L.A. Now
Live updates: Tour bus collides with big rig in fatal crash in Desert Hot Springs

Arab Satellite TV Station a Prime Battlefield in Information War

Times Staff Writer

Hamad ibn Thamer al Thani is under attack. The White House has accused him of potentially spreading terrorism. Many Islamic leaders won't talk to him. His boss has received more than 400 complaints.

But the satellite television network he runs, Al Jazeera, has an audience estimated at 35 million and growing. ABC visited this week, hoping to forge a relationship. And Hamad is making more than $250,000 each time he sells a three-minute Osama bin Laden clip.

This is a front line of the war against terrorism. In the Arab world, information has become a valued weapon.

"All these accusations are proof that we are trying to be professionals and do our job the best way we can," Hamad said at a news conference Thursday at which he defiantly dismissed U.S. demands to tone down Al Jazeera's coverage, including statements by Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network. "If we have faults, we try to correct them."

Al Jazeera is only one battlefield in this newest of conflicts: the information war.

From propaganda to media broadcasts to covert intelligence, information is playing a more important role in this war than in any other conflict in recent history, according to diplomats, analysts and military experts.

In part, that's because of the nature of the conflict. The U.S. is fighting highly mobile, highly secretive networks not found on the pages of an atlas. At the same time, it must hold together a fragile coalition composed of historical enemies, competing factions and angry constituencies.

But the importance of information in this war is more than simply finding Bin Laden's hide-out. In the long run, America's crucial battle is to shape public opinion at home and abroad during an extended conflict.

How, for instance, do you define victory? How do you convince the public when you've won a war that has no obvious goal, such as the capture of a capital? And how do you persuade it to continue fighting?

In that way, the war on terrorism resembles the Cold War, a 45-year ideological struggle in which both the West and the Soviet Union fought to get out a political message.

But unlike in the Cold War, the streams of information now are nearly unlimited; the Internet, cellular phones and satellite dishes weren't widespread a decade ago. Both the U.S. and Arab governments have long since lost the ability to control images and sound bites.

"In every war, information is extremely important. But this time, it's even more important," said Anthony Pratkanis, a professor at UC Santa Cruz who has written a book on persuasion techniques. "We have built the coalition with the various nations. Now we need to build coalitions with the nations' people. There's a need for democracy building."

Or, as one U.S. official familiar with the region put it: "This is a battle for public opinion. We're doing everything we can to win that battle."

A Small Building in a Barren Setting

Perhaps no incident better illustrates the behind-the-scenes fight to control information than Washington's battle with Al Jazeera.

The network's programming emanates from a small blue and white building sitting on the barren, blindingly white moonscape of Doha, the capital of Qatar, one of the smallest of the Persian Gulf States.

When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak saw the building recently, he snorted, saying, "You mean to tell me that all this trouble comes from this matchbox?"

His choice of words was apt, because Al Jazeera has sparked a blaze of controversy.

On the air since 1996, it provided Muslims their first glimpse of the daily thump and grind of Arab life--warts and all. The station was the first to offer extended debates over typically taboo topics such as polygamy and women's rights. It was the first to feature interviews with top Jewish leaders.

The pieces angered Arab leaders, who were accustomed to tight control over state media. Egypt was so angry at one broadcast, it expelled a newscaster's brother.

But more than anything, Al Jazeera gained fame for its graphic and frequent depictions of the intifada, the year-old clash between Palestinians and Israelis that has galvanized the world's 1.2 billion Muslims.

"It's an amazing channel," said Khalid ibn Jaber al Thani, a member of the ruling family. "You get to know what you want to know."

But that, according to U.S. officials, is too much, especially now, in the middle of a war. During a recent state visit, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell asked Sheik Hamad ibn Khalifa al Thani, Qatar's emir and Al Jazeera's owner, to "tone down" the coverage.

The language grew stronger late this week, when National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told U.S. network executives that Bin Laden might be using Al Jazeera to transmit coded messages to terrorist cells.

The confrontation grew out of Al Jazeera's special relationship with Bin Laden. The network conducted an extensive interview with the Saudi militant in 1998, one it broadcast three times in one day shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, angering U.S. officials.

Further, as the only television network with an office in Kabul, the Afghan capital--despite the Taliban's ban on television--it has received exclusive footage or messages from Bin Laden three times since the attacks.

U.S. government officials acknowledge that they're actively trying to alter Al Jazeera's editorial content. In addition to Powell's conversation with the emir, officials have visited the station itself to express their concerns that it has become a terrorist mouthpiece. They have also worried about Al Jazeera's objectivity.

U.S. officials compared their attempts to the actions of an angry public official calling a local media outlet to complain about coverage.

"I see it as much less a freedom of the press issue than a matter-of-fact battle for public opinion. This is a legitimate debate. Is this news, or are you giving a soapbox to terrorism?" said one U.S. official familiar with the region.

So far, Al Jazeera has resisted any entreaties to change, although the complaints come at a delicate time. The network's five-year, $150-million government grant runs out at the end of the month. That means the network must raise its own money to continue. Facing a commercial boycott encouraged by Arab leaders in other countries, it has gotten a big funding boost from one of its most lucrative products--the Bin Laden videos.

Mohammed Jasem al Ali, Al Jazeera's managing director, said he has charged as much as $250,000 for a three-minute clip from the 1998 Bin Laden interview. He would not say how much he has charged CNN and other media outlets for the right to the most recent clips, although he said it was less than $1 million.

"We're making good money," he said, smiling.

So far, the U.S. attempts to influence Al Jazeera have backfired badly. Several leading Arab commentators have accused the U.S. of a double standard, promoting free press at home while crushing it abroad.

At the news conference Thursday, Hamad ibn Thamer al Thani, who is chairman of Al Jazeera's board, defiantly vowed to continue programming as usual, despite U.S. claims that more Bin Laden clips could help terrorists.

"I'm not in a position to determine if there is a message in a videotape," Hamad said. "Our main target is to do things in a professional manner. If we have proof, we'd review it at that moment. But we cannot presuppose" what we would do.

State Dept. Takes On Voice of America

The battle with Al Jazeera is only one front. State Department officials also tried to stop the Voice of America, the U.S. government's radio voice, from airing an exclusive interview with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Though the interview was eventually aired, the heavy-handed attempts angered the station's news director.

"During the past few days, there has been a systematic attack on the Voice of America," wrote Andre deNesnera, the news director.

The U.S. has also stepped up its propaganda campaign, dropping leaflets, food packets and hand-crank radios into Afghanistan. Moving through Congress is a $14-million plan to create a Radio Free Afghanistan to broadcast the U.S. view into the region.

Americans are not the only ones engaged in the information battle.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has mounted a one-man lobbying campaign, journeying throughout the Middle East, appearing on Al Jazeera and writing letters in Arabic newspapers to convince Muslims that the war on terrorism is just.

The Arab League recently announced plans to try to mount its own satellite news program in English, to focus on the intifada. And Palestinians unsuccessfully tried to block reporters from filming Palestinians celebrating on the day of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"There is one weakness of the mass media, and that is you can't get a proper sense of perspective from a picture on CNN," said Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian Authority minister. The filming "gave the false feeling that this represents how Palestinians feel. That angered President [Yasser] Arafat."

And then, of course, there is Bin Laden himself, who has shown himself to be a master propagandist. He successfully got on the air the first night of the allied strike, reinforcing his image of invulnerability.

And he used stirring rhetoric that successfully won over many Muslims, according to media experts.

"Bin Laden gained a lot of support in the Arab world and with many Muslims," said Mohammed Mussir, a political science professor at Qatar University. "He is now a hero among many."

Another issue is the difficulty of getting any message across in an era in which there are so many different outlets. To win a battle in today's "message-dense" environment, the key requirements are patience, focus and, perhaps most important, old-fashioned democratic persuasion.

All of those things require a long-term commitment, a foreign policy focus the U.S. has not embraced since the end of the Cold War a decade ago.

"How do you have a democracy in a world of seven-second sound bites?" asked Pratkanis, the UC professor. "That is the task."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times