Terrorists love the Internet. Al Qeda is one of the Web’s most successful political organisations. So it is important that we pay attention to what the extremists say online. A research fellow working with Polis was watching as an Al Qeda operative made threats that sought to influence last week’s German election. What is fascinating is how they adopted their style to suit the medium and to have an impact on a modern European electorate. Here is Mina Al-Lami’s article written with Ben O’Loughlin – it was published in full at OpenDemocracy.
The jihadist style-journey: Germany’s election and after
Mina Al-Lami & Ben O’Loughlin
The general election in Germany on 27 September 2009 has seen the Christian Democratic Party (CDU) again emerge as the largest party, giving Angela Merkel the opportunity to extend her term as chancellor and head a new governing coalition (probably with the Free Democratic Party [FDP] led by Guido Westerwelle). The election campaign was unusual in that foreign affairs, and especially Germany’s military role in Afghanistan, played a prominent role – and in a way that has serious domestic-security consequences.
The debate over Afghanistan began to feature strongly in the campaign after an incident on 4 September when Bundeswehr commanders requested an air-strike in Kunduz province against two fuel-trucks that had been hijacked by the Taliban, which led to the death of dozens of Afghan civilians. It intensified on 17 September with the broadcast of a new “video-letter” by Bekkay Harrach, a 32-year-old German citizen of Moroccan origin and purported al-Qaida “soldier”.
Message To Germany
The message of “Abu Talha the German” (as Harrach is also known) echoes that in his earlier such videos, released in October 2008 and February 2009: he urges the German people to take responsibility for electing a government that will withdraw from Afghanistan, and says that their failure to do so would legitimise violent (and economically destructive) al-Qaida attacks against them.
The re-emergence of a jihadi threat increased security concerns in Germany in the last stages of the campaign. These are likely to continue long after the election. On the very day of the vote, an audio-announcement from Osama bin Laden himself was posted on jihadist websites; this “message to the European people” called on European states to pull their forces from Afghanistan or bear the consequences, but of immediate significance is that German as well as English subtitles are provided. CNN reported: “German intelligence services and authorities are aware of the new message, are evaluating it and take it very seriously.”
It has been a regular part of the jihadist armoury during the 2000s to “intervene” around the time of elections in western states. The Madrid railway bombings of 11 March 2004 came three days before the election in Spain, which resulted in the arrival in power of a new centre-left government committed to withdrawing its troops from Iraq; Osama bin Laden’s video-message to the American people on 29 October 2004 was broadcast four days before the presidential election that led to George W Bush’s re-election; the London bombings of 7 July 2005 took place a month after Britain’s general election, and were followed by the broadcast of a video by the leader of the jihadi cell that perpetrated them, Mohammed Siddique Kahn.
In the context of this pattern of events – and especially of the “style” of the jihadist videos that have been posted over these years – there is something new and significant about Bekkay Harrach’s “product” of 17 September 2009. Jihadist leaders and sympathisers have always devoted careful attention to the appearance of the messenger as well as the content of their message – and have adopted varying poses, from the gun-wielding desert-commander look to the headscarved, finger-pointing militant. The sensation of Harrach’s latest broadcast is that he was dressed in a suit and tie, and was clean-shaven – the very model of a “clerical terrorist”, even down to his long wavy hair.
New Look Terrorist
Bekkay Harrach’s unconventional new look bears no resemblance to the tough-looking, weapon-brandishing, Afghan-styled jihadist of earlier videos. In October 2008, he sat in a mountainous area holding a bazooka with ammunition strapped to his chest, his head and face covered in black cloth with only his eyes visible. “Abu Talha” took aim at imaginary targets and fired some rounds. He was then shown sitting beside a rifle against a black background, issuing his warnings while raising an index finger in the approved fashion for emphasis. The aesthetics and tone of his February 2009 video-message were similar.
These precedents made the look and feel of the pre-election video all the more remarkable. Here, Harrach looked like any other modern-looking young man on the street and sounds like a soft-spoken and even shy adolescent, talking in a flat monotone without hand movements. The bright-red silk-curtain background is also a far cry from the rocky outcrops and weaponry of previous settings. In addition, the video announces itself as being presented[h1] by al-Qaida itself and not the as-Sahhab media wing previously credited for Harrach’s work.
The switch to a more “gentle” appearance and tone, and to a relatively more “conciliatory” title (“Security is a Common Interest”), is to some extent mirrored in the content. Harrach repeatedly thanks the German government for extricating him from difficult situations in the middle east, thanks the German security forces for not harming his family despite knowing of his activities, and commends some of Germany’s international policies; at one point he says: “we must bear in mind that Germany doesn’t have blood on its hands like colonial states, the majority of its people want their troops out of Afghanistan, and most of all Germany’s strong refusal to take part in the Iraq war.”
Nevertheless, “wrong must be resisted and the wrongdoer faced”. Harrach also warns of al-Qaida strikes on German soil if Germans fail to bring their troops home; advises Muslims in Germany to avoid visiting “unnecessary places” in the two weeks following the election; and asks young Muslim men, inside or outside Germany, to “leave al-Qaida to do its job if jihad starts in Germany”, promising to inform them should they be needed in its second phase.
This “threat message” received extensive media coverage in the closing ten days of the election campaign. But although some stories mentioned Harrach’s appearance, there was little or no discussion of the reasons for or possible implications of the transformation. Two possible explanations can be dismissed. First, it is not that Harrach decided to reveal his identity after his cover was blown, because in his first video he had already confidently and defiantly revealed his real name while describing a rendezvous with German security-services.
Second, it is unlikely that the man characterised as “Al-Qaeda’s German terrorist” and “the Bonn bomber” suddenly decided that modern business attire looks cool or hip. Jihadists may be adept at using such western inventions as mobile-phones and the internet, but the combination of a suit and tie and clean-shaven face is far from their view of the appropriate dress of an observant Muslim. Rather, growing a beard is (with reference to the sunnah, the ways of the Prophet Mohammed) regarded as part of the obligations of dutiful Muslim men. This too makes Harrach’s reversal particularly intriguing.
The true explanation for this radical departure from jihadist norms is more likely to be found in one or more of three other directions. First, there is a calculation that it will spread fear. German audiences are being presented with visual evidence that a jihadist can “look like them”. Harrach is demonstrating that jihadi reality has outgrown the stereotype of the dark, bearded, angry-looking Muslim man – a point that might have particular resonance in Germany, where some of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were based and went unnoticed.
Second, the new style represents a challenge to western governments and security agencies. These have been emphasising the internal as well as external terrorist threat that requires stricter security measures, and have switched from ethnic or racial profiling to “behavioural” scrutiny – on the grounds that “anyone” could be a jihadist. The nightmare scenario for security agencies is the case of Christian or secular white citizens converting to Islam and carrying out violence in a matter of weeks or even days.
This shift is echoed in discussion on Islamist web-forums about Bekkay Harrach’s transformation, alongside chatter about a possible imminent al-Qaida strike in the west. In debating the legitimacy of Harrach’s “western” appearance, many participants conclude that the faithful soldier would only have worn this dress for a good reason: going undercover.
Third, there may be a tactical consideration: that Harrach’s western apparel could give him a better chance of being heard by German audiences. Jihadists are well aware of western broadcasting regulations, which have limited their ability to spread their message. Could it even be, as one member of a jihadist forum suggested, that Harrach’s respectable style and moderate tone might enable his video to be shown on German television?
Bekkay Harrach, by mirroring the face and style of the “wrongdoer”, is in this perspective trying to advance his jihadi agenda by creating a more diffuse and less directly threatening presence in German society. The result of the election, insofar as it offers little prospect of accelerating any German withdrawal from Afghanistan, itself represents no semblance of progress here. The Berlin government, and others which continue to deem al-Qaida a continuing threat, will use Harrach’s example to justify their national-security agendas. And so the war on terror will quietly go on – until the next explosion.
[h1] The producer is Al-Fajr, a known Jihadist media wing, but introduction caption reads: Al-Qaeda presents, and the ending caption: Al-Qaeda. Actually mentioning Al-Qaeda in such media productions is new. Also, core AQ videos are always produced and presented by As-Sahhab.