How Al Qaeda is Losing the Battle for Hearts and Minds

How Al Qaeda is Losing the Battle for Hearts and Minds

With the death of Omar Hammami, an Alabama-born Somali militant, Al Qaeda recruitment efforts in the West are a diminishing security threat.

On September 12th, Omar Hammami, an Alabama-born al-Shabaab militant, was reportedly kidnapped and killed.

Al Qaeda hoped to inspire drastic transformation with examples like that of Hammami, who was once president of his high school class in Daphne, Alabama, throughout the western world. The organization wishes to recruit bright, religious Muslims as propagandists and recruiters. Hammami abandoned a wife and child in Egypt to join the Somali franchise of the organization in 2006 but disaffiliated earlier this year, prompting al-Shabaab leader Moktar Abu Zubayr to stage a manhunt for the former American citizen.

Hammami’s death represents a major public relations failure for Al Qaeda, which has long sought to create a “Jihad Joe” archetype to recruit westerners to the organization. Despite the efforts of Al Qaeda sponsors to paint American jihadists Hammami and Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter recently sentenced to death in Texas, as heroes, martyrdom has proven illusive. Hasan’s failure to use his trial as a soapbox for jihad does not bode well for Al Qaeda’s strategy of “extending the group’s message into the heart of infidel lands,” according to Patrick Poole, a private counter-terrorism analyst.

These failures compound the struggles of “Operation Hemorrhage,” the brainchild of slain Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) chief Anwar Al Awlaki designed to bleed America’s “empire” dry by a “thousand cuts.” Since Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s abortive attempt to blow up Northwest flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 using a “sacred weapon” concealed in his underwear, Al Qaeda has not managed to hurt the US any further, but instead has become regular fodder for late-night comedy. With Osama Bin Laden and Al Awlaki gone, even President Obama comfortably suggested defeat of the hated franchise was “within reach” last year. Hasan’s sentence once again brings the organization back to its most pressing challenge: branding.

The success of public relations post-Abbottabad has been decidedly mixed. Although embarrassed by mudslingers on Twitter, who earlier this month encouraged the terrorist organization to start a boy band, put more cats in video releases and offer yoga classes for militants, Al Qaeda is not licked yet. Renewed efforts to court western audiences include AQAP’s online Inspire magazine, the jihadist answer to Time founded by Al Awlaki and fellow American Samir Khan in 2010, which hopes to inspire the next generation of “Open Source Jihad” to bolster the flagging “Hemorrhage.” Boasting articles such as “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mum,” which  Georgetown University terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman described as “edgy,” such open source material may have been the inspiration for devices such as the pressure cooker bomb used by the Tsarnaev brothers in the Boston Marathon bombings.

But without Al Awlaki and Khan, Inspire has suffered, and its spread has been further disrupted by American hackers who successfully took the summer issue offline in May. With the upper branches of the organization, including Ayman Al Zawahiri, in hiding, Al Qaeda is increasingly splintered. As such, maintaining consistency of message will be a herculean task, particularly with US intelligence more adept than ever at intercepting communications between AQAP and Pakistan.

Furthermore, the failure of Omar Hammami to emerge as a martyr reveals what Al Qaeda has lost with the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and Al Awlaki: charisma. “Mr. Bin Laden’s voice, repeatedly beamed into millions of homes, articulates the demands and grievances – and fury – of Middle East Muslims,” Robert Fisk of the Independent wrote of the Saudi-born militant just after the September 11th attacks. The organization’s efforts to soften its image, including overtures such as a ‘fun day’ hosted in Aleppo, Syria last year are insufficient. The dangers of maintaining a public presence, illustrated by the deaths of Al Awlaki and Khan in drone attacks in Yemen in 2011, makes it unlikely that anyone will emerge to fill the void, at least in the short term.

But in an asymmetrical conflict, there is plenty of anger for organizations like Al Qaeda to tap into. President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world, including his famous Cairo address in 2009, has done little to quell lingering distrust with the domestic US audience, particularly as New York City has launched investigations into mosques, apparently labeling mosques as terrorist organizations. Though small in number, American jihadists, seduced by radical messages, will continue to be used as propaganda pieces.

Categories: International, Security

About Author