Americans and al-Qaeda: Laughing our way to the graveyard

Al-Qaeda’s organization in Yemen — known as Al-Qaeda-in-the-Arab Peninsula (AQAP) — recently published the first issue of an English-language, electronic magazine called Inspire. The magazine is the project of Anwar al-Awalki, the U.S.-born and formally U.S.-based Muslim scholar who seems to be tied to several of the actual and would-be Islamist attackers arrested in America in 2009 and 2010. The magazine appears to be al-Qaeda’s first English-language periodical, although the group does regularly publish materials in languages other than Arabic. All of its leaders’ speeches, for example, are published in English translations.

While the content of Inspire is important, the fact that it has been published at all is more important. Al-Qaeda is a parsimonious organization; it never wastes money on a project that promises minimal potential impact. Therefore, AQAP leaders clearly believe there is a substantial market for the magazine in the English-speaking world, which is of course far larger than just the United States. While the U.S. media have focused on the journal as one aimed at U.S. Muslims, al-Qaeda’s target audience is much broader than the U.S. and its English-speaking allies.

In much of the non-Arab Muslim world, English is far more likely than Arabic to be the second language of Muslims. The intensity with which English is taught in China, for example, suggests that Chinese Muslims will find Inspire a readable journal. Likewise, the enormous Muslim populations of Europe, India, and Indonesia are likely to find the magazine very accessible. And what of the former British colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa, where Muslims are far more likely to speak English than Arabic? South African Muslims and others in the region clearly provide an audience for the magazine.

Inspire magazine, moreover, did not come out of the blue, but rather is part of a now six-year-old media campaign by al-Qaeda to court, instruct, and — yes — inspire U.S. Muslims and other English-speaking Muslims worldwide. The effort began with Osama bin Laden’s speech on the eve of the 2004 U.S. presidential election, which omitted most Islamic adornments — quotations from the Koran, etc. — and was published in close-to-vernacular English. Then al-Qaeda began using Azzam al-Amriki — the former U.S. citizen Adam Gadahn — to speak in contemporary English to English-speaking Muslims in America and worldwide. And, as is now apparent, al-Qaeda also has been in contact and working with U.S.-based Islamic scholars like al-Awalki to spread its message. It must be assumed that al-Qaeda also is working with like-minded Islamic scholars in India, South Africa, China, and Indonesia who may not have mastered Arabic but who do speak and write English.

With such a substantial potential audience, the frivolous reaction of the U.S. media and the silence of U.S. political leaders is inexplicable. Humor of course has always been a vital part of American war-making; for example, animating Bugs Bunny’s victory over the Axis; writing an obscene a message to Hitler on a 500-pound bomb destined to be dropped on Berlin; or drawing a caricature of Hirohito on a torpedo meant to send one of the God-Emperor’s aircraft carriers to the bottom of the Pacific. But such humor was never the whole of U.S. war-making, only an adjunct to much more important efforts meant kill the enemy and wreck his economic wherewithal.

Against al-Qaeda, however, what passes for humor these days seems to be our main — if impotent — weapon. Those who are our comic-newsmen — Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Keith Olbermann, etc. — have made fun of Al-Qaeda media. And this is as it should be, if humor can advance America’s interests then pour it on.

But in this case, the humor of America’s sophomoric comic-newsmen only serves to disguise the growing U.S. and worldwide English-speaking Muslim audience for the content of al-Qaeda’s media operations generally, and for AQAP’s magazine in particular. Stewart, Colbert, and the rest of the latter-day court jesters speak to an ignorant-of-the-Muslim-world U.S. audience, and while their humor may get laughs, it does not inform. They are, moreover, the perfect and willing patsies for an Obama administration that no longer uses the terms “Islamist” or “jihad” and is delighted to have its surrogates among the comic-newsmen tell Americans that all is well in Obama’s diverse and multi-cultural nirvana and that laughter is a weapon sufficient to protect the republic.

As noted, laughing at the foe can be a useful accompaniment to a cloud of 500-pound bombs descending on the enemy and his supporters, but by itself it does nothing but immunize American laughers against a dangerous reality. Al-Qaeda’s media operations are a potent adjunct to the lead and explosives now killing our soldiers and Marines, and those media operations are engaging an ever-larger and increasingly responsive audience of English-speaking Muslims worldwide.

So, at the end of the day, Obama and his court jesters may be teaching Americans nothing more than how to laugh themselves to death.

Author: Michael F. Scheuer

Michael F. Scheuer worked at the CIA as an intelligence officer for 22 years. He was the first chief of its Osama bin Laden unit, and helped create its rendition program, which he ran for 40 months. He is an American blogger, historian, foreign policy critic, and political analyst.