Sunday, December 30, 2012

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

Richard Landes   

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.

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