My Turn: A Novel Approach to Battling Al Qaeda

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The 2008 Zawahiri video. via youtube.com

Every night I sit on my couch and search the Web for new Qaeda videos. My work—first as director of research at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center and now as a private scholar and security consultant—has long required this grim ritual, and I don't usually smile while doing it. But in November 2008, I downloaded an unusual interview with Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's most prominent ideologue. Wearing his familiar white turban and smog-grey beard, Zawahiri criticized Israel, George W. Bush, and Tom Friedman. Then he turned to me—or, at least, my work.

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It wasn't the first time one of our West Point reports—a series of publicly available papers on Al Qaeda's strategy and ideology—was referenced in an official Qaeda video. It was, however, the first time the video was funny. "Do they think they can have enormous budgets," Zawahiri deadpanned, "then have me come along and correct their mistakes for free?" Asked by an off-camera interviewer for a list of errors, he pointed to typos and a misspelled name, and denied certain parts of his biography. "That's but a small part of their copious knowledge and integrity," he concluded, tongue firmly in cheek. Sarcasm, it seemed, was a universal language. Zawahiri appeared to believe that by zinging us in cyberspace he could score points for the movement.

This got me thinking: if Al Qaeda is using humor against America, couldn't we do the same against them? I left West Point a few months before Zawahiri's video surfaced, so for the last two years I've been testing this strategy on my own counterterror blog. During that time, I've ribbed Al Qaeda's online cheerleaders, dubbing them "jihobbyists" and referring to them as "Orcs" (those warmongers from The Lord of the Rings). I've joked that Abu Abdullah as-Sayf, a pseudonymous contributor to jihadist magazines, probably lives in his mom's basement. His response was revealing for its defensiveness: "I am actually very self-sufficient," he wrote. Another Qaeda sympathizer issued a three-minute video death threat against me, which included excerpts from The Lords of the Rings and a dubbed audio track of his own maniacal laughter. Perhaps nothing, I soon realized, threatened Al Qaeda's powerful reputation more than its own members and hangers-on.

The American government has gotten good at thwarting plots and fighting terror cells. But it has struggled to weaken Al Qaeda's ideology—the nexus of ideas and images that inspire new extremists to join the fight. Al Qaeda does more to discredit itself, however, than we ever could. Arm those vulnerable to its message with the truth, and they will laugh it into irrelevancy.

I'm not suggesting that the Pentagon stop treating Al Qaeda and its affiliates as a threat—only that it release more of what it knows about its image-conscious enemy. Consider the flavor of what's already public: the first attempt at bombing the USS Cole failed because the terrorists' dingy sank. The actual bombing wasn't filmed because the camera guy overslept. And the "shoe bomber," the "underwear bomber," the Times Square bomber—these were not quite crack assassins. Saying so would be easier, less expensive, and more likely to hobble jihadist groups than another "hearts and minds" campaign.

Also, it wouldn't be the first time humor helped deflate hate. The downfall of the Ku Klux Klan was sped along by "Clan of the Fiery Cross," a series of episodes on the 1940s radio show The Adventures of Superman that threw him into a satirical battle with the KKK and damaged the group's mystique, according to the authors of Freakonomics. Members grew demoralized, recruitment cratered, and the group's long-term viability collapsed. The same could be done with Al Qaeda. If your enemy is aiming at his foot, as the saying goes, let him pull the trigger.

Brachman, director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center from 2004 to 2008, is now managing director of Cronus Global and a professor at North Dakota State University.