Dueling messages in Yemen

U.S. sabotages al-Qaida recruiting ads

By Walt Braun

Radical Islamists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere who insist on portraying Americans as unholy crusaders or satanic imperialists are likely to enjoy more success when their propaganda is accompanied by threats. But then, propaganda that lacks truth or contains just enough to make the lies sound credible is rarely persuasive without force.

That’s especially true when the lies are exposed, as is occurring with increasing frequency in Yemen, a stronghold for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Yemenis who don’t know better might fall for al-Qaida advertisements on Yemeni tribal websites that show some of the harm the terrorist organization has inflicted on American soldiers. Some of the ads, for instance, portray coffins draped with American flags and boast of al-Qaida’s success against the United States.

Unanswered, those could lead Yemenis to believe that al-Qaida can defeat the United States and is a group worth supporting — or even joining. But the ads aren’t going unanswered.

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday, U.S. experts have been hacking al-Qaida’s ads and replacing the terrorist message with evidence of the terrorists’ brutality against ordinary Yemenis. Said Secretary Clinton: “Our team plastered the same sites with altered versions of the ads that show the toll al-Qaida attacks have taken on the Yemeni people.”

That toll includes footage of Yemeni coffins and structures destroyed by terrorists. The ads are put together by a group of diplomats, intelligence analysts and others. Among their responsibilities is scouring the Internet and social media for extremist propaganda and recruiting efforts.

The al-Qaida ads in Yemen call to mind the suicide bomb attack Monday at a military ceremony that killed more than 100 Yemeni soldiers and injured as many as 200 others. It occurred on the eve of a parade in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, on National Unification Day. The attack has been attributed to Ansaar al-Shari, an affiliate of AQAP.

The propaganda battle often is overlooked in the greater struggle for Yemen, one that involves U.S. drone attacks on al-Qaida havens and efforts to train Yemeni troops and help stabilize the new government. The government is led by President Abed Rabbo Manasour Hadi, who succeeded Ali Abdullah Saleh. After Yemenis’ uprising in the Arab Spring, Saleh ceded power in an arrangement worked out by Gulf states and the United States.

The certain resistance in America to large deployments of U.S. troops makes weapons such as drones and information technology all the more important. And, Secretary Clinton noted, the latter endeavor is working. “Extremists are publicly venting their frustration and asking supporters not to believe everything they read on the Internet.”

Certainly not their own propaganda.

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