For the Media, “Sunni Militant = Al Qaeda Linked”

I’ve been slow the past few weeks in posts and have a bunch of short notes and quips for the next couple of weeks.  After three weeks of no writing, what sprung me back to write a post, not al Qaeda, but instead mainstream media.
Despite what one might hear on the news, al Qaeda, as of today, consists of many things rather than just one thing.  Cable news shows and major newspapers cling to the hope that all terrorism attacks are the result of al Qaeda.  Al Qaeda is a known quantity to viewers/readers and framing news stories as battles between the U.S. vs. al Qaeda makes for better narratives.  The news business is about maximizing readers and viewers to increase views to advertising.  Whether its al Qaeda or some other threat, it pays to consolidate threats rather than muddle them. The most important terrorism related story of last week was the bombing of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.  The Abdallah Azzam Brigades took credit for the attack and this is where I start getting worked up.  CNN says:

a Sunni jihadist group linked to al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the bombings via Twitter.

Really, this was an al Qaeda attack then? And we know because of Twitter? ugh! This sort of threat conflation can leave the average reader to think “Al Qaeda attacked the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.”  Its a casual linkage but the article then continues on and revisits the Abdallah Azzam Brigade much later citing other attacks they were involved in, but the article leaves me confused. (For a more expansive reading on AAB, see this Lucas Winter report at FMSO) I think this confusion over a relatively unknown group resulted in the story quickly drifting from the headlines despite being quite important. For more than a decade, media outlets have decided for the public without much examination that all Sunni militant groups, large and small, are part of al Qaeda. No doubt, if one looks, Back-To-Bin Laden linkages can be made between all groups. Why should we be concerned by this? I think there are several reasons.

  • If al Qaeda were attacking Iran, it would be a big deal.  Chances are that al Qaeda Central led by Zawahiri are not attacking Iran as Zawahiri recently, publicly told al Qaeda members to put aside local enemies to focus on the far enemy; the West.
  • If al Qaeda were attacking Iran, Al Qaeda would be shifting their targeting from the U.S. to Iran and provoking a major local power to counter them.  This would increase the number of actors and forces countering their actions.  At a time where AQ Central sees lots of opportunities in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, why would they bring more heat on themselves?  Zawahiri has warned al Qaeda in Iraq about this before. If al Qaeda as a whole were attacking Iran instead of the U.S., this could possibly be a good thing for the U.S. depending on where you sit.  But this article’s threat conflation might lead you to think something else.
  • This attack likely signals further fracturing of al Qaeda rather than consolidation of al Qaeda.  If AAB, which does have links to al Qaeda by the way, were attacking the Iranian Embassy, it likely means they are not following Zawahiri’s guidance – another important development.  As I noted a couple years ago, many of these al Qaeda veterans are “On Your Own” pursuing their own objectives first and al Qaeda’s objectives second.
  • This media linkage to al Qaeda also masks what is essentially a shift from global jihad to a multi-country sectarian war.  This is important, but in a very different way than we’ve come to know in the post 9-11 period.
  • This attack may signal a further rise of al Qaeda in Iraq (ISIS) who has expanded significantly into Syria, rebuffed Zawahiri and would likely take the fight in a sectarian direction.  I don’t know that AAB is aligned with ISIS and I imagine if it were this would be a partnering rather than hierarchical relationship.  But from this article, again, you would think this is all just “al Qaeda”.

I’ll stop for now as tomorrow’s post will point to an article that I think helps illuminate these nuances and presents a more robust view of the current state of al Qaeda.



The Weakness of Twitter Revolts

Recent protests in Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen demonstrate the remarkable power of social media to spread messages, create transparency and incite protest. Satellite TV news, Internet access, and social media applications like Facebook and Twitter swiftly empowered weak movements into mass demonstrations.

Building protests in more than five countries and two regions in less than a week was impossible twenty years ago. From the 1960s through the 1980s, limited information access and haphazard distribution meant political and social movements moved slowly, but deliberately. Building and sustaining a revolutionary social movement took time and leadership.  (The American Civil Rights Movement is one example).

Today, instantaneous transmission of injustices inspires protest at light speed empowering everyone with a cell phone or Internet connection into the streets and onto rallies challenging unjust governments. While the speed and proliferation of these “Twitter Revolts” are impressive, I believe the old, slow-build grass roots efforts will ultimately achieve more revolutionary change than today’s social media phenomenon.

I’m hopeful that these protest increase freedom, political rights and civil liberties in these countries. But, I’m a little nervous when I watch what is happening. I’m not part of these revolutions and rely on others (AlwaysJudgedGuilty, WaqalWaq, Sahelblog, MoorNextDoor) for explanation of country specific events. Here’s why I’m worried about “Twitter Revolts”:

1- Advantages of vertical versus horizontal organizing
Twitter revolts are great.  A large-scale, rapid presence in the streets of Tunis, Cairo and Tehran looks amazing on cable news and illustrates mass unrest. These protests can result in the resignation of leaders in the most successful case (Tunisia). But usually, Twitter and social media is shut down; stopping the mob’s gains. Unable to organize and lacking central leadership, the uprising slows and eventually dies (Iran). The Twitter Revolt is great at achieving the immediate objective of getting people to protest, but it falls far short of the ultimate objective of political change. Because there is no clear vertical organization underneath the “Twitter Revolt”, the movement loses steam as no one is quite sure what the next step is.

Even if the oppressive leader resigns, what is the next step for the Twitter Revolt? Who’s in charge? What is the agenda? How is progress made? How do we work together to advance civil liberties? How do we hold together an already fragile economy?  In a horizontal Twitter movement, there is no direction and thus uprisings fail to achieve revolutionary change.

But what about President Obama’s campaign in 2008?
Yes, social media successfully elevated the Obama message and inspired others into action. But, an organized, political campaign machine complimented this social media movement resulting in increased fervor via the web achieving intermediate and long-term goals outlined by the structure. Today’s “Twitter Revolts” appear to lack that synergy.

2-Importance of commitment above participation
I’m impressed by the “Twitter Revolt” ability to gain participation from a wide swath of people. However, I estimate that a “Twitter Revolt” has no more than a week to begin achieving clear, initial objectives before the crowd begins to fade. It’s challenging to stay motivated and continue protesting much more than a week if it only leads to chaos, insecurity, and economic deprivation. That’s when vertical, physical organizations rise above “Twitter Revolts”. Friendships built from common suffering and commitment to defined goals can compel protesters to remain in the streets after the Internet momentum is gone. In Egypt for example, should the government collapse, I would guess the Muslim Brotherhood would be the victors, not because they led the “Twitter Revolt”, but because they were organized and committed.

3- Social media provides a platform for the oppressed to speak out and the government to identify resistance.

Social media is great for expressing one’s opinions. However, Iran demonstrated to the world that Internet postings and Tweets also mark dissidents. Middle East and North African governments monitor the Internet and use it as a tool for rapidly identifying and snuffing out resistance. In the end, social media brings the rapid rise and possibly the rapid fall of potential new leaders.