifically, in not having their corporate reputations undermined and their shareholder value diminished as a result of being identified, fairly or not, with the activities of terrorist organizations.

While the proliferation of these media properties makes designation (and private sector action) a game of "whack-a-mole," requiring ongoing action against substitute media properties that arise to replace those which have been shut down or curtailed, this is a deadly game that can be won. To do so, policymakers, counterterrorism officials and media executives must exercise vigilance and perseverance.

For example, while it is still in business, al-Manar is struggling to find substitute satellite providers to replace the ten operators which have discontinued transmitting its content. With its continued distribution by Nilesat into Europe, North Africa and the Middle East now under intense scrutiny by Egyptian authorities, and fears that the Saudi government may follow suit, Hezbollah is scrambling to find a substitute supplier in Turkey. For the moment, however, Turkish officials appear unwilling to allow that country's satellite provider to pick up the signal. The United States must ensure that Turkey does not-and that other countries where al-Manar is shopping for distribution make the same decision.

If such legal, diplomatic and political efforts fail, however, terrorist media represents a viable military target. The precedent exists: during the war in Kosovo, NATO planes bombed the Belgrade-based headquarters of Radio Television of Serbia-an attack that was justified by the Alliance as a legitimate way to end the broadcasting of Slobodan Milosevic's violent call to arms. Today, recognizing the dangers of terrorist radio, U.S. officials are already doing much the same, jamming the FM radio signals of Pakistani terrorist groups to prevent them from assisting in the planning and execution of attacks. In the future, more direct action may be necessary.

Another tool is available as well. After years of American and European political and legal action against al-Manar, growing government and private-sector condemnation of al-Aqsa, the belated but timely recognition of the dangers of Mullah radio in Pakistan, and ongoing counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaeda's media properties, these terrorist groups-and their Western apologists-can no longer pretend that these are legitimate media outlets deserving of free-speech protection.

Hate speech and violent incitement have been prosecuted as war crimes, initially at the Nuremberg trials against the Nazi regime after World War II and, in 2003, against three Rwandan media executives who used Rwanda's Radio Mille Collines to call for the extermination of Rwanda's Tutsis. At that time, Reed Brody, legal counsel to Human Rights Watch, made the case that "if you fan the flames, you'll have to face the consequences."21

By doing just that-by inciting attacks, by actively recruiting and fundraising and providing pre-attack surveillance and operational assistance for terror attacks-today's terrorist media outlets are doing more than yelling fire in a crowded movie theater. They are providing the match, the gasoline, and the arsonist. It is high time they were held accountable for it.