Review of Manuel R. Torres Soriano’s “The Road to Media Jihad- The Propaganda Actions of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”

The most recent issue of Terrorism and Political Violence was released in January. As usual, it had an excellent collection of articles. In particular interest to me was the one written by Manuel R. Torres Soriano “The Road to Media Jihad- The Propaganda Actions of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.” I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss it briefly since it somewhat dovetails with the spirit of this website.

Soriano provides a descriptive analysis of Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) media strategy from 1998-2009. This article fills an important lacuna in the literature since many in the Anglosphere have not focused much on GSPC and AQIM. As such, it provides a solid foundation for future researchers to build off of it. One can divide GSPC/AQIM’s media output into three phases: (1) under the leadership of Hassan Hattab and Nabil Sahraoui following the break from Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), 1998-2004; (2) under the leadership of Abdelmalek Droukdal prior to the merger with al-Qaeda, 2004-2007; and (3) post-merger with al-Qaeda 2007-2009.

Soriano adroitly points out that following the GSPC split from the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), unlike the GIA who were producing a lot of materials through its networks in Europe, the GSPC did not sustain these efforts. This was because Hattab was more interested in consolidating leadership and acknowledging the break with the GIA due to its very toxic actions in the latter half of the Algerian civil war. Therefore, the media component of the organization was not important to him. The GSPC’s first media output was in 1999 when they released a poor quality VHS tape that showed an ambush of Algerian soldiers. In 2003, Hattab was removed as the leader and the reigns were given over to Sahraoui who was only in charge of the group for a short period (September 2003-June 2004). Sahraoui was more concerned with stemming fitnah (discord) within GSPC than building up a media arm.

The second phase of GSPC/AQIM’s media endeavors began with the ascension of Abdelmalek Droukdal as the amir(leader) of GSPC. According to Soriano, “[he] accorded to the Propaganda Actions of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb group’s propaganda actions. The organisation’s new head had a much more ambitious vision of the role of communication within the overall group strategy.” At first, Soriano points out that the media operation did not change much due to lack of skilled individuals. That said, in October 2004, GSPC created its first website jihad-algeria.net. There was a huge gap between these efforts and the explosion of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s, amir of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) at the time, online presence during the same time period. Soriano points out a plea online from Abu Yasser Sayyaf, GSPC’s web-master, for any type of help, such as, uploading content and using different programs, which shows how far behind GSPC was technologically. Further proof of this amateurism was GSPC’s second video release “Apostate Hell,” released in September 2004. The video was only three minutes long and due to its lack of know-how, the watermark of the software they used, Honestech, was glossed over the video. Sayyaf’s excuse for this dismal media output as well as others in video and audio form was due to their remote locations in the mountains of Algeria.

Soriano notes that 84% of GSPC/AQIM’s releases have been written communiqués and 85% of those have been less than two pages. Unlike other groups that wrote long doctrinal texts of their aqidah (creed) GSPC did not have much religious legitimacy or heavyweights in their group especially since traditional Muslim clerics like Yusuf al-Qardawi, Salmon al-Awdah and Safir al-Hawali produced fatawa (legal rulings) delegitimizing the jihad in Algeria. Furthermore, as a result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where there were actual “crusader” militaries those conflicts took the limelight away from the Algerian theater. One example Soriano provides is the lack of excitement over GSPC’s creation of an online magazine al-Jama’a (the group) attempting to follow the model of the successfulSawt al-Jihad (voice of jihad) magazine produced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that at the time was strictly in Saudi Arabia and had yet to merge with al-Qaeda in Yemen, which occurred in January 2009. al-Jama’awas not highlighted by the key online jihadist websites. Soriano also points out that its biggest deterring factor was because the magazine mainly focused on Algerian issues versus the international problems of the ummah (Islamic nation) and other theaters of jihad.

Another issue was with the credibility of the messaging from GSPC. Sometimes the forums published content that purported to be GSPC propaganda that actually was not directly from GSPC’s media wing. Soriano expanded upon this by stating: “A lack of coordination and the problems of communication between the different cells, the lack of authority exercised over certain elements that had split from the group or ‘‘orbited’’ around it, and the repercussions of the ‘black propaganda’ waged by the Algerian intelligence services forced the group to issue public denials of the authenticity of content broadcast in its name on several occasions.” As such, although GSPC’s efforts during the second phase to broaden its media apparatus allowed it to release more content than in the first phase, they still ran into a lot of difficulties along the way.

GSPC’s media fortunes began to turn around when al-Qaeda central (AQC) officially announced a merger with GSPC and they became AQIM. Immediately, AQIM’s media apparatus produced more content with better quality. Soriano attributes this change to AQIM following AQC’s model of “untiring” media output. Another key factor was the influence of AQI. Soriano also surmises that more media production could have been compulsory for GSPC if it were to merge with AQC as an official branch. That said, the steep upward tick in production value might have also to do with AQIM outsourcing its media production to Europe similar to GIA in the 1990s since the above examples I am unsure completely explain the huge change in a relatively short period of time. Lastly Soriano says that it was also a way for leadership to assert its power over some dissention that was going through the ranks that were not consulted and were also against the merger with AQC.

Furthermore, AQIM started to cultivate relations with top online jihadist fora to release their content as well as the jihadist distribution company al-Fajr (dawn) Media. Nevertheless, AQIM was still plagued with issues of unauthorized messages being released under its name. As a remedy, in October 2009, AQIM created al-Andalus Institute for Media Production to better authenticate their content so individuals couldn’t post information that wasn’t directly from AQIM. Soriano concludes the article by drawing a comparison between AQIM and AQC when they created their own media production apparatus As-Sahab (clouds) Institute for Media Production, also as a way to breathe new life in their media efforts and communications strategy.

This article provided important descriptive insight into the nature of GSPC/AQIM’s media strategy between 1998-2009. There are some areas, though, where further research could build off of this by either Soriano or another researcher. To go a step further, it would be worthwhile for one to look deeper into the content produced by AQIM and provide a textual analysis of their variety of communications over the years. Another interesting project might also try and compare descriptive analyses of the media histories of AQC, AQAP and AQI and determine whether there are any tipping points for each groups emergence as a larger player in the jihad field as well as other metrics that could help researchers and governmental officials measure the importance or impact of a rising or fading jihadist organization. That said, overall, Soriano’s article “The Road to Media Jihad- The Propaganda Actions of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” is an excellent first step in developing more empirical research as it relates to the media jihad and further detail of AQIM in the English speaking world.

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