Bin Laden obsessed with news media

March 24, 2012


— Among the last known images of Osama bin Laden is a video seized at his compound the night he was killed, which shows the al-Qaida leader hunched before a television screen studying a video of himself. It’s testimony to bin Laden’s obsession with the media side of his war against America.

This modern face of bin Laden’s jihad comes through clearly in a 21-page letter from his media adviser, an American-born jihadist named Adam Gadahn. The letter is undated, but it appears to have been written after November 2010, in the last six months of bin Laden’s life.

Gadahn wrote much as if he were a media planner corresponding with a client. He included suggestions about the timing of video appearances after the 2010 U.S. midterm elections and use of high-definition video, and made snarky evaluations of major American networks.

As I wrote last week, Gadahn hated Fox News (“falls into the abyss”); he liked MSNBC but complained about the firing of Keith Olbermann; he had mixed feelings about CNN (better in Arabic than in English) and made flattering comments about CBS and ABC. Basically, he wanted to play them all off to al-Qaida’s best advantage. He also mentioned print journalists, most prominently Robert Fisk of The Independent of Britain. He cites three Americans (“Brian Russ,” “Simon Hirsh” and “Jerry Van Dyke”), though it’s uncertain whom he meant.  

The media guidance was among the documents taken from bin Laden’s compound the night of May 2. It was made available to me, along with a small sample of other documents in the cache, by a senior Obama administration official.

Gadahn’s memo shows an organization struggling to stay on the media offensive despite devastating American attacks. It’s partly aspirational, with dreams of jihad, but there’s a core of sharp self-criticism that makes clear that Gadahn, like his boss, understood that al-Qaida was losing its war.

Gadahn even worried that al-Qaida’s reversals in Iraq and elsewhere represented “punishment by God on us because of our sins and injustices.” Like bin Laden, he was deeply upset that al-Qaida’s affiliates had killed so many Muslims and listed 13 operations that showed “the tragedy of tolerating the spilling of (Muslim) blood.”

Gadahn is an intriguing figure whose life story would seem far-fetched if sketched by a Hollywood screenwriter. He was born Adam Pearlman in 1978, grandson of a California doctor who had served on the board of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. Gadahn converted to Islam when he was 17, migrated to Pakistan at 20 and then disappeared in March 2001 into al-Qaida’s world. In 2006, he was indicted by the U.S. for treason.

In the letter, the media adviser focuses on “how to exploit” the 10th anniversary of 9/11 on television. He worries that CNN “seems to be in cooperation with the government more than the others,” though he praises its “good and detailed” Arabic coverage. “I used to think that MSNBC channel may be good and neutral a bit,” he continues, but then notes the firing of Olbermann.  

The media chatter continues: CBS “has a famous program (‘60 Minutes’) that has some popularity and a good reputation.” ABC “is all right; actually, it could be one of the best channels,” because of its chief investigator and terrorism expert, Brian Ross. But all the networks, he complains, will bring in analysts who will “conduct a smearing” of al-Qaida figures.

Gadahn discusses how to game the coverage. Bin Laden could offer “an exclusive press scoop” to one network; but better to spread the material “so that there will be healthy competition.” As for the print journalists, he suggests informing 30 to 50 of them that they’ve been selected to “receive special media material” for the 9/11 anniversary. If just a third of them respond, he notes, al-Qaida will have 10 journalists who “will display our mission.”

The al-Qaida spinmeister didn’t like Fox News (“let her die in her anger”), but it’s hard to understand why. Surely Rupert Murdoch’s network, with its saturation coverage of the war on terror, did more to elevate bin Laden’s profile than any other news outlet.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.    


cato_the_elder 6 years, 2 months ago

Interesting that bin Laden liked Keith Olbermann and hated Fox News. That should tell Americans a great deal.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 2 months ago

Well, yea, all those pro-Al Qaeda statements Olbermann made. What an evil guy.

Could you give us a few of your favorite quotes from him, cato?

cato_the_elder 6 years, 2 months ago

No one hated America more than Osama bin Laden did. If he liked Olbermann, that's because they had much in common.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 2 months ago

Still waiting for your favorites quotes of Olbermann praising bin Laden and/or al Qaeda. Surely there must be dozens to choose from.

tomatogrower 6 years, 2 months ago

Crickets chirping, bozo. Those familiar conservative crickets that keep drowning out the responses to reasonable questions.

cato_the_elder 6 years, 2 months ago

And you'll keep waiting, Bozo.

By the way, the number of America-hating statements from Doberman is far greater than a few dozen.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 2 months ago

"And you'll keep waiting,"

Translation--" I got nothing."

"America-hating statements"

Translation-- "Anyone who disagrees with me on anything is a treasonous bastard, (and probably has spinach stuck in their teeth.")

cato_the_elder 6 years, 2 months ago

No, if bin Laden liked Olbermann, it follows that Olbermann hates America as much as bin Laden did.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 2 months ago

Bin Laden also liked kittens. Does that mean kittens hate America?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 2 months ago

I hear that bin Laden's favorite colors were crimson and blue-- therefore, all KU fans are terrorist sympathizers.

Mixolydian 6 years, 2 months ago

The article doesn't say why Osama liked Olberman and MSNBC so much. Makes you wonder why, it's a reasonable question, I"m not trying to score any juvenile political points by asking. Why would mass murdering religious fanatic like to listen to Olberman and MSNBC?

The article hints at the reason, he wanted to play the American media to his advantage. Perhaps he thought MSNBC, ABC and CBS were easier targets in that regard. Perhaps he thought they were more likely to present a pro Islamic Al Queda slant on news stories.

Interesting to speculate, but thanks to our Navy Seals, we'll never definitively know.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 2 months ago

Actually, the article doesn't say anything about which networks bin Laden "liked." It was about what the American-born Adam Gadahn said in communications to bin Laden about US and other western media.

And there's a big difference between objective journalism and "pro-al-Qaeda," although for the rightwing wackosphere, anybody who doesn't parrot the neocon party line is "pro-al-Qaeda."

Mixolydian 6 years, 2 months ago

Ahh, good point, I was mislead by the headline and assumed Gadahn was describing Osama's views. But then, why would the PR man for Al Quada prefer MSNBC, ABC and CBS over other networks, particularly Fox, which he appears to despise?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 2 months ago

My guess is that Osama, and even Gadahn, actually like Fox on a twisted level. One of the main goals of al Qaeda is to goad the US into overreacting, which will then lead to a backlash in the Muslim world that al Qaeda can take advantage of. And no one cheerleads/lobbies harder for overreaction than Fox.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 2 months ago

Is that the royal "we?"

Or are you speaking for both yourself and your not-evil twin.

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