Jihad for Dummies

Last week, al-Qaeda released a video with an American calling on his countrymen to convert to Islam and “join the winning side”. Unfortunately, its strategy shows an ignorance of marketing. For starters, it ignores the value of celebrity branding. Scientology would never get an unknown such as “Azzam the American” to promote it when it has Tom Cruise on board and even the shabbiest infomercial wheels out a B-grade celebrity such as Danny Bonaduce.

As the most wanted man in the world, Osama bin Laden has genuine star power and al-Qaeda is wasting his public appearances on incoherent ramblings.
Instead he could be delivering a compelling pitch. He should take a leaf from Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has challenged George Bush to a televised debate and even started his own weblog.
Then there’s presentation. Westerners have short attention spans and 48 minutes of a guy in drab clothes yelling at the camera isn’t going to convert anyone. They needed about three minutes, spiced up with slick editing, trendy camera angles and funky graphics and music.
And if al-Qaeda wants its clips to really take off on YouTube, a comic twist or gimmick is mandatory. To produce the kind of viral clip that people forward to their friends, the network should have had its message of global jihad delivered by a guy doing an awesome slam dunk, or perhaps a rollerskating dog.
What’s more, using American talent is hardly going to get Australians to view al-Qaeda sympathetically.
They could have overdubbed the video with an Australian accent for local audiences.
The West isn’t much better at communicating with Islamic countries. During the recent conflict, Israel inundated answering machines in Lebanese homes with threatening messages addressed to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. “Hassan, have you realised yet that the Israeli army is not as delicate as a spider’s web? It’s a web of steel that will strangle you,” one message said.
Many of them were made in the early hours of the morning, blurring the line between propaganda and prank call.
It wasn’t exactly a good way to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Lebanese. Judging by the angry reactions reported in the press, Israel has successfully done something I thought was impossible – invent a more annoying phone call than one from a telemarketer.
Both sides in the war on terror have a long way to go before we can break down the communication barriers that divide us. Still, I’d rather al-Qaeda try to release viral videos on the internet than anthrax in our cities.
Read more of Dominic Knight on the Radar blog at radar.smh.com.au.

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