Beyond its battlefield successes, therefore, al-Qaeda and its allies have scored an impressive media achievement, moving from the status of jihadi cheerleaders to that of highly modern and competent media operatives and propagandists whose focus is on influencing the Muslim audience. In addition to al-Sahab’s ability to dominate the international media for days at a time when it presents new audio or videotapes of bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, it and the other media organizations it supports or cooperates with have established a pervasive media presence via the internet. This not only provides on-demand religious and military instruction and near real-time news coverage, but denies the militaries of the United States and its Western allies one pillar of their military doctrineâ€”information dominance. The success of al-Qaeda and the Islamists in the media arena has denied Western military planners much of their previous ability to shape the battlefield environment by controlling information flows. Indeed, it may be that the U.S. military and its allies are now in the position of having to look for means with which to break the Islamists’ information domination on battlefields and contested regions across the Muslim world.
Michael Scheuer served as the Chief of the bin Laden Unit at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center from 1996 to 1999. He is now a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation.