The Iraqi insurgency has a satellite TV station, called al-Zawraa. Insurgent propaganda, 24/7, believed to be broadcast from Syria.
FALLUJAH, iRAQ: The information front in the Long War is perhaps the war’s most vital. And it is one front where the West is perceived as losing. While Coalition forces and Middle Eastern allies face shadowy transnational terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda and its affiliates on the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, the battle for hearts and minds is being fought on the Internet, print, cable and satellite television, and other forms of media. In Iraq, the al-Zawraa satellite television network is broadcasting insurgent propaganda 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Al-Zawraa television was set up by Mishan al-Jabouri, a former member of the Iraqi parliament and leader of the Sunni Arab Front for Reconciliation and Liberation. Al-Jabouri fled to Syria after being charged with corruption for embezzling government funds and purportedly for supporting al Qaeda.
There is an ongoing controversy over the network’s sponsorship. Is al-Zawraa supported by the Islamic Army in Iraq, a Baathist dominated insurgent group, or al Qaeda in Iraq’s Mujahideen Shura Council? The distinction may be meaningless, as the two organizations have worked together in the past to conduct terrorist attacks throughout the country against Iraqi and Coalition security forces. The Islamic Army in Iraq claims to be a nationalist group that only attacks military and police organizations, while al Qaeda has no qualms about killing civilians while pursuing its violent jihad. Many senior Baathists have rolled into al Qaeda in Iraq. Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, an avowed Baathist and the most wanted man in Iraq after Saddam was captured, swore Bayat (an oath of allegiance) to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda in Iraq’s former commander.
The broadcast source of the al-Zawraa network is said to be unknown, but the Egyptian owned Nielsat satellite network currently broadcasts the mujahideen propaganda on channel 106. Nielsat’s coverage area includes the whole of the Middle East and Northern Africa.
While spending time with the Military Transition Team at the Fallujah Government Center, I watched al-Zawraa with two soldiers from the Iraqi Army, sergeants Riad and Abul Zuhrih, and two Iraqi translators, ‘Nick’ and ‘Wilson.’ The interpreters (or terps) must use assumed names as they are under persistent death threats. Wilson, who is from Baghdad, has had three attempts on his life. They gave their view on the propaganda in the al-Zawraa broadcast, and the effects on the the Iraqi people.
The soldiers and terps described the meaning of the images, music and voice overs. There were songs about the Iraqi “victims” of the “U.S. occupiers.” The violence in Iraq is squarely placed on the shoulders of the Americans. The images include destroyed mosques, dead women and children, women weeping of the death of their family, bloodstained floors, the destruction of U.S. humvees and armored vehicles, and insurgents firing mortars, RPGs, rockets and AK-47s. Juba, the mythical Iraqi sniper, was featured prominently (the Iraqi soldiers believe he is a composite of multiple snipers.)
The “mujahideen” are portrayed as “freedom fighters,” and are seen going through ” boot camp training.” Attacks from across the country were shown, including in Abu Ghraib, Ramadi, Fallujah, Baiji, Baghdad and elsewhere. The soldiers are seasoned veterans from the 1st Iraqi Army Division, and have served throughout Iraq. Most of the footage was popular, rehashed videos widely distributed on the Internet and in jihadi forums. I recognized many of the videos.
The soldiers were angry at the images before them. “They destroyed my country,” said Staff Sergeant Riad, “The muj are ruthless, brutal, but I’m not scared of them.”
They believed the “channel exists because of weak Iraqi government” but “no-one can or will shut it down.” The soldiers and terps were certain of where the broadcast originated. “This starts from Syria, we want it shut down,” said Nick.
Al-Zawraa has a strong anti-Shia message. The channel portrays “Sunnis fighting the occupation while Shiites do nothing.” Al-Zawra “promotes a civil war” between the Iraqi people, and “makes the Shia look like Iranian stooges, betrayers of the Iraqi people,” according to Sergeant Abul Zuhrih. Iranian backed Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army, is a focus of attacks from al-Zawraa. “The station calls Sadr and [his] militia gangsters,” said Wilson.
According both the interpreters, “the news scroll promotes the Islamic Army of Iraq.” The music is nationalist and Baathist in origin, with verses from the Koran, and does not contain traditional al Qaeda or other jihadi music, messages or themes.
When asked about the impact of al-Zawraa on the Iraqi people, Iraqi soldiers and interpreters agreed al-Zawraa dispenses “effective [anti-government] propaganda.”
“Before the insurgency was mysterious to the Sunnis, now it has a real face,” said Nick.
While the Iraqi soldiers and interpreters want al-Zawraa shut down, members of the U.S. intelligence community disagree. According to a military intelligence officer serving in Iraq, U.S. intelligence doesn’t want to shut al-Zawraa down as it provides intelligence on the insurgents activities. When I asked senior American military and intelligence sources about shutting down pro-jihadi websites in the past, they expressed the same sentiment.
This is major dilemma in the modern age of information warfare. On one hand, programs like al-Zawraa provide ready and effective propaganda and recruiting material for the insurgency and al Qaeda, while demoralizing both Western and Middle Eastern allies. On the other, the intelligence gleaned from these operations is deemed too valuable to turn off the tap.
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