U.S. Exaggerating Zarqawi Role for Propaganda Effect

Thomas Ricks, WaPo’s generally superb defense correspondent, has a page one story in today’s edition explaining that the U.S. military is not presenting an unbiased picture of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The U.S. military is conducting a propaganda campaign to magnify the role of the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to internal military documents and officers familiar with the program. The effort has raised his profile in a way that some military intelligence officials believe may have overstated his importance and helped the Bush administration tie the war to the organization responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The documents state that the U.S. campaign aims to turn Iraqis against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, by playing on their perceived dislike of foreigners. U.S. authorities claim some success with that effort, noting that some tribal Iraqi insurgents have attacked Zarqawi loyalists.

For the past two years, U.S. military leaders have been using Iraqi media and other outlets in Baghdad to publicize Zarqawi’s role in the insurgency. The documents explicitly list the “U.S. Home Audience” as one of the targets of a broader propaganda campaign.
Some senior intelligence officers believe Zarqawi’s role may have been overemphasized by the propaganda campaign, which has included leaflets, radio and television broadcasts, Internet postings and at least one leak to an American journalist. Although Zarqawi and other foreign insurgents in Iraq have conducted deadly bombing attacks, they remain “a very small part of the actual numbers,” Col. Derek Harvey, who served as a military intelligence officer in Iraq and then was one of the top officers handling Iraq intelligence issues on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an Army meeting at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., last summer.

So, why is this a bad thing? Clearly, tarring all the terrorists in Iraq with the same brush is to our strategic advantage. Propaganda is support of one’s war effort is as old as war. In counterinsurgency/counterterrorism, it is even more vital given the need to “win hearts and minds.”

U.S. military policy is not to aim psychological operations at Americans, said Army Col. James A. Treadwell, who commanded the U.S. military psyops unit in Iraq in 2003. “It is ingrained in U.S.: You don’t psyop Americans. We just don’t do it,” said Treadwell. He said he left Iraq before the Zarqawi program began but was later told about it. “When we provided stuff, it was all in Arabic,” and aimed at the Iraqi and Arab media, said another military officer familiar with the program, who spoke on background because he is not supposed to speak to reporters.

But this officer said that the Zarqawi campaign “probably raised his profile in the American press’s view.” With satellite television, e-mail and the Internet, it is impossible to prevent some carryover from propaganda campaigns overseas into the U.S. media, said Treadwell, who is now director of a new project at the U.S. Special Operations Command that focuses on “trans-regional” media issues. Such carryover is “not blowback, it’s bleed-over,” he said. “There’s always going to be a certain amount of bleed-over with the global information environment.”

It’s not as if those who follow this story in the American press are being misled on the matter; it has always been clear that the foreign jihadists make up a small share of the “insurgency.” They are, however, the segment that is generating most of the propaganda victories for the other side, orchestrating most of the terrorist strikes that continue to demoralize the Iraqi and American publics and make it difficult to establish civil society.

The global nature of today’s communications works both ways. Yes, some of the propaganda aimed at the Iraqi audience will get back to the American audience. Much more significantly, though, both the honest debate over Iraq policy and the rhetorical liberties taken by the war’s opponents are impossible to hide from the enemy. The “Bush Lied” and “Bring Our Troops Home Now” memes almost certainly bolster their resolve, encouraging them to step up their attacks in hopes of breaking American will to fight. The cure for that problem would be worse than the ailment, of course, but it is surely more problematic than exaggerating Zarquawi’s role for the consumption of the Arab audience.

FILED UNDER: Environment, Iraq War, Military Affairs, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. akdfjo says:

    honest debate over Iraq policy

    How can there be an “honest debate” when the government is giving dishonest information to the American people?

  2. legion says:

    It’s a bad thing because it leads to an oversimplification of the situatiuon there – Zarqawi (and AQ) no more represent the entire insurgency in Iraq than the IRA does for all the anti-English groups in Northern Ireland.

    And as our own leaders have an annoying habit of believeing their own press, they (and the US public) begin to think that just taking out one ‘name’ bad guy will make the world perfect. When we do take him out, nothing will change, and everyone will begin the blame game once again, but the only product will be the christening of a new ‘ultimate bad guy’…

  3. Barry says:

    Mister Big Unplugged

    The War Nerd, as always, says it best.