During the period of the so-called Arab Spring revolutions, starting in 2010 until today, armed terrorist groups raising the banner of religion and jihad were able to take advantage of technological advances in the media and open airwaves.
This is assisted and expanded by the nature of terrorism, which is not rooted in a land, country, religion or ethnic group. Instead, it is utilised to serve the goals and agendas of countries and intelligence agencies and regimes that seek roles greater than their geographic, political and historic size.
It is apparent that these terrorist groups have initiative and reach success using the media to spread their message, and possess modern tools to grow an audience that watches, shares and waits for their news, videos and statements. In time, this audience becomes focused on specific media outlets to receive these messages that are broadly dispersed on television screens, websites and social media.
In fact, there is a direct link between the ways, means and goals of these terrorist groups and how they use the media that shows us how they succeeded in defeating media arsenals in major countries, even if temporarily, doing battle for the hearts and minds of the audience.
Away from the doctrinal and ideological debate, these terrorist groups are historically linked, even if indirectly, through various channels, to the intelligence agencies of colonial or imperialist powers or ones seeking international and regional dominance. They are used as tools to achieve expansionist goals or to destabilise a country or put pressure on a regime, in order to force them to take a certain position, or for political, economic, security and military gains.
The sponsors are aware of the importance of these groups, have trained and supplied them with the latest means of communication and connectivity, as well as trained and armed them with logistical and intelligence support. Any action by these terrorist groups has no impact if not widely broadcast in the media and watched by the largest audience, including readers and social media users.
They have regular periodic printed publications, websites, YouTube channels, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, side by side with satellite channels that adopt their ideology and causes, promote their ideas, leaders and claimed right to exist and participate in government.
Media outlets owned by countries that sponsor these groups play a key role in blaming the emergence of radical groups on specific regimes, which through alleged dictatorship obliterated moderate role models.
For example, they promote the Turkish model and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s experiment, versus the experience of other countries in the region. They promote Muslim Brotherhood ideology in Egypt and other countries versus jihadists, Islamists and Salafis, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State and other violent groups, until the audience is saturated with the model and its opposite. Eventually, the moderate model of “political Islam”, which was promoted for years, becomes the ideal for the masses.
In time, political Islam, which was engineered in Western think tanks and intelligence agencies, became the most powerful weapon known to these countries to destroy states, regimes and displace peoples. They participated in drawing up the geostrategic map of the Middle East beginning with the chaos scenario, then restructuring because they are more organised, mobile and speak the language of the street, talking of reward and punishment, “heaven and hell”.
They have exclusive knowledge of the truth and the keys to heaven after the failure of all other solutions, groups, ideologies, alternatives and corrupt governments. “Islam is the solution” remains the only political option in the call for the return of a caliphate voiced by Al-Baghdadi, Erdogan, Mohamed Badie or Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh.
These groups have been successful in the media because states lack vision, there is paralysis of innovation, traditionalism, bureaucracy linked to decision making, and the owning of the tools. This impacts editorial policies and the pace of action, which leaves large gaps for these groups to step in with media content and radical ideology.
After every terrorist event, the audience waits for declarations of responsibility followed by photos or video footage or statements about the operation. Meanwhile, the regime issues statements of condemnation without any form of crisis management or filling the vacuum with images, writing, soundbites and commentary that touch the conscience and morale of the people.
These groups continue to record and document all their operations because their primary goal always is not insecurity, as it may seem, but the media — to shock and publicise. Since they are aware of this role, if they do not succeed in causing shock they fail and their sponsors stop funding them, which is why they are keen on creating and training cadres capable of dealing with all things new that help them retain their sponsors.
This explains the equipment, preparations and media headquarters uncovered by the army during Operation Sinai 2018, which are all connected to satellites and important databases overseas. This reveals the thinking of these groups and their sponsors, and once again shows the major battle is not only on the warfare and security levels.
It is also for the beliefs of the people and their choices at critical moments and conflicts, between an unstable economic and political reality, and a battle over identity and belief. This conflict is also rooted in ambitions for wealth, influence, domination and the interests of regional and international players.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly