[Marxism] Syria Special: The Media Creates the "Al Qa'eda Myth"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Apr 11 08:27:59 MDT 2013


This is the story of a story.

Or, rather, this is the story of the creation of a myth --- the myth 
that Al Qa'eda has taken over parts of the Syrian insurgency.

This is the story of how that myth --- based on failure to consider 
sources, let alone evaluate them; built by exaggeration and distortion 
--- points to the media's failure to responsibility cover important 
developments. More importantly, it indicates how that failure can have 
political consequences which are counter-productive and dangerous, 
contributing to poor decisions by policymakers.


On Wednesday, an audio recording emerged. It allegedly contained a 
statement by Abu Mohammad al-Golani, a leading figure in the Syrian 
Islamist insurgent group Jabhat al-Nusra.

Responding to an earlier statement by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of 
the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), al-Golani stressed that Jabhat al-Nusra 
is a local group. He said the insurgents would continue to operate under 
the JAN banner and not that of ISI.

In other words, the Islamist faction --- which has been prominent in 
offensives taking over villages and towns in northern Syria, which has 
then been involved in setting up local governments and providing 
essential services --- was not answering to al-Baghdadi, the ISI, or any 
other foreign force. It was being guided towards an Islamic state 
"through the actions of the people and by the advice of the scholars".

That is an important feature of the Syrian crisis. Whether or not Jabhat 
al-Nusra is "terrorist", as the US Government has declared, whether or 
not its vision of politics, law, and society is beneficial to the 
Syrians it is "liberating" --- it has established itself as a Syrian 
group which will be significant in the future of the country.

The problem is that almost no one in the Western media even glimpsed 
this. They could not, because they had already breathlessly declared 
that JAN had merged with "Al-Qaeda in Iraq".

That narrative had been set on Monday, after al-Baghdadi's statement, 
which asserted "that Jabhat al-Nusra is merely an extension and part of 
the Islamic State of Iraq".

The media could have critiqued that statement. It could have assessed 
al-Baghdadi's political motives and manoeuvres. If it had done so, it 
might have realised that al-Baghadadi was announcing a union of ISI and 
Jabhat al-Nusra, but was trying to create the image of one. It might 
have comprehended that this attempt was born partly of fear --- both 
ISI's concern over the growing support of Western countries for the 
insurgency and its concerns that factions within the insurgency, 
including within Jabhat al-Nusra, do not really want ISI's "leadership".

Instead, the Associated Press' Beirut bureau handed down this tablet:

     Al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq and the most powerful rebel extremist 
group in Syria have officially joined ranks against President Bashar 
Assad to forge a potentially formidable militant force in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the BBC reported, "Al-Qaeda in Iraq has confirmed for the 
first time that a prominent jihadist group fighting in Syria is part of 
its network."

Note the verb. Not asserted or claimed but confirmed. Therefore, 
al-Baghdadi was not involved in a public-relations effort, trying to 
spin his authority. He was confirming an already-existing fact.

This mis-reporting over Jabhat's position vis-a-vis Al-Qaeda is not a 
sudden development. Instead, it reflects the pre-disposition of many in 
the media to view Syrian -- and other -- Islamist insurgencies as part 
of a growing, global "jihad" threat. Doing so, they ignore the 
significance of JAN and others as indigenous groups that act locally.

Why Misreporting Matters

The AP and BBC reports quoted above not only misunderstood --- or, at 
best, over-simplified --- the statement. They labeled al-Baghdadi as the 
head of "Al Qa'eda in Iraq", when he is the leader of the Islamic State 
of Iraq, an even more important group but one with a less threatening 
name. They unquestioningly assumed al-Baghdadi's audio message was 
genuine and constituted an "official" announcement.

And then they compounded the errors.

Both AP's Al Jazeera English reported that a "website linked to Jabhat 
al-Nusra" had confirmed the merger.

However, on closer inspection, the website referred to in both reports 
--- a blog named al-Muhajir al-Islami --- is neither linked to Jabhat 
al-Nusra nor did it "confirm" union between the Islamist State of Iraq 
and the Syrian insurgents.

That blog did post an opinion piece --- by Arab writer Abdullah Mohammad 
Mahmoud and circulated on jihadi sites and social media --- which 
defended al-Baghdadi's declaration, saying it was the right move for the 
ISI given the West's ongoing arming of other insurgent factions in Syria.

At no point, however, did Mahmoud indicate that al-Baghdadi was 
declaring a fact. He was praising the intention.

Given that AP and Al Jazeera English had already mistakenly assumed that 
this was a statement from Jabhat al-Nusra, they were not going to see 
this distinction. Instead, they and their media counterparts skipped 
past the "local" dimension of the story.

Then, 24 hours later, those outlets would mis-hear the audio statement 
of Jabhat al-Nusra's al-Golani --- or, rather, not even hear it but 
circulate misguided, one-line summaries of it --- as confirmation of 
their misguided line.

This could not be a story of what was actually occurring on the ground. 
It had to be a narrative of Al Qaeda™ threatening Western interests in a 
regional proxy war.

***It is no coincidence, then, that on Wednesday, the media chose to 
frame the story of al-Golani's audio message as "Al-Nusra Pledges 
Allegiance to Al Qaeda".

AP's Beirut branch twists the story still further, not only leading with 
al-Golani "pledging allegiance" to Al Qaeda, but saying that the JAN 
leader had "confirmed his rebel group was tied to al-Qaida in Iraq for 
the first time".

AP did not bother to mention that al-Golani said JAN was a local group 
operating under its own banner, instead claiming that "he did not deny 
they had merged".

Over to "analyst" Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation, who 
seized his moment in a piece for Foreign Policy.

Fishman lays his cards on the table right away, with an open admission 
that the truth of the story is not important. Indeed, what is happening 
on the ground in Syria is not important. For Fishman, what matters is 
pure image: "The relevant issue...is not whether Baghdadi's statement is 
true. Rather, the important questions to ask are who made the branding 

Unwittingly, Fishman has gotten to to the heart of the matter --- "Al 
Qaeda" is a media brand, a proxy that conveys a set of values, all of 
them the exact opposite of the "values" in the West.

Having established thus, Fishman maintains his determination to prevent 
the truth or inconvenient facts from obstructing a good scare story. 
Jabhat al-Nusra leader al-Golani announced JAN is not affiliated with 
the Islamic State of Iraq, but Fishman informs us that the "looming 
question" in Syria is "how Jabhat al-Nusra's open affiliation with al 
Qaeda will affect its relationships with other rebel groups fighting 
against Assad".

Continuing with his theme of branding, Fishman notes that the "most 
interesting conclusion" from the "creation of the ISIGS" --- a group 
that does not exist --- is that mythical Al Qaeda chief Ayman 
al-Zawahiri is still in charge.

Fishman's "proof" is that, on Monday, al-Zawahiri also put out a 
statement. Although he does not give any significant information about 
that statement --- for example, about its relationship to the Syrian 
situation --- he assures the reader that the conjunction of this with 
the Islamic State of Iraq declaration suggests a "high degree of 
coordination with Zawahiri's PR team".

Because this is a marketing issue, there is no need to consider the 
political detail on the ground. Instead, Fishman can declare, without 
any further investigation beyond Zawahari's and al-Baghdadi's statements 
--- which he may or may not have actually read in full, rather than in 
translated summary:

     Al Qaeda's role in Jabhat al-Nusra is now widely acknowledged, 
making hiding behind localized branding no longer feasible....

     It makes sense that the Islamic State of Iraq -- which 
fundamentally rejects the legitimacy of existing borders in the Middle 
East -- would broaden its overt claim on territory, including parts of 

But does Fishman know about the audio from Jabhat al-Nusra's al-Golani? 
He does, and that leads to a delicious twist, albeit one buried in the 

Fishman realises that al-Golani's statement --- because it emphasises 
Jabhat al-Nusra's independence --- does not back his thesis. This, 
however, is not a problem because al-Golani's declaration is "disjointed".

So Fishman can march on, disregarding the clear indication that the 
Syrian insurgency is not allying itself with the Iraqi brach of Al 
Qa'eda. Marketing is now tied to a policy prescription to deal with this 
non-existent alliance:

     Jabhat al-Nusra's new branding may lower the legal hurdles to 
targeting it with drones.


The facts are that a local Syrian faction, albeit one of the most 
important in the insurgency, has responded to pressure from a powerful 
foreign group by insisting on its independence. It has made clear that 
its operations, and its approach to politics and society during and 
after the conflict, are driven by its concerns in Syria.

This is a difficult story to understand, however, given the ground-level 
complexities of a rapidly-changing conflct with multiple actors. So the 
Western media, and analysts like Fishman, choose the easier if false 
construction of Al Qa'eda inserting itself into part of the insurgency, 
exploiting the common short-hand in popular consciousness of Us v. Them.

But how can they cling to that construction in this case?

Jabhat al-Nusra's al-Golani gives them a lifeline --- as well as a 
headline --- with his praise of the ideas of Al Qa'eda's al-Zawahiri, 
translated by the media into "allegiance".

However, that claim of "allegiance" is a leap: al-Golani's declaration 
that he shares the values of al-Zawahiri does not equate to a desire to 
become a regional branch of Al Qaeda. Expressing sympathy with a version 
of Islam does not mean handing over military operations to a group in 
another country, in this case, an "Al Qa'eda" which has been decimated 
in recent years and is little more than a loud public-relations campaign.

The paradoxical danger is that, by invoking the false narrative of an Al 
Qa'eda in Syria, the Western media may help it turn into reality. If 
proclamations push both local and Western policy-makers into 
confrontation, such as Fishman's drone strikes or other covert attacks 
on Jabhat al-Nusra --- or, indeed, try to tilt the conflict farther by 
rewarding "good" insurgents and punishing "bad" ones --- then 
polarisation and "extremism" may be the outcome.

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