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Al-Manar: Hizbollah’s Version of Must-See TV

“If it was not for Al-Manar, the victory would not have been achieved.”[i]

- Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah commenting on the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Southern Lebanon in May 2000

One of the most important weapons that the Lebanese terrorist group Hizbollah has in its arsenal for its struggle against its adversaries is not a rocket launcher or an anti-tank missile or a suicide bomber.  It is a TV station called al-Manar, which is Arabic for “the beacon.” Al-Manar serves as a platform for the group to disseminate its views to the people of Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East.  Al-Manar has been so successful at reaching Hizbollah’s target audiences that it seems to have become a model for extremist Shia groups in Iraq which have launched copy-cat versions of al-Manar.

A screenshot from an al-Manar TV clip. Note the Hizbollah logo in the top left of the screen and how it appears to be co-equal with the al-Manar logo in the top right.

Hizbollah launched al-Manar TV as a small terrestrial TV station in 1991, just as the group started becoming active in Lebanese politics.  The station initially focused on programming that helped Hizbollah make a political issue of the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.  Since then, its reach and its content have expanded significantly.  It is now a major satellite station with significant viewership not just in Lebanon, where it is generally believed to be the third most-watched station in the country, but other parts of the Middle East.

Al-Manar resembles other major Arab satellite TV stations in its broadcast of a variety of content, including news programs, sports, entertainment shows, family programs, and talk shows.  But the station also displays a very clear bias reflective of Hizbollah’s political outlook.  For example, it is strongly anti-Israeli and anti-US; it is openly supportive of Hizbollah’s fighters and military operations; it openly promotes “resistance” to include violent attacks in response to Israeli control of the Palestinian territories and the US military presence it Iraq.[ii]

Programs that Al-Manar has aired in recent years include The Spider’s House, an anti-Israeli talk show which emphasizes how Israel can be defeated over time through a combination of low-intensity warfare and population growth in Arab communities. Returnees is a program dedicated to the issue of Palestinian refugees. Terrorists is a weekly documentary highlighting what the station refers to as “terrorist acts” that Israel has committed against Arabs. My Blood and the Rifle is a documentary series that glorifies Hizbollah fighters.  The station also airs “filler material” which come in the form of short segments aired during commercials, like this one which glorifies Hizbollah fighters.

Al-Manar’s primary target audience is the people of Lebanon, particularly Lebanese Shia Muslims, but the station also makes an extensive effort to appeal to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.  Since 2003, the station has also devoted significant broadcast time to commenting on the US military presence in Iraq.  The station regularly rails against the continued US military presence, accusing the US Forces of committing a variety of abuses and atrocities in Iraq.  The station also openly calls for violent resistance to US Forces in Iraq and airs video clips of attacks against US Forces circulated by Iraqi Shia extremist groups, like Kata’ib Hizbollah (Arabic for “The Hizbollah Brigades in Iraq”) and the Promised Day Brigade, which is the successor to Muqtada al-Sadr’s now-defunct Mahdi Army.[iii]

The growth and success of Al-Manar TV may have provided inspiration for the emergence of at least one relatively new outlet:  Iraq’s al-Ahd TV.  the station’s programming reflects very strong political opinions, one of the most notable of which is strong opposition to the US presence in Iraq.

The picture on the left shows a female broadcaster on al-Manar TV, the one on the right shows a male and female broadcaster from al-Ahd TV.  Note the similarity in the dress of the two women from al-Manar and al-Ahd, which is an indication that both stations embrace relatively conservative social mores and anti-Western political views.  Contrast this with the picture in the center of Al-Arabiya TV correspondent Rima Salha, who is dressed in Western-style clothing, which is much more typical of female correspondents who appear on major Arab TV stations.

While no firm evidence currently exists to suggest that the launching of al-Ahd TV was inspired by al-Manar TV, there are at least on the surface there are some noticeable similarities between the programming of the stations.  These similarities seem to be based on similarities in the political and social views of the forces behind the two stations (see the pictures below for an example of how the social views of the people who control these two TV stations seem to appear on-screen), which may have formed entirely independently of one another, but the creators of al-Ahd TV may have taken inspiration from al-Manar TV as an example of how to use television as a platform to spread their political messages.

The growth of al-Manar and its potential to influence/inspire the creation of copy-cat stations like al-Ahd TV represent a significant challenge for US strategic communications initiatives in the Middle East and the Islamic world.  US policymakers need to be able to monitor the types of messages and themes that stations like al-Manar TV disseminate so that the US can adjust its to account for the impact of such messages if US strategic communications efforts in the Middle East are to be successful.


[i] Zahera Harb, “Aiming at Liberation:  Al-Manar Media Campaigns Against the Israeli Occupation of Southern Lebanon (1998-2000)”, Middle East Journal of Culture and Communications, Volume 2, Number 1, p. 55-56.

[ii] Beacon of Hatred:  Inside Hizballah’s al-Manar TV by Avi Jorisch (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2004).

[iii] Muqtada al-Sadr announced the disbanding of the Mahdi Army in 2008 and that the group was being replaced by two new organizations:  the Momahidoun, which he stated would be a political, social, and religious organization, and the Promised Day Brigade, a military group which would conduct attacks against US Forces in Iraq to liberate the country from US occupation.  It is believed that the Promised Day Brigade is smaller much more tightly organized than the old Mahdi Army, thus giving al-Sadr greater controller over the group than he had over its predecessor, and that he disbanded the Mahdi Army organization and created the two new organizations at least in part for this reason.

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Candidates for Wolesi Jirga seats in Kabul

Despite Taliban threats dissuading Afghan people from participating in the elections, on September 18th, 2010, Afghanistan held their second Wolesi Jirga election. The Wolesi Jirga (or “House of the People”) is like the Afghan parliament. The Jirga members’ primary responsibilities are ratifying laws and approving the actions of the president. They represent different districts within the 34 provinces that make up Afghanistan.

Candidates vying for seats in the Wolesi Jirga use many different tactics to attract public attention. Over the summer I visited Kabul and saw posters of all shapes, sizes and colors strewn across buildings, fences cars and utility poles; and even on top of advertisements and other campaign posters!

How are all these candidates positioning themselves to the general public? Below are a few descriptions of the different candidates’ campaign posters who ran for seats in Kabul.

The intent of these pictures is to demonstrate the positioning of each candidate visa-vie each other via a description their election posters.

These posters all have a few things in common. They all contain a picture of the candidate, their name, their voting number and their voting symbol. This symbol helps illiterate voters identify their candidate of choice. In addition to these bits of information, candidates also use the following phrases to distinguish themselves and communicate their message to their target audience:

Hajji Khan Jan

This candidate is calling for civil rights and equality among all people and says that he will work to build a better Afghanistan.

Rubina Jalali

The Afghan constitution guarantees that at least 64 delegates will be female. In this poster, Ms. Jalali is calling for justice, wellbeing and development in Afghanistan, as well as social security for all Afghans. In this way, she is appealing to those that need social security—most often women and the disabled. The Olympic rings in the upper left hand corner also indicates that she is appealing to the young through sports.

Hajji Quadrat Allah

This candidate’s name translates roughly into the power of God. He appeals to religion in his poster by saying that, if he is elected, he will protect Islam. He also mentions that he will bring justice to Afghanistan.

Syed Mohammed Khalb Zui

While the previous candidates on this page indicate they are Sunni by the title Hajji, combined with the black turban, the title Syed indicates that this candidate is Shia. He states his goal is to serve his country.

On October 30th, the final Wolesi Jirga election results are scheduled to be released.

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Countering Taliban PSYOPS and Interdicting Insurgent Propaganda Networks

Reposted from Social Technologies (10/4/10)

Taliban’s Narrative

Journalist Ernesto Londono wrote an interesting article in the Washington Post on October 1, 2010 entitled “U.S. struggles to counter Taliban propaganda.” [1] The article delineates how the Taliban is striving to defeat NATO psychologically by delivering messages that highlight NATO as close to being defeated.

U.S. officials and Afghan analysts say the Taliban has become adept at portraying the West as being on the brink of defeat, at exploiting rifts between Washington and Kabul and at disparaging the administration of President Hamid Karzai as a “puppet” state with little reach outside the capital. The group is also attempting to assure Afghans that it has a strategy for governing the country again, presenting a platform of stamping out corruption and even protecting women’s rights.

Arguably the most interesting development in Taliban messaging is the change in tone towards the “rights of all people in the country, including women.” In an apparent attempt to counter negative press around its treatment of women, Taliban leader Mohammad Omar recently said that a new Taliban regime would respect the rights of women.

Last month, Taliban leader Mohammad Omar issued a statement that heralded the imminent defeat of NATO forces in Afghanistan and outlined how the Taliban would govern when it returned to power. … Omar also promised the new regime would respect the rights of “all people in the country, including women,” an apparent effort to dispel the widely held belief that the return of the Taliban would be dismal for women’s rights.

Taliban’s Methods of Information Dissemination

As this blog mentioned before, the Taliban’s propaganda efforts rely on local, traditional means of information dissemination: leaflets with threats or please, religious sermons, and radio stations.

The Taliban continues to rely heavily on decentralized, conventional propaganda efforts, which U.S. military officials say is the crucial battleground. These include the distribution of leaflets with threats or pleas, sermons in mosques and clandestine radio stations.

Like good lobbyists, the Taliban has also begun to build relationship with Afghan journalists to influence the information environment:

U.S. officials say the Taliban has built relationships with Afghan journalists that help the group shape the storyline.

The Taliban’s multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign, headquartered in Pakistan, has also apparently started to use Twitter and Facebook:

As the radical Islamist movement steps up conventional grass-roots propaganda efforts and polishes its online presence - going so as far as to provide Facebook and Twitter icons online that allow readers to disseminate press releases - the U.S.-led coalition finds itself on the defensive in the media war.

Interdicting Insurgent Propaganda Networks

The Taliban’s relationship with journalists has recently sparked a row between Karzai and the U.S., which detained two al-Jazeera cameramen who allegedly distributed Taliban propaganda. In an attempt to justify the arrests, NATO issued a statement saying that “Coalition and Afghan forces have a responsibility to interdict the activities of these insurgent propaganda networks.” Karzai criticized the arrest and pressed for the release of the journalists, who denied that they were distributing Taliban propaganda. The journalists were ultimately released, but NATO maintained that intelligence sources “indicated a level of complicity” between the journalists and insurgents.

Recommendations

To counter Taliban propaganda, I would offer the same three recommendations that my article in Small Wars Journal offered. [2] The U.S.-led Coalition should:

(1) use more traditional and accessible methods of communication;

(2) incorporate ethnographic data into its messages;

(3) focus the overall narrative on the country’s tribal and socio-cultural legacies rather than religious aspects.

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