The Taliban in 2001 was famously suspicious of television cameras. The Taliban of 2009? They have press secretaries, one of whom—described as the “chief spokesman of the Taliban in Swat” was recently arrested. Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, has a magazine empire. The al-Qaeda of 2001 now has splintered into various divisions, and each one has its own media outreach, according to Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen and currently a PhD candidate at Princeton. He tracks Yemen on the blog Waq al-Waq but points out that even al-Shabaab in Somalia has media productions and spokesmen.
Johnsen translated the latest issue (the 11th) of Sada al-Malahim (The Echo of Battles). The magazine is published online by the recently merged al-Qaeda in Yemen and al-Qaeda Arabian Penninsula.
Now, you might be asking yourself, “What would be in such a magazine?” Sure, the cover features a grenade in the background and a beaker filled with liquid in front of it. But there are publication staples like a front-of-the-magazine piece (this one by the leader of AQY/AQAP, Nasir al-Wahayshi), congratulatory notices (for weddings and suicide bombs) and a women’s column (describing how to support your jihad man). There’s no advertising, like we would think of, although there is an editorial e-mail.
But primarily the magazine is concerned with theological and legal reasons to explain AQ’s actions. “They have their target market,” Johnsen says, “mostly in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. And they’ve done a very good job in Yemen creating a narrative.”
According to Johnsen, the magazine is most useful as a gauge for what’s happening within the organization. And the article that struck Johnsen most was an anti-Shia screed (“The Apostates: Stages of Confrontation”) by a former Guantanamo Bay detainee named Ibrahim al-Rubaysh.
“Yemen and Saudi Arabia are very different,” Johnsen says. “Anti-Shia [writings] are not common in Yemen, and a growing anti-Shia rhetoric suggests a much more Saudi influence. Whether this means the beginning of a trend or it’s a one-off is impossible to tell.”
But something to watch, especially as Yemen teeters on.