On the weaponizing of Lethal Narratives: An analysis of Bin Laden’s Recruiting Video

Working again on the Al Durah affair (which goes to court again on January 16, 2013, I came across this article which I had saved but forgotten. It offers a fascinating insight into the skill displayed by al Qaeda in turning Palestinian lethal narratives into weapons of Jihad. I’ll bet that all the key footage (including, according to most, but not all those who have viewed the available evidence, the al Durah footage) belongs to the “Staged” category of Pallywood.

His grasp of spin is chilling . . .
(Filed: 16/11/2001)

Few Westerners have seen Osama bin Laden’s recruitment video in full. So what did Julia Magnet, a young Jewish New Yorker, make of it?

THE Third Reich may have honed a formidable propaganda machine, but even Hitler might have drawn the line at flashy music videos. In that respect, at least, Osama bin Laden has topped the Fuhrer.

Until I sat down to watch a two-hour Al Qa’eda recruitment video, made just six months before the September 11 attacks, I had no idea that the champion of anti-Americanism had hijacked our Hollywood gimmicks and television tricks. Far more likely, I thought, that he’d produce a dreary display of militant fundamentalism: lots of ranting against America and Saudi Arabia, with some macho gun-play thrown in for show.

What I actually saw was far more worrying: Osama bin Laden beating us at our own media game. With devilish cunning, he has plugged into the MTV generation – and it’s clear he knows how to reach us. I have spent all day humming militant Islamic songs. And I am a Jewish twenty-something from New York.

For the best part of a week, I have been watching his video over and over again, trying to match every syllable with a translation of the Arabic that Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, has just completed. Long before I understood each phrase in its context, I realised that words are only a small part of bin Laden’s propaganda arsenal. Like Hitler, his speeches are more concerned with creating an emotional effect than expounding a concrete message.

Let me give you a 30-second example of how he creates terrorist MTV. The screen darkens. We are in a room, playing a virtual reality game: assassinate the American leader of your choice. Light pulses from a movie screen, hanging eerily in space, as a song pounds over the speakers: “We defy with our Koran/ with blood, we wipe out our dishonour and shame.”

Zoom in from a figure watching the screen to the still image of a Taliban fighter straddling a corpse. The music rises. Then, the image changes, as if the hands of a clock are erasing it. We are still in the dark room, but our anonymous alter-ego is now in Taliban dress. Bush Snr and Colin Powell appear on the screen. With cowboy timing, our watching figure reaches into his robe to grab a gun. He crouches and fires at the screen, in time to the martial rhythm. Smoke obliterates the face of Colin Powell.

Cut to Warren Christopher and President Clinton. Boom! Cut to a close-up of Clinton, wearing his habitual self-satisfied smirk. The gunman’s shadow blocks out Clinton’s face. Kerpow! Now, in a parody of the American flag, a puzzle of horizontal stripes emerges from each side of the screen, finally connecting to reveal two fighters facing down Warren Christopher. Bang, bang! Whoosh – the images disappear and the screen spins to reveal Osama bin Laden.

He knows his audience. His most impressionable recruits are of the same age and sex as MTV’s loyal following: alienated teenage boys, full of the resentment, hyperactivity and maddening sense of impotence that typify that age group – in any country. In the video, the oppressor is not parental authority, but the West, which can be blamed for everything.

This is a great propaganda film – the kind that you can’t get out of your head. Bin Laden’s story of Muslim subjugation turning to resistance is so effective that I barely need my transcripts. He uses the most sophisticated western film-making techniques: it’s as if Guy Ritchie, Sylvester Stallone and Spielberg have banded together to make jihad, the movie.

Despite all this flashiness, bin Laden seems hardly flamboyant as an orator – certainly not modern. Yet his grasp of spin, of product-packaging, is chilling. If you did not understand his hateful and ugly words, you could easily believe he is simply a preacher. His body language is gentle and controlled: only his right hand moves, and then never farther than six inches from his body. Rarely does he shake his fist, a gesture familiar in all propaganda. When he does, it is with weary anger: his cause is so self-evident that he does not need an indignant mime show.

But it is those eyes that grab you – otherworldly, luminous eyes that remind me of Charles Manson’s. They never meet the camera. It is as if he doesn’t see this world – only the spiritual dimension.

I had half-expected some of Hitler’s propaganda tactics: highly choreographed mass events, flanks of elite soldiers, booming speeches. Bin Laden employs none of those. When he is on screen, the camera stays on him, making the viewer imagine that he is being addressed personally.

Initially, I wondered: where’s the theatre in all this? But then I started noticing the costumes. Welcome to the Osama bin Laden fashion show. First, the holy teacher: robed in white, with covered head, standing before a map of Arabia. Tucked in his belt is a Yemenite dagger, just in case we forget that he’s half Yemenite – the same blood as the bombers of the USS Cole. In this outfit, he takes credit for the Cole atrocity: “We incited, they responded.”

In another scene, he switches to a hooded cape and stands immobile in a vaulted niche, filmed from below, so that he looks like a living statue of an ancient prophet. Then, we get a snatch of the open-air rally, but there are children laughing, birds twittering and a clear blue sky. Only Disney could be gentler.

But bin Laden is also a man of action. Or so we are meant to believe, as we see him lounging in a military tent, wearing his natty camouflage jacket and a Pashtun turban.

Later, as parallels are drawn between his Islamic war on the west and the medieval Crusades, we see him as a romantic figure in the desert, mounted on an Arabian pure-bred and swathed in white.

But, hey, let’s not alienate the teenager with the short attention span: bin Laden wisely crams his direct preaching into brief segments, which he intercuts with scenes of the Taliban in training, of Israelis attacking Palestinians, of the Cole in flames. Like any broadcaster on the evening news, he does the voice-over as the images flash past. He even uses CNN footage of foreign dignitaries, and French television clips of the death of Mohammed al-Durra, the Palestinian boy shot dead in his father’s arms.

Here is the emotional and ideological centre of the film: the justification for jihad. How else can Arab men end this slaughter of innocents?

Bin Laden’s film crew must have studied Schindler’s List, because a five-minute orgy of Israelis brutalising women and children is like a replay of scenes from the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto. In Spielberg’s film, the camera panned to the body of a little girl in red; in this, the climax is the murder of Mohammed al-Durra. As in Schindler’s List, children and women sing slowly and movingly.

And this is the point at which I burst into tears. I hardly realise that I have been visually and aurally manipulated until I study the clip in detail. In slow motion, and in time to the music, Israeli soldiers beat two women with sticks, until one falls to ground. The soldiers carry off screaming men, as if they are so much rubbish. Then, they strike a little boy with such force that he crumples to the ground. These images, and similar ones, are repeated over and over, until the violence seems unending.

But, hang on aren’t these the same three incidents, shot from different angles? Bin Laden has simply cut up full-length “news” sequences and scattered them about, fooling me with the frenzied graphics and sound effects.

Throughout, he is screaming tearfully over the music: “Your sister goes to bed honourable and wakes up violated, raped by the Jews.” As we see images of beatings for the umpteenth time, all he can do is wail – a curiously effective cry of impotence and grief.

Then comes Mohammed al-Durra. Cue: machine-gun fire. Diagonal lines rend the screen to reveal a father’s stricken face. “Mohammed,” intones a deep, robotic voice, as the image of Mohammed al-Durra, mouth open in terror, flashes before us. Cut to Israelis bombarding a building, on to which Osama has superimposed the pitiful image of the boy huddling against his father – an image flashed a dozen times during the two-minute duration of this scene.

Pictures appear of Clinton, of the King of Jordan and of the Saudi king presenting Clinton with a medal, only to be obliterated by that of the Palestinian boy. Suddenly, Mohammed splits into four smaller images, then nine, which cover the screen to imply that this murder is universal. The images surge forward faster and faster while a voice chants: “Mohammed, Mohammed,” and bin Laden raises his voice: “Do not count, Mohammed, on Arabs, for they are no different than your assassins, the Jews.”

Cut to the boy’s lifeless body, held by his wounded father. The camera goes wild, repeatedly zooming in and retreating, as the father cries: “I have failed you, Mohammed; I have tried to protect you in vain. Four shots hit my child, who fell dead.” Every parent’s worst nightmare.

I wish I had never watched this film. I wish it weren’t so good. I have never before woken up terrified every hour of the night, or felt such moral nausea. I feel invaded by a crazed man’s violence and rage.

Fawaz Gerges, the scholar who has spent weeks translating the film, tells me that he can no longer sleep.


18 Responses to On the weaponizing of Lethal Narratives: An analysis of Bin Laden’s Recruiting Video

  1. […] Landes of The Augean Stables uncovers a fascinating 2001 article about Osama Bin Laden’s recruitment video and how effective it was in manipulating […]

  2. who instructed Bin Laden & his men in these artfully sinister techniques?

    Leni Riefenstahl would well up with admiration.

  3. Ray in Seattle says:

    eliyahuben asks, “Who instructed Bin Laden?”

    Or, who instructed Leni Riefenstahl for that matter? It would be wrong to think that Arabs are not as intelligent or creative as Westerners. Arabs, suitably motivated, can learn whatever is necessary or helpful in achieving their goals.

    Some Arabs, such as Bin Laden, have learned that 21st century media techniques, developed by the West to sell products to our younger set, are a very effective way to recruit for jihad. Also of course, to spread the whole Arab narrative of victimization and humiliation of Arabs by the West – an insult that can only be answered in blood.

    All humans are capable of modifying their belief system to protect and support the primary belief(s) at the top of their hierarchy. The Arab world has many thousands of young creative males, educated in the West, who have earned degrees in how this is done. For many of them, their primary belief is simply that Islam must and will conquer the infidels – and they will do whatever is necessary to play their part in that millennial conflict. It has become their identity, the purpose of their life.

  4. The Jewish twenty-something (in 2001, now thirty-something) from New York said:

    Here is the emotional and ideological centre of the film: the justification for jihad. How else can Arab men end this slaughter of innocents?

    Hamas has recently played that card (“we are morally justified to terrorize resist”) in its recent attempt to be removed from the EU’s terrorist-organizations list:


    The Prime Minister of Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, told the Europeans:

    “We would like you to send a message from under the rubble which you have seen here, that we are not terrorists”.

    “Hamas is a national liberation movement which operates only inside the borders of Palestine.”

    “Israel is not a partner for peace. It wants a peace process, but not peace … If peace negotiations have not brought any results, isn’t it our right to use other options?”.

    Well, he will certainly be helped in his quest for status-upgrade from terrorism to resistance by the radical-leftists – Judith Butler anyone?

  5. Ray in Seattle said:

    The Arab world has many thousands of young creative males, educated in the West, who have earned degrees in how this is done. For many of them, their primary belief is simply that Islam must and will conquer the infidels – and they will do whatever is necessary to play their part in that millennial conflict. It has become their identity, the purpose of their life.

    Very true Ray.

    And it has been argued that those educated in the West are more prone to become terrorists, in that they have come face-to-face with the western modernity and, inescapably for some of them, their honor-shame value system reacted to the spectacle of the western tolerance to women and gays (“those westerners, they are such wimps, and, yet, they look down upon us.”).

    Sounds pretty plausible to me.

  6. Martin J. Malliet says:

    Although this post is not about the France2/Enderlin vs Philippe Karsenty trial, I reply by posting my notes on it.

    The accusation of ‘bad journalism’ (misrepresenting the facts of the IDF’s responsibility) against France2/Enderlin should have been brought to the court by the IDF themselves. Or otherwise by somebody who could claim to have been unlawfully harmed by the bad journalism, such as an Israeli citizen being harmed by the false depiction of a government that is representing him.

    Now the trial was brought about indrectly by a French citizen (Karsenty): not directly by Karsenty’s complaining about the bad journalism of his French public news agency (France2/Enderlin), but indirectly by France2/Enderlin complaining about a defamatory statement made by Karsenty on the bad journalism of France2/Enderlin.

    This indirect strategem was always risky, because it involved a reversal of the burden of proof: the trial wasn’t anymore about the accusation of BAD JOURNALISM (to which the defendent France2/Enderlin would have had to respond by proving that their journalism was not bad), it was about the ACCUSATION of bad journalism by someone who didn’t claim to be harmed by it (to which the defendant Karsenty had to respond by proving that his accusation was legitimate).

    From the first court decision one may have the impression that this reversal of the burden of proof was not handled very well by Karsenty and his lawyers:

    “The impact of these accusations is reinforced by the use (twice) of the word “fraud” and by the accusation of a “hoax,” which implies, NOT A CULPABLE RECKLESSNESS, BUT THE DELIBERATE INTENT OF MISLEADING OTHERS by broadcasting images that did not reflect reality (“a false report” according to “film experts” who have “confirmed our conclusions.”) Such accusations clearly damage the honor and reputation of their object, even more so when the persons thus described are employed in informing the public, such as in the case of the journalist Charles Enderlin or France 2.”

    It would seem to me that if Karsenty had limited his accusation of bad journalism to ‘culpable recklessness’, it would have been strong enough to make his point, and it would not have opened the door for a discussion on his having sufficient proof for the stronger accusation of ‘deliberate intent to mislead’. Or he should at least have argued that ‘culpable recklessness’ on behalf of a professional public news agency is the same as the news agency’s culpable act of misleading itself (or of letting itself be misled by its sources), and thereby in the end of culpably misleading others.

    Of course, the court is independent. It can always use its independence to cut through the insufficient arguments of the parties and establish the judicial truth as it sees fit. In this case: that Karsenty had sufficient proof of bad journalism against France2/Enderlin to make his somewhat outrageously formulated accusation of ‘France2/Enderlin misleading others by broadcasting images that did not reflect reality’.

    But it didn’t.

    The appeal court then overturned the first verdict by accepting Karsenty’s accusation as legitimate criticism of France2/Enderlin’s journalism.

    The cassation court invalidated that appeal verdict on grounds of insufficient due process (by admitting the evidence of footage that wasn’t available to Karsenty when he made his accusation).

    Let’s hope that the second appeal trial overturns the verdict a second time.

    But let’s not forget that it would only be a small victory (i.e. Karsenty was right to criticise France2/Enderlin for suspicion of bad journalism), not the victory that would really matter (i.e. France2/Enderlin and their supporters admitting the journalism was indeed bad).

    At the time of the broadcast, I also believed it to be true, although not in the fashion it was suggested to be true, i.e. the IDF deliberately targeting civilians, but more in the fashion of the unfortunate collateral damage of civilians caught in the cross-fire. The alternative of Pallywood staging never crossed my mind. I only learned about Pallywood when discovering Richard Landes’s blog a few months ago. And I agree entirely with Richard Landes and Philippe Karsenty that it was France2/Enderlin’s job not only to know about Pallywood, but to report on it, at the time of the broadcast.

    But they still refuse to acknowledge that. It’s shameful.

    Although I understand Richard Landes’s misgivings about honour-shame-culture, I sometimes feel that he is putting the accent in the wrong place. Not honour-shame is the problem, but that what triggers it. One would wish that our “Western values” would be translated more readily by those in responsible positions into what is honourable (honest reporting, accepting legitimate criticism) and what is shameful (dishonest reporting, fending off legitimate criticism).

    How I would plead (if I were Philippe Karsenty):

    (1) A news agency is not in the business of fiction, it is in the business of information.
    (2) Information means telling a ‘story’ about what happened in reality; contrary to fiction, a story about reality makes a claim to be the truth, and not to be something else.
    (3) Those who make a claim to tell the truth must be able to back it up with proof; they cannot simply shift the burden of proof to those who doubt the truth of the story; and they can certainly not expect the doubters of the story, especially when they offer significant arguments to justify that doubt, to simply do more until they can prove the falsehood of the story ‘beyond any doubt’.
    (4) It is true that in practice there is not always enough time to collect proofs for a story that go beyond any doubt; so that laying a burden of proof ‘beyond any doubt’ on the news agency would also be exaggerated.
    (5) The reason why time is a factor has to do with ‘social causation’, i.e. the story brought out with its claim to be true is intended to have an effect on how other people judge the matter and take action based on that judgment, and for that it must be brought out in time and not too long after the fact; in the case of a news agency the number of people for whom the story is intended can be large and even very large.
    (6) Although the news agency is not directly responsible for the judgments and actions that other people make or take on the basis of the story, the news agency can to some extent foresee these judgments and actions; this possible anticipation of the consequences of a story burdens the news agency with at least some responsibility for the consequences by ‘social causation’ of its decision to bring out the story, especially when the truth of the story cannot be corroborated ‘beyond any doubt’ for practical reasons.
    (7) It is our contention that the elements of proof for the story, at the time when it was brought out, were so weak that the news agency could not be unaware of that weakness; and that consequently the decision to bring out the story, and even more so the decision not to draw attention to the weakness of its proofs, were both utterly and culpably reckless.
    (8) When we accused France2/Enderlin publicly of culpable recklessness, using the arguments (1) to (7), our goal was to persuade France2/Enderlin to engage in public self-criticism; public self-criticism that in our view would have had the healthy effect of both rectifying the truth of the story a posteriori and enhancing a priori the sense of responsibility in news agencies relying on similar news gathering procedures.
    (9) If we are here today defending ourselves against the accusation of libelous criticism directed at us by France2/Enderlin, it is only because France2/Enderlin refused entirely to accept, i.e. not even to some extent, our criticism formulated under (1) to (7) and consequently refused to engage in any form of public self-criticism.
    (10) Only if the court accepts that France2/Enderlin was entirely justified in taking that maximalist stance, can it conclude that our public criticism of France2/Enderlin was libelous, i.e. maliciously defamatory.

    • mika. says:

      The Israeli gov mafia serves the same people who created the al-Durah hoax. They are Sabbatean heretics and Vatican agents, as are the people who financed them and put them in power.

    • Martin J. Malliet says:

      Although I understand Richard Landes’s misgivings about honour-shame-culture, I sometimes feel that he is putting the accent in the wrong place. Not honour-shame is the problem, but that what triggers it.

      Hi there, Martin, i am a recent (few months old) fan of Dr Landes), too.

      I think that the Muslim honor-shame mindset is the final link of the chain of causality that leads Muslims to the cultural animosity towards the West and Israel.

      There will always be something that counts as a trigger for them.

      My perception is that the process of Muslim socialization turns Muslims into a hardcore variety of alpha-males (rednecks raised to the power of n), and, after the process is completed, there is nothing much to be done from the West’s part: Muslims will perceive western civility and gentleness as a weakness and, hence, as something really shameful. The spectacle of a western man not violently reacting to being verbally taunted by his wife in public is alien to Muslim culture, they simply can’t swallow it, because that’s how they have been brought up.

      The contempt that Muslims feel for westerners is aggravated by the fact that westerners are richer and more educated, and also have the power to militarily subdue the Muslim world: envy turns that contempt into hate.

      So, yes, i too would put the accent on the Muslim honor-shame psychology: the Muslims are too touchy and they are bound to be hostile no matter what we do.

      Our gentleness is the final trigger, a gentleness that makes us look disgraceful to them, repulsive to their eyes, but we cannot cease to be gentle without the collapse of what is labeled as western culture.

      Gentleness vs machismo, that’s what i think is the skeleton of the civilization conflict we have found ourselves into, through no fault of our own.

  7. mika. says:

    “the al Durah footage) belongs to the “Staged” category of Pallywood”

    True. But what should be paid particular attention to is the fact the al-Durah footage was propagated by a Sabbatean “Jew” working for the Vatican propaganda outlets. Moreover, through deliberate public relations fumbles the Vatican sponsored Sabbateans in the Labor Israeli leadership lent an active hand to the Vatican Paliwood propaganda.

    These Sabbateans are involved in a complex theater where Israel, the sovereignty and natural right of Jews to their ancient land, is surrendered to the Vatican and its Jihadistani proxies. The Jesuit educated and Vatican spy Shimon Peres (murderer of Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon), has already signed away Jerusalem to the Vatican.

  8. […] response to the previous post, reader Martin J. Malliet wrote the following about the upcoming trial in Paris. Since this trial, […]

  9. […] narrative – among other things – fuelled the second Intifada, was used by Al Qaida in a recruiting video, served as a pictorial backdrop during the beheading of the American […]

  10. […] narrative – among other things – fuelled the second Intifada, was used by Al Qaida in a recruiting video, served as a pictorial backdrop during the beheading of the American […]

  11. […] On the Weaponizing of Lethal Narratives … […]

  12. […] narrative – among other things – fuelled the second Intifada, was used by Al Qaida in a recruiting video, served as a pictorial backdrop during the beheading of the American […]

  13. […] follows was originally published on January 1, 2013, the Augean Stables blog In response to the previous post, reader Martin J. Malliet wrote the following about the upcoming trial in Paris. Since this trial, […]

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