In 2005 Al Qaeda's No. 2 man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wrote a letter to the then top insurgent leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. "[M]ore than half of this battle," he wrote, "is taking place in the battlefield of the media.... [W]e are in a media battle, in a race for the hearts and minds of our umma [people]."
As the struggle in Iraq between the insurgents on the one hand and US military and Iraqi security forces on the other reaches a climactic phase, it is clear that the insurgents, far from being a band of crude guerilla fighters, have taken the Al Qaeda leader's injunction to heart and have coupled the tactics of terror with a sophisticated knowledge and use of modern media.
Their command of the Internet, their use of television, their release and timing of material calculated to be picked up and used by Arab and Western TV outlets and news agencies, indicates a high degree of planning and professionalism.
When US forces stormed into Iraq bent on toppling Saddam Hussein, the Pentagon adopted a new and enlightened policy toward press coverage. US reporters were embedded into combat units and, with the aid of modern communications techniques, sent dramatic real-time coverage of a brilliant military campaign to millions of spellbound Americans back home. Journalists-turned-military-reporters shared the same hardships and dangers of the troops, some losing their lives in the process of reporting the story. Censorship was minimal, designed to keep sensitive information about troop movements from giving any help to the enemy. By contrast, the propaganda efforts of Mr. Hussein's information ministry were laughable, with "Baghdad Bob" continuing to proclaim victory even as US tanks were entering the Iraqi capital.
In the aftermath of the war, fewer US correspondents were embedded with US military units, and the story took a different direction. The focus was on attempts to build a democratic political system and repair an infrastructure both neglected by Hussein and then damaged even more during the fighting. Then came more negative stories of US mistakes and the Pentagon's unpreparedness for the enormity of problems in the postwar occupation. Finally, Iraq lapsed into violence, with car bombings and assassinations and hostage-taking providing a daily litany of horror. The occupying US soldiers began to take ever more casualties as did US and other foreign civilian workers and journalists, whose fatalities soon numbered more than in any other war.
They included brave Iraqi journalists and cameramen working for the Americans at great peril.
Critics in the Bush administration charged that images of chaos and violence were overshadowing stories of a more positive nature: of schools that were being opened, hospitals that were being rebuilt, and Iraqis who were coming forward to be policemen.
Now some US military officers, too, charge that a clever enemy media campaign is gaining traction and that the US is losing the war in information about battlefield operations.
A Marine officer whose credibility I trust cites an operation of success in the Fallujah region earlier this month that was reported as a disaster by US and British media companies. His unit had established a new precinct headquarters for Iraqi police, Army troops, and US Marines to patrol and protect a dedicated area. It was well received by the local populace and almost 200 Iraqis volunteered for police recruitment. Insurgents sought to disrupt it but were routed.
Meanwhile, in a separate firefight at a makeshift suicide vehicle factory, three separate suicide bombers were killed, two suicide trucks were discovered and blown up, and foreign and other fighters were killed or captured. On the defending side, one civilian and one policeman were wounded, with no US or other casualties. "The enemy was killed in his tracks; his best weapon was discovered before it could cause any harm," says the officer, "but Western media reported no enemy killed in these operations, 28 civilians killed, and 50 civilians wounded. We are getting demolished," the Marine officer says, "by nefarious enemy media outlets … 'reporters' or 'sources' for Arab and other news agencies either on insurgent payrolls or who have known sympathies with insurgent operations, and by collective Western media that are often being manipulated by enemy elements. What incredible economy of effort the enemy is afforded when US media is their megaphone. Why spend precious resources on developing your own propaganda machine when you can make your opponent's own news outlets scream your message louder than you could ever have hoped to do independently?"
Clearly the insurgents have taken to heart the message that their war is a war of words as well as arms.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is a professor of communications at Brigham Young University.