Guantanamo

Guantanamo as Propaganda: A Reply to Adam Jacobson

By Sebastian Brady, Cody M. Poplin
Friday, June 19, 2015, 10:15 AM

Last week at Just Security, Adam Jacobson took issue with our analysis of Guantanamo's role in jihadist propagandaand challenged our claim, advanced in a prior piece on Lawfare, that Guantanamo actually does not figure prominently in magazines, speeches, and similar materials published by terrorist groups.

Ironically, Jacobson's rejoinder only underscores our point: Indeed, in his piece, Jacobson spills more ink over Guantanamo than al Qaeda and its affiliates have in years. Straining to demonstrate that Guantanamo remains a driving force in terrorist recruitment, he mentions the facility 28 times—that is, 3.5 times as many as al Qaeda and all its affiliates have mentioned Guantanamo in the last year, according to his own numbers. Below, we respond to a few other features of Jacobson's piece.  

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Perhaps the biggest issue in Jacobson's piece is that he builds and then attacks a straw man. In an attempt to refute our claim that Guantanamo is a relatively minor feature of jihadist propaganda, he explains that

The main purpose of al-Qaeda’s propaganda is to spread the myth of a Western war on Islam — to convince the group’s audience that a crusade led by the United States exists and that it threatens the worldwide Muslim community. … Guantánamo … is used to feed that narrative in a very deliberate way.

Having shown that jihadists do, in fact, use Guantanamo in their propaganda, and that its use reinforces the central narrative of jihadist propaganda, Jacobson claims victory. Unfortunately, we never claimed that Guantanamo doesn’t appear in jihadist propaganda, or that Guantanamo is irrelevant to propagandists’ goals. In fact, we made the opposite point in our piece, just as Jacobson did in his:

[T]he primary driver of these groups’ propaganda … is a narrative describing the West as involved in a crusade against the Muslim people … Guantanamo at times provides another instance of this crusade.

But that alone tells us little about the relative value of the prison facility for propagandists, the subject we actually did take up in our piece. Exploring it requires one to do what Jacobson didn't in his rejoinder: to examine Guantanamo’s prevalence compared to other propaganda subjects, like drones, Bagram, and so on.  It happens that such context, when supplied, cuts squarely against Jacobson's claims. The chart below tallies mentions of various jihadist touchstones in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine. A quick glance reveals that other issues get way more airtime than Guantanamo does: Drones are discussed 88 times, for example; Guantanamo, only 24.  

It's the same story in Resurgence, a magazine distributed by Al-Qaeda's new South Asia-affiliate. There, U.S. drones are again mentioned 88 times in a full-feature 8-page section; GTMO gets a measly 3 mentions. 

Ditto when we open Dabiq, ISIS’s English-language propaganda rag. There, Guantanamo has only been mentioned four times, but never with any serious emphasis or alongside a call to action: In one place, the author simply recalls a terrorist who was held in Guantanamo, and in passing; in another, Dabiq refers to the Bowe Berghdal swap. But neither these examples nor the other two, alone or together, demonsrate that Guantanamo is central to ISIS’s propaganda.  (Our original post contains an index of references to Guantanamo and a numbers breakdown).

What are we to make of the fact that the world’s most prolific jihadist propaganda outfit and the world’s greatest recruiter of foreign fighters has only mentioned Guantanamo a handful of times? Jacobson concedes the paucity of references to the facility, but insists that Guantanamo really does matter to ISIS, saying:

But if we look at ISIL’s use of the prison in word and deed, a different picture emerges — that of the group taking US human rights abuses as its own tactics.

It is true that ISIS' victims have been waterboarded, and made to wear orange jumpsuits. But its a bit much to argue that a group that traffics in routine beheadings, crucifixions, and a host of other gruesome stuff has taken a page from the United States' book. The evidence doesn't support that claim, anyway. ISIS does not trumpet waterboarding in its propaganda; instead, the group justifies its own human rights abuses by invoking 9th century Islamic jurisprudence, which is both key to establishing its legitimacy among jihadist groups and far more effective among its target audience. ISIS fervently desires to build what it sees as "pure" Caliphate, and thus it promotes a return the group's fanatical interpretation of Islam. That, and not anger over enhanced interrogation techniques or indefinite detention, is where ISIS says its brutality comes from.  

Jacobson also ignores the subtleties of propaganda disseminated by different groups and their various regional afflilates, which we tried to emphasize. Globally, ISIS presents itself as a Caliphate capable of restoring the honor of Muslims everywhere and saving the lives of Sunnis. That message plays differently in different places. For example, in Syria, ISIS propagates a narrative of governance, stability, and the restoration of Muslim honor and dignity in the Islamic State. But, in Iraq, the group puts less emphasis on the ambitions of the Caliphate, and instead portrays ISIS fighters as the defenders of Sunnis. These tailored messages are critical in the information war that ISIS is fighting, and a careful observer will notice how far removed they are from Guantanamo Bay. 

An excerpt from an ISIS statement on a series of bomb attacks carried out in Baghdad and other areas of Iraq at the end of last month emphasizes this point:

The lions of the people of the Sunnah in Baghdad al-Aziz and the other provinces of the Islamic State unleashed a response to the recent crime which the Safavid government [Iran] committed with the execution of a new cohort of prisoners of the Muslims of the people of the Sunnah in Iraq.

Moreover, in reaching his conclusions, Jacobson also provides a variety of statistics that appear problematic at best. In attempting to refute our claim that GTMO may be losing salience in jihadist propaganda, Jacobson points to an analysis of al Qaeda statements he conducted using Haverford College’s al Qaeda Statements Index (a source we also draw on) and other sources. His analysis suggests that the use of Guantanamo in al Qaeda’s public statements has increased somewhat over the last year. 

However, the figures fail to account for the fact that, in the late 2000s, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula came to prominence or the prolific growth in propaganda from ISIS. With the addition of new groups, the entire universe of jihadist propaganda has expanded. So while the number of GTMO mentions might have increased slightly, so has everything else. Here, again, it would be useful to compare Guantanamo mentions to mentions of other key propaganda terms, to see if its use increased relative to these other terms; and here, again, these points of comparison all cut against Jacobson's view. Throughout all issues of Inspire, Guantanamo accounts for less than 2 percent of relevant jihadist rhetorical touchstones. And in that publication's latest issue, mentions of GTMO added up to a whopping ½ of 1 percent. That’s not exactly statistically significant.

Of course, all of this is tangential to our original point. We did not suggest that Guantanamo was no longer being used in jihadist propaganda; we in fact argue that it will likely continue to be used, even after the facility is closed—a point Jacobson actually takes issue with. Instead, we note that while Guantanamo continues to show up in propaganda, the camp seemingly no longer carries the weight it once did. New groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent ignore the facility while traditional jihadists outlets rant against other issues far more frequently.

Finally, Jacobson goes on to address our point that, given the continued presence of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in jihadist rhetoric years after the United States handed the prison over to Iraq, closing GTMO may not eliminate its propaganda value. To counter this, Jacobson points out that mentions of Abu Ghraib peaked in al Qaeda propaganda back in 2005, and that mentions by al Qaeda in Iraq and its successor, ISIS, declined over time. Declining is one thing; disappearing is another. And the fact is that Abu Ghraib continues to appear in jihadist screeds. That likely would prove just as true with GTMO.  As we wrote in our original piece,

As with Abu Ghraib, so too with Guantanamo: With respect to the contents of terrorist materials, what matters is not so much that Guantanamo does or does not continue to operate, but that it existed in the first place.

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In sum, Jacobson’s analysis falls into a trap, which we worked hard to avoid: It lacks necessary context. Sure, you can always find examples of jihadist propaganda that invokes Guantanamo; and we did in our own work. But that alone does not mean Guantanamo represents jihadist propaganda's most central feature, or that closing the detention camp would mean Guantanamo will stop showing up online or in the likes of Dabiq and Inspire.  

We should stress: None of this is to quarrel with Jacobson’s broader conclusion, that GTMO should be closed. We happen to share that view, and there are many persuasive reasons to cashier the facility—as we made clear in our post. But it's quite another thing to claim, as Jacobson does rather hopefully, that “[s]huttering the prison down would go a long way toward refuting” the jihadists' narrative of a western crusade on the Muslim world. The evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary.