“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.
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.