Lebanese Journalist Examines, Challenges Violent Extremists

If you asked Osama bin Laden to compile a list of Al-Qaeda’s greatest enemies, most of the names on that list would probably come as no surprise.  The United States would probably top that list, followed by selections such as Israel, U.S. President Barack Obama, Western Europe, the government of Saudi Arabia, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Christianity, Zionism, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Iran – no real surprises there, as bin Laden and other radical Salafist-jihadists rail against the evils of these individuals, countries, institutions, and movements on a regular basis.  But you might also find an unfamiliar name on that list:  Rima Salha, a young female Lebanese journalist who is challenging Arab and Muslim television audiences to take a hard look at extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and the violence that they commit in what those groups say is the defense of Islam.

Rima Salha, the host of Al-Arabiya TV’s Death Industry program

Rima Salha, the host of Al-Arabiya TV’s Death Industry program

Salha is the host of “Sina’at al Mowt” (Death Industry), a weekly program appearing on Al-Arabiya TV, a pan-Arab satellite TV news and entertainment channel that is one of the most prominent TV channels in the Middle East.  Death Industry typically focuses on people who join violent extremist groups like Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Somalia-based Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement, and the consequences that joining such groups has on those individuals and the people close to them.  The program provides insights from experts and scholars in order to examine the phenomenon of violent extremism from political, religious, social, and economic perspectives.  But the program also places a major emphasis on personal perspectives by interviewing people who are former, or even current, members of violent extremist groups, or friends and family members of people who join such groups.  For example, she has interviewed family members of the late founder and leader of AQI, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and also Kamal Habib, who was one of the organizers of the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat but has since renounced violence.  The recent May 8, 2010 episode of Death Industry focused on former Islamic State of Iraq leader Omar al-Baghdadi[1] and featured interviews with his father, the mother of his second wife, and former friends from his childhood. To feature these kinds of guests, Death Industry travels to dangerous places – refugee camps, insurgent strongholds, Iraq, Yemen.  Al-Arabiya TV general manager Abdul Rahman al-Rashed said, “There are a lot of programs debating the issue of terrorism, a lot of debating. But this is the only program with field trips, with special footage, with a lot of revelations in it.”[2]

al-zawi

Dawood al-Zawi, the father of slain Islamic State of Iraq leader Omar al-Baghdadi, from the May 8, 2010 episode of Death Industry

Salha’s motivation for hosting this program is to discourage people from embracing violence as a means for achieving political and social change, as she indicates in a statement given to Fox News“As we know, there are lots of Muslims who are brainwashed so they believe in terrorism but there are also big sections of Muslims who sympathize with terrorists,” says Salha. “We are targeting those people and trying to explain to them that terrorism is not a good thing.” She also seeks to counter the assertion frequently made by Salafist-jihadist groups that violence acts are necessary to defend.  In much the same way that the United States has grown increasingly aware of the importance of its image in the non-Western world, Salha stresses that these Islamist assertions in fact tarnish the image of Islam held by many non-Muslims: “Terrorism is illegal violence, as it targets innocent people to achieve a political objective. Terrorists who are acting under the name of Islam are killing civilians without thinking.”  Extremists engaging in terrorism, she argues, defame the image of Islam and Arabs who reject and criminalize these inhuman actions. “There is what we call now ‘Islamophobia’ worldwide. But in reality, terrorism knows no religion, sect or nationality.”[3]

Al-Arabiya TV was founded in 2004 to be a direct competitor to Al-Jazeera TV.  At the time, Al-Jazeera was a target of significant criticism in some circles for not providing objective coverage of violent extremist groups in Iraq and for its clear hostility to the U.S. military’s presence in the country.  At that time, the station had a tendency to portray Iraqi insurgent groups with some degree of sympathy (because of their opposition to the U.S. military presence in the country) while tending to overlook some insurgent groups’ attacks against civilian targets.  Al-Arabiya TV now generally offers more balanced views of such topics and has instituted a number of practices to reinforce this balance in coverage, some of which have been adopted by other Arab media outlets.  For example, it is now much more common for Arab media outlets to refer to Iraqi insurgents by the term musulaheen, or armed men, instead of muqaawama, or resistance, which was a common practice in the early days of the war in Iraq.  The Death Industry program seems to fit in with Al-Arabiya TV’s approach of providing a more objective and balanced coverage of major issues in the Arab and Islamic worlds by providing a much more in-depth look at violent extremist groups and the people who join them than most other Arabic-language media outlets.

A program like Death Industry has the potential to be a great complement to U.S. efforts to combat violent extremism because it emphasizes messages similar to those that the U.S. frequently emphasizes in strategic communications efforts targeted at Arab and Islamic audiences, and because it can reach a huge viewership thanks to the extensive reach of Al-Arabiya TV.  The fact that the program comes from an Arab media source rather than a Western one, as well as the fact that the program often features actual former members of violent extremist groups speaking in their own words about their own experiences, lends considerable credibility to the program.  The program’s emphasis on the impact of family members makes the program’s messages particularly effective, given the importance of family in Arab and Islamic societies.

How do we know that the Death Industry program is having an impact?  Because unfortunately, Salha has received death threats from jihadists who have called her derogatory names such as “Christian Crusader” and “sister of the Jews,” and have declared her “fair game for the mujahideen” for her criticism of extremist groups for conducting violence against civilians.  Even Al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayyman al-Zawahiri has reportedly singled out Death Industry and Al-Arabiya TV for criticism in one of his video diatribes.  But Salha seems undeterred by such criticisms and threats:  “They accuse me of fighting jihad, they accuse me of destroying the image of Islam. This is not true. We are not distorting the image of Islam,” says Salha. “The program is just trying to show some facts about terrorism and these so-called jihadists. Of course I receive threats on a regular basis, but that does not prevent me from doing my mission.”[4]


[1] The Islamic State of Iraq is an AQI front organization; it basically serves as the public face of AQI in an attempt to give the organization more of an Iraqi character and to downplay the group’s links to foreign organizations and leaders (namely Osama bin Laden and his global Al-Qaeda network).  Al-Baghdadi was killed, along with AQI leader Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (aka Abu Ayyub al-Masri), in Iraq during a joint U.S.-Iraqi security operation on April 18, 2010.

[2] This excerpt is taken from the Fox News story on Death Industry titled “Popular Arab TV Program Exposes the Real Al-Qaeda” which is available at http://www.foxnews.com/world/2009/09/02/popular-arab-tv-program-exposes-real-al-qaeda (accessed on 14 May 2010).

[3] Excerpt from http://pibillwarner.wordpress.com/2009/09/02/rima-salha-host-of-death-industry-in-dubai-exposes-al-qaeda-and-receives-death-threats-christian-rima-salha-must-be-decapitated (accessed on 14 May 2010).

[4] Excerpt from “Popular Arab TV Program Exposes the Real Al-Qaeda”.

Share

Kitsch Meets National Security

Different age groups adapt to and use new technology in different ways. While the study of age-based demographics for new media is far from revolutionary, there are some interesting considerations for how decision makers in the federal government choose to implement new technology.  We will use language acquisition as a metaphor for technology adaptation to understand the limitations and tendencies for each generation.

The Youth are Getting Restless

The idea of the restless youth usurping the status quo is hardly new.  For thousands of years, a younger generation waited for a chance to prove its worth while the older generation implemented ideas and made decisions.  This is not necessarily the case with new media. Older decision makers often believe themselves to be, and sometimes are, unable to fully grasp and understand how to use emerging communication technologies such as Twitter, Facebook, etc.  As a result, Subject Matter Experts in these fields are far younger than their peers advising on other issues.  Imagine President Kennedy calling in a 27-year-old Harvard PhD student to advise during the Cuban missile crisis. It would be virtually impossible for a neophyte to have an understanding of Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the political machinations behind how the U.S. government makes decisions.  But new media often works differently.  Substitute Cuba with New Media – that 27-year-old advisor IS the “Cuba” expert, because “Cuba” (New Media in this case) came into being in 2002, while the decision makers only knew it existed 2 years ago. The number of younger Subject Matter Experts overseeing various new media activities throughout the U.S. Government illustrates this point.  This phenomenon forces a heretofore unknown cooperation between organizational superior and subordinate “flattening” elements of even the most hierarchical organizations.

The Graying of the Luddites

For each “kid” who has implemented a communication platform using Facebook, Twitter or Second Life, there is still a decision maker who authorized the effort. It is useful to consider who these decision makers are and how their early life experiences with technology alters their perceptions and ability to adapt to technology. The graphic below illustrates how these technology users are different based on similar life experiences.  For simplicity’s sake we will consider 3 groups:  Generation Jones (the Post Baby Boomers like President Barrack Obama), Generation X, and the Millennium children. Keep in mind that no group is monolithic, and that early adopters and innovators abound in each. However, the behavior of the whole demographic is consistent enough to allow for some generalizations.

First, consider the Generation Jonesers, who are currently the senior decision makers in the Federal Government.  These decision makers once looked at this image on a screen with awe and wonder:

pong

The “Joneses” had televisions with 4 channels: ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS.  They turned the “knob” on the television to change channels, before being  exposed to the idea of paying money for additional television channels, an idea many people said was doomed to fail when HBO first debuted in the 1970s.

The speed of technological innovation and evolution has left the Jonesers behind in many ways. Think of technology like a foreign language: foreign language acquisition is virtually impossible for adults, while native fluency is easily achieved by a 9 year old. Technological assimilation seems to run in the same way. The adult life of the pre-generation Xer was busy enough without the addition of New Media social obligations and distractions. The “language” of technological sophistication for this group ended with the first TV remotes, surfing the Internet and using email, and setting up the answering machine.  This lack of “fluency” means that “translators” in the form of younger advisors are needed. The use of a “translator” should not be interpreted as a negative trait. A diplomat may have some great ideas for a Russian counterpart to consider, even if the diplomat relies on a translator. In fact, the non-native can often see problems those immersed in the problem cannot.  Nevertheless, the Jonesers will always speak “technology” with a heavy accent, they will refer to things in a manner that makes younger, more astute users chuckle at the foreigner speaking “our” language.

The Bridge

Generation Xers are the transitional generation between the child who builds a multi-redundant communications suite with 15 friends for an online collaborative video game (that one was the sole job of a specialist at the Pentagon), and the 60 year old who finds Facebook horribly complicated.  Generation Xers understand the world of the Joneses and the world of the Millenium children. They played video games and often had computers growing up, but are the last generation who went outside to play because there was “nothing else to do.”  They mastered their parents’ remote controls and often had to get up and manually change the channel on the TV.
Generation Xers can mostly figure out satellite TV remotes and may not intuitively understand their cell phones, but after a quick bit of help from a Millenium child, can use the technology as intended.  The Gen. Xers became the gaming addicts obsessively playing video games like Doom or Quake.

The Gen. Xers, and those above and below them, should better understand and utilize this transitional generation for new media communication.  They are old enough to understand the organization, and they are young enough to grasp the technology for planning and policy purposes, though execution should be left to their subordinates, even when a delegation of authority is not commonly used.  In ten years , Gen. Xers will be the power brokers, and while not able to keep up with the dizzying evolution of technology, will at least “know what they don’t know.”

The Masters(?)

The Millennium Children section really cannot be written yet, as time will tell in many respects. Perhaps no one fully assimilates technology, and the Millennium Children will be bridge for a later generation. Who knows what form the next revolutionary media will take or if anyone reading this post now will intuitively understand it as well as their children.

We would appreciate your thoughts and comments on these ideas  – please post in the comments section.

timeline

Share

Iran’s nascent, government-controlled video game industry

People the world over have become well acquainted with the Iranian government’s draconian censorship policies regarding domestic use of the internet.  In the wake of the country’s most recent elections, the international press heralded the use of Twitter to mobilize opposition to Iran’s authoritarian government.  Rightfully, a considerable amount of attention and analysis has since been paid to how effective the use of social media can be for domestic opposition groups

Lost in this storm however has been one of the most popular uses of computers among young people: video games.  When most people in the United States think of video games, they picture games like World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto, or sports games like Madden football.  Iran, under the government’s careful supervision, has developed its own video game industry.  According to True/Slant, some of these games are actually pretty good.

A few years ago, Fox News reported on the development of the Iranian video game “Rescue the Nuke Scientist,” which “simulates an attempt to rescue two Iranian nuclear experts kidnapped by the U.S. military and held in Iraq and Israel.”  The game was developed by the Union of Students Islamic Association, supposedly in response to a game designed in the United States called “Assault on Iran.”  Mohammad Taqi Fakhrian, a leader of the student developers, explained, “This is our defense against the enemy’s cultural onslaught.”  The group has very close ties to the Iranian government and hosted the infamous 2005 conference where Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad infamously called for the destruction of Israel.

This kind of video-game-as-propaganda is unsurprising.  It mimics the Iranian president’s belligerent statements towards Israel and the United States and promotes an anti-Western political discourse.

However, the Iranian government has also used video games to promote traditional Persian culture.  By far and away, the most popular Iranian video game is the Quest of Persia series.  These games draw strongly from Persian history and culture.  According to a regional gaming website, Quest of Persia is “100% Persian” and was developed by Puya Arts.

Despite its draconian control over the Internet and social media, the Iranian government for several years has used the country’s domestic video game industry as a tool for both political and cultural propaganda.  It is likely that video games will continue to be used as a tool in strategic communications because of their interactivity and popularity the world over.

Share