By Brigitte L. Nacos
Bin Laden and his followers know all about the value of publicity via the old and new media. That's why they regularly produce and release their audio and video propaganda messages--the latest two within 48 hours and just in time to be aired as "breaking news" as most Americans began a long weekend ahead of the July Fourth holiday. But since publicity is only the means to larger geopolitical ends, bin Laden strives for the attention and recognition that is normally reserved for legitimate political leader. Unfortunately, this is precisely what the Al Qaeda leader achieved: When bin Laden speaks, the whole world listens--especially the very nations he wants to destroy.
We expect the media in a liberal democracy to report new information deemed valuable for citizens--including new messages from enemies, such as bin Laden. But there is no need to over-cover this kind of material as never-ending "breaking news" as again practiced in the latter part of last week--especially by cable networks. First, anchors announce with excitement in their voices that "breaking news" is forthcoming on a new bin Laden audio tape released on a terrorist web site, that details will be reported as soon as a translation is available, that the authenticity of the tape needs to be checked, that... All this before the actual content of the tape is reported over and over again.
But if the news media pay more attention to bin Laden's propaganda than they should, governments and political leaders make the same mistake. Following the release of the second audio message last week, for example, the White House said in a statement, "If authentic, the tape demonstrates once again that bin Laden and al-Qaida continue to use the media to justify their dark vision and war against humanity." That is certainly true. Yet, by responding promptly to such messages as if they came from legitimate leaders, the administration played also and again into bin Laden's scheme to transcend the image of a mere terrorist.
Other governments act along the same lines. In April 2004, several weeks after the train bombings in Madrid sent a shock wave through Western Europe, bin Laden offered to stop terrorist attacks in European countries that would withdraw their troops from Iraq. In Europe, the news of this particular audio tape was reported more prominently than the content of previous bin Laden tapes. And within hours, official spokespersons for several European governments responded to the truce offer. Although they all rejected the proposal categorically, the immediate and highest level attention and response was a testament to bin Laden's quasi-legitimate status. There is little doubt that governments were prompted to respond by the high degree of media attention to bin Laden's message. But as German TV-commentator Elmar Thevessen noted at the time: "I think it would be better not to react to the tape in the way many governments did today. Of course, one [presumably the news media] shouldn't keep quiet about it, but by talking about bin Laden's message all the time, we are upgrading him to a global player."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair learned his lesson. Last year, he let it be known that he would no longer respond to Al Qaeda messages. His colleagues at both sides of the Atlantic should follow his example.