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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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”.

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Twitter and Goliath

Hugo Chavez just can’t not pick a fight. Not content to push around Venezuela’s mobile phone companies and TV networks into toeing his Bolivarian line, he has decided to strike out at an enemy that even China has failed to censor: the Internet in general and Twitter in particular.  It looks like we are on the verge of seeing a Twitter resistance develop against Chavez, similar to the Green Movement that emerged in the wake of election fraud in Iran last year.

George Orwell wouldn’t have a tough time seeing Big Brother’s influence in Chavez’s Venezuela. Last year, Chavez took a page from 1984 and decreed that anyone who twitters is a traitor guilty of “Media Crimes.” Nevertheless, unlike RCTV, Venezuela’s oldest and largest TV station which Chavez pulled the plug on last month, Twitter doesn’t have physical offices that can be closed down.  While Chavez has threatened to block Twitter by forcing everyone to get their Internet through state-owned ISPs, he has yet to do so.  Even still, there are always backdoors that twitterers and bloggers can exploit to get their messages out; just look at how quickly the Iranian protesters found a workaround last year after the Iranian authorities blocked their ISPs.

What makes Twitter such a threat to repressive regimes? There have been conflicting reports over Twitter’s actual effectiveness in Iran, but Twitter’s non-corporality is really what frightens enemies of free speech – Twitter makes it harder to identify your enemies. The authorities would have to confiscate every PDA, smartphone, and laptop to see who is tweeting or blogging and what they are writing about. In the minds of the repressive state, enemies are everywhere and anywhere.

However, Venezuela’s social media users have been anything but intimidated. Facebook’s anti-Chavez group, “Chavez esta PONCHAO!” (Chavez you’ve struck out!), has more than 233,000 fans. Several Twitter hash tags have also popped up: #Venezuela, #Estudiantes, #FreeVenezuela, #FreeMediaVE.  Hugo has decided to combat the growing citizen’s army of bloggers and twitterers by employing his own bloggers and twitterers. According to Venezuelan journalist Nelson Bocaranda, Chavez has assembled an “internet army” of online fifth columnists.

How the Latin American Twitter resistance to Chavez develops remains to be seen, but it is certainly worth monitoring. Considering that the regimes in Bolivia and Ecuador echo many of Chavez’ excesses against freedom of speech, it is possible that citizens in those countries will start mirroring the Venezuelan opposition’s online resistance.

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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.

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