December 1, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 435

Al-Jazeera 2001: Dry Run For A Terrorism Propaganda Campaign

December 1, 2022 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Qatar | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 435

As part of a new series in celebration of MEMRI's 25th anniversary, Vice President Alberto M. Fernandez goes way back into the MEMRI archives to a notorious past episode of the Qatari-funded Al-Jazeera satellite channel's top-rated debate show. This was a program that not only marked Al-Jazeera's future path but also serves as a type of template for the advocacy disguised as journalism which has become all too common in foreign and American media.

For a program intended to shock, it was probably, and in retrospect, certainly, one of the more shocking shows that host Dr. Faisal Al-Qassem ever aired. His program "The Opposite Direction" (Al-Itijah Al-Mu'akis) was, and has remained for years, Al-Jazeera's flagship program. Along with the late Dr. Yousuf Al-Qaradawi's program on Islam, they are certainly the two programs that tend to come up the most in conversation about the channel. Al-Qassem's program began in 1997, shortly after the Doha-based channel launched, and airs to this day.[1] Ostensibly, it is sold as just a debate show with two contending voices with Al-Qassem as the referee. If you go to Wikipedia, you will see it compared to the old CNN program "Crossfire," which featured an American liberal and conservative debating the issues of the day. "The Opposite Direction" was probably more contentious than its American counterpart, with at least a couple of episodes where guests overturned the table or threw things at each other.

But what the Wikipedia entry completely fails to capture is the skewed nature of the show. It was never a battle between equals; Al-Qassem and the program's writers and producers set the stage up front by giving their spin on the polemical topic with a series of leading questions to open the show. An "Opposite Direction" poll held while the program was underway allowed Al-Qassem to swoop in at the end and present the – never surprising – results of the viewer survey, which reliably skewed towards the Islamist or Arab nationalist or anti-U.S. point of view.

The episode aired on July 10, 2001, championed a rising folk hero in the Arab and Muslim world, Osama bin Laden, almost two months to the day before the September 11 attacks. Al-Qassem began the show, titled "Bin Laden – Arab Despair and American Fear" with his usual flourish:[2]

"Do you know how much Osama bin Laden weighs? That's what one of the Arab leaders at the recent summit in Amman asked. The answer is: No more than 50 kg. In contrast, the average weight of the Arab leaders is at least 80 kg, not to mention the weight of the [Arab] armies and the huge budgets. Nevertheless, the slender bin Laden has made the greatest power in history shudder at the sound of his name, [while] the physical and material heavyweights arouse only America's pity and ridicule... Has bin Laden not become a worthy opponent, feared by America – for whom [America] moves its fleets and puts its army and embassies on highest alert?... Who smashed one of its destroyers on the high seas? Who fought it in Somalia and caused its troops to run like rabbits? Who made its embassies throughout the world into fortresses [whose residents] fear even a light breeze? Who caused America to yelp in pain one hundred times? Who has become recently the No. 1 Arab and Islamic hero? Does the U.S. fear him because it sees him as a terrorist, or because he is the conscience of the Arab and Islamic world?"[3]

With that rousing introduction, Al-Qassem welcomed his two guests, London-based Sudanese "liberal" (who would state during the program that he supports Hamas and Hezbollah) Al-Hatem Adlan and London-based Palestinian journalist Abd Al-Bari Atwan, editor of the – at the time – Libyan (or was it Iraqi?) subsidized Arab daily Al-Quds al-Arabi. Atwan would, after September 11th, be a frequent guest on Western English-language media such as BBC Television and CNN, supposedly representing the "Arab viewpoint."[4] Atwan had interviewed bin Laden in 1996 in Afghanistan months after the Saudi terrorist had fled Sudan and found refuge in the caves at Tora Bora controlled by the Afghan Taliban.

In the summer of 2001, bin Laden and his organization were not as famous globally as they would become after 9/11, but Al-Qaeda had already carried out the 1996 Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 bombing of two U.S. Embassies in East Africa that killed 224 and wounded 4,000 people, most of them Africans, and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor. The group, using the cover of the "World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders," had in 1998 openly declared a jihad against "the Americans and their allies, civilian and military."[5] This statement (sometimes called a fatwa but it was more a poetic and polished press release), signed by bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri (who probably wrote it), had been faxed to, and first appeared in, Atwan's own Al-Quds al-Arabi, as had an earlier bin Laden missive in 1996.

In addition to U.S. policy towards Israel and against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, bin Laden's declaration of jihad cited the U.S. military presence in the Arabian Peninsula (not in Saudi Arabia alone as is often cited) as a reason for the declaration of war. Ironically, Al-Jazeera was broadcasting a program praising bin Laden – who wanted the Americans out of the region – while Qatar had just built and paid for an American air base, at Al-Udeid, in 1996. Both the U.S. military presence in Qatar and in Saudi Arabia developed at the same time and for the same reasons, as a result of  1991's Operation Desert Storm against Iraq.

Atwan would dominate the television debate not only by defending bin Laden but by putting the onus on the Americans. It was they who twere terrorists, as they had proved in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and later in Vietnam. Ironically, Atwan would contrast bin Laden with the Philippine Muslim group Abu Sayyaf: "There is a difference between bin Laden and, say, the Abu Sayyaf organization. Abu Sayyaf is a terrorist organization that kidnaps civilians and demands ransom... (Al-Qassem interjects: "While bin Laden is a legitimate jihad fighter") [while] bin Laden has a work plan." The irony here is that Abu Sayyaf had been connected to Al-Qaeda and, indeed, to bin Laden himself, for years before Atwan and al-Qassem tried to contrast the two.[6]

So far, the viewer would have been seeing the following:

Host Faisal Al-Qassem – enthusiastically in favor of bin Laden ("can you deny that this jihad warrior who is now in Afghanistan is striking fear into America, which shudders at the sound of his name?").

Guest Abdel Bari Atwan – enthusiastically in favor of bin Laden.

Guest Al-Hatem Adlan – outnumbered, critical of bin Laden but supporting Hamas and Hizbullah.

But it would get worse. Al-Qassem noted that many viewers had sent in faxes praising bin Laden. The host then brought in the voices of some viewers calling into the program. Muhammad Al-Tamimi from Amman opined that bin Laden "is not a terrorist... he is one of the drawn swords of Allah, brandished at the faces of the leader of the infidels on the face of the Earth – America – which is also the leader of terrorism."

Dr. Sa'ad Al-Faqih, a Saudi Islamist based in London, praised bin Laden and added that "the nation thirsts deeply for someone who will confront America... not with words and slogans."

The next "viewer" to call in was Al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith. Host Al-Qassem, incredibly, neglected to mention that he was talking to someone actually connected to Al-Qaeda, introducing Abu Ghaith as "an imam and mosque preacher, I don't know, from the vast country of God." Abu Ghaith, not surprisingly, seemed rather well prepared and made six points undisturbed by the host, the main ones being that it was the individual religious duty of every Muslim to fight the Americans and that 12,000 Arab youths should sign up with Al-Qaeda to do so. This was a recruitment speech rather than a comment. The Arabic transcript of Abu Ghaith's remarks on the Al-Jazeera website takes up almost two pages. This would be the first of several appearances by Abu Ghaith on the Qatari channel, but in his later appearances, his allegiance was made clear.[7] Abu Ghaith has been serving a life sentence in prison in the U.S. since 2014.

More pro-bin Laden callers followed. Shaker Mansour, from Denmark, claimed that "America occupies the Gulf," recited a poem, and agreed "with the brother before me" (Abu Ghaith) that it is a religious obligation for Muslims to remove the Americans from the Arabian Peninsula. Sheikh Yassin Omar from Beirut was the next caller, also praising bin Laden and comparing him to Che Guevara as "the same phenomenon as Guevara. He works towards liberation."

Faisal Al-Qassem would end the show by mocking bin Laden critic Adlan, highlighting an Al-Jazeera poll that supposedly showed that 82.7% of respondents saw bin Laden as a jihad fighter (a mujahid) while only 8.8% saw him as a terrorist. "This is an actual result about which there can be no argument... There is an Arab consensus from the Gulf to the [Atlantic] ocean. A real 82% – not like percentages in elections in Arab countries." When Adlan demurred that such television polls are not representative, Al-Qassem added that "the people who use the Internet are the educated class – and if this is the situation with them, you can only imagine what it is among the poor, the persecuted, and those who have been stripped [of their rights]. Maybe even 99.99%!"

The skewed nature of the program shouldn't come as a surprise. It was very much in line with the channel's (and Qatar's) overall political line of consistently supporting Islamism, anti-West terrorism, and anti-U.S. propaganda.[8] It was only a few years before this program that Qatar had actually sheltered 9/11 mastermind Khaled Sheikh Muhammad and somehow allowed him to slip through the FBI's fingers.[9] According to a senior White House counterterrorism official, there was Qatari government collusion at the highest level in Muhammad's escape.[10] Richard Clarke later wrote that "had the Qataris handed him over to us as requested in 1996, the world might have been a very different place."[11]

I had the rather unique experience of being a guest on Faisal Al-Qassem's program on Al-Jazeera several times when I was in the U.S. government, appearing both when I was a State Department spokesman in Washington, and later, as the U.S. Charge d'Affaires at our embassy in Sudan.[12] It was tough since I was a non-native speaker of Arabic debating on live television with native speakers of Arabic. But aside from that, you knew that even if you might be able to get some of your points in, your position would be overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the other guest's verbiage, in addition to Al-Qassem's interventions. I did it because I had to (and because no one else was willing to do so), but it was a type of broadcast ritual slaughter with you as the sacrificial victim.[13]

It was a very popular program on a network with a large target audience, but you knew that you were under the gun and under a microscope at the same time. There is a logical reason why government spokesmen prefer shorter appearances and friendlier hosts. I guess it is small consolation that native speakers of Arabic who would go on the same program and advocate for the "unpopular" position (the anti-terrorist, pro-West, or anti-extremist side) usually met a similar fate. A glutton for punishment, I went on one more episode after my retirement from the State Department in late 2015, and that was enough. On that occasion, they paired me with a Sweden-based Iraqi supporter of ISIS as my opponent.[14]

The channel would, of course, be infamous as the main outlet for Al-Qaeda statements during the years immediately after 9/11, but it can be said that the ideological script was prepped before those attacks. While Al-Jazeera and Qatar deserve harsh condemnation for their irresponsible and intentional media support for terrorism going back decades – support which continues to this day – there is today far less surprise and acceptance of these positions than there was in 2001.[15] Qatari media policy is well-known and patently obvious to anyone with an open mind. The channel has its audience, but decades of flogging the same causes have reduced its audience to the true believers. This led Qatar to try to create an Arab nationalist counterpart to the Islamist Al-Jazeera, when Doha bankrolled the media empire of the exiled Israeli Arab and former leftist Knesset member Azmi Bishara.[16]

Divorced from its regional and Arabic language setting, Al-Jazeera and its way of channeling advocacy – often advocacy for extremism – can be seen as a precursor to something we have become very used to seeing in the West in the past few years. Instead of Islamism, we see the Western media increasingly subject to ideological capture by the progressive left, by going "woke." Just like Al-Jazeera would submit both news and opinion shows to the parameters of an ideological construct and the narrative that flows from such a worldview – an Islamist anti-West narrative – today's American media outlets do the same, except that it is usually a "progressive" and often anti-West narrative (right-wing media as it exists in the West mirrors this approach from the right, but in terms of sheer weight in American conversation, the numbers – media plus culture plus big tech plus higher education establishments – are on the left).[17] Part of the moral panic over Elon Musk's recent acquisition of Twitter seems to be the fear that this ideological hegemony just became somewhat less monolithic.

One of the ironies of media today is that one of the wokest media outlets in English today is probably Al-Jazeera's English language social media platform AJ+, which covers social justice and LGBTQ issues in ways that would be anathema in Arabic. But as far as its target continues to be the power structure and establishment in the West, rather than in Qatar or in the Muslim world, there is no contradiction between AJ+ covering race and gender issues in the West from the "woke" standpoint and the blatant Islamism of AJ Arabic.[18] Both aim at the same adversaries; they are both against the same "status quo" in the same locations.  

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], accessed December 1, 2022.

[2], February 18, 2016.

[4], September 9, 2022.

[5], November 1, 1998.

[6], accessed December 20, 2001.

[7], October 24, 2004.

[8] MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1527, Al-Jazeera Unmasked: Political Islam As A Media Arm Of The Qatari State, August 12, 2020.

[9], September 6, 2021.

[10], July 6, 2017.

[11], July 6, 2017.

[12], November 7, 2007.

[13], accessed December 1, 2022.

[14], October 13, 2015.

[16], May 5, 2014.

[17], April 24, 2022.

[18], accessed December 1, 2022.

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