Muslim apocalyptic movements like al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other jihadi groups are winning an information war that the West barely recognizes exists
Yet the major players in our public sphere—the news media, pundits, academic experts, and even strategic policy thinkers—have systematically folded when faced with an aggressive assault from radical Islam. A number of factors can help us understand how this startling reversal came about—post-colonial guilt, moral relativism and narcissism, intimidation and cowardice, radical agendas, media malfeasance—but all of them profit from being understood in terms of a larger millennial framework.
Essentially, an apocalyptic millennial movement has declared war on the West and been able to conduct cognitive warfare on our home turf—partly because we don’t recognize the nature of the foe, partly because we are so committed to the rules and values of civil society that we have difficulty even acknowledging that a state of war exists. Most of us are too secular to appreciate the beliefs involved. And as a result of this ignorance, we misidentify and badly analyze the phenomenon in question.
Western purveyors of news are, of course, a strategic target for jihadi cognitive warriors: Journalists are the main shapers of Western public opinion, and, it turns out, they are highly susceptible to intimidation and manipulation. As a result, the mainstream news media have, surely unwittingly but nonetheless consistently, played a crucial role in mainstreaming jihadi themes in the Western public sphere, even as they disguise the source and nature of these themes. A study of perhaps the single most powerful attack in the cognitive war of global jihad and its aftermath offers a detailed insight into the ways in which this has occurred. It illustrates the weaknesses of our media, as well as the critical but obscured relationship between jihad and the so-called Israel problem.
On Sept. 30, 2000, France2 Television ran a story about Muhammad al Durah, a 12-year-old boy who, along with his father, was pinned down in a cross-fire between Israeli and Palestinian forces at Netzarim Junction in the Gaza Strip. “The target of fire from the Israeli position, the boy was killed and the father badly wounded,” veteran French journalist Charles Enderlin reported. Enderlin distributed the footage to all his colleagues for free, and this story ran around the world in hours.
The impact in the Arab world was immediate: Arab riots in Israel, world-wide indignation, accusations of deliberate murder. Al Jazeera and PA TV ran the footage repeatedly. PA technicians inserted a brief clip of an Israeli soldier firing rubber bullets at Arabs rioting over al Durah into the footage, so that it looked like the Israeli had targeted and deliberately killed the boy. The invented footage became a major tool of incitement for the nascent intifada that targeted Israeli civilians on both sides of the Green Line and reached a climax in the October 12 Ramallah lynching of two Israeli reservists by a mob who literally tore their bodies apart and dragged the parts through the city shouting, “Revenge for the blood of Muhammad al Durah.”
The actual evidence, however, posed serious problems for the explosive narrative of deliberate child-murder. The footage, closely examined, contradicted every detail of the claim that Israel had killed the boy “in cold blood,” as a France 2 photographer put it, from the alleged “forty minutes of [Israeli] bullets like rain” (rather, there were only a few bullets one could identify in the brief footage, all from the Palestinian side), to the 20-minute-long death from a fatal stomach wound (no sign of blood on the ground), to the murdered ambulance driver (no evidence), to the dead boy (who moves quite deliberately in the final scene, which Enderlin cut for his broadcast).
Moreover, the al Durah footage was only the most spectacular example of a widespread practice among Palestinian cameramen of staging scenes that illustrate their framing of the conflict: the Palestinian David vs. the Israeli Goliath. Indeed, over the years, Palestinians have created a veritable cinematic industry—Pallywood—of staged scenes that Western news agencies regularly pass on to an unsuspecting public. When historians look back in future generations, the failure of the mainstream news media to catch this badly executed hoax, even a decade after its occurrence and years after the evidence was available, will stand as one of the most astonishing failures of 21st-century journalism.
In turn, the al Durah footage was merely one episode in a long-standing cognitive war Palestinians have conducted against the Israelis with growing success since the Lebanon War of 1982. A representative of PATV revealed the cognitive warrior’s mindset as he explained why they spliced in the footage of the Israeli soldier in order to make the accusation of deliberate murder: “These are forms of artistic expression, but all of this serves to convey the truth. … We never forget our higher journalistic principles to which we are committed of relating the truth and nothing but the truth”—in other words, weaponizing a lethal narrative in order to demonize our enemy however much such an action might violate every principle of professional journalism.
Talal abu Rahmeh, the cameraman who shot the staged scene, boasted that he too was a warrior in the struggle of his people. When caught in a lie about having collected Israeli bullets from the scene in an interview, he explained unapologetically, “We have our secrets. We can’t give anything, just everything.” For Palestinian “journalists,” news was a theater of war. Western journalists acknowledged this even as they broadcast these lethal narratives to their publics at home: “They’re the weapons of the weak,” one French journalist explained of the broadcasts.
Indeed, the al Durah footage was such a powerful image that it became not merely an emblem for the Palestinians but, through Al Jazeera’s constant use of the image, a symbol for the entire Muslim world. Within months of the incident, Osama Bin Laden, who had declared jihad on the United States only two years earlier, featured the Palestinian conflict and specifically al Durah in a global recruiting video. Bin Laden immediately understood the value of the footage not only as a lethal narrative aimed at Israel but also at its supporters, like the United States, or those who failed to avenge the boy’s “death,” meaning cowardly Arab leaders. “In killing this boy, the Israelis killed every child in the world,” as Osama Bin Laden is said to have put it.
Paris, October 2000.
Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images
Like the medieval blood libel, the story of the deliberate murder of an innocent Muslim child was framed as a symbol of cosmic Jewish malevolence. Far from exercising any kind of due diligence, the European media ran the footage almost as frequently as Arab media, mainstreaming the longstanding Palestinian claim that the Israelis were the new Nazis. Within a week of its first appearance, demonstrators across the Western world massed in the streets to protest Israeli “murder,” some of them carrying signs equating the Star of David with the Nazi swastika and others carrying the banners of terrorist organizations like Hamas. The fact that Western viewers are hardly surprised by such images anymore is a measure of the success of a larger campaign of cognitive warfare by a millennial cult, whose dreams of the end of days may be preposterous but who pose a clear and continuing danger to Western democratic values and practices.
Israel became openly reviled. One diplomat referred to the Jewish state as that “shitty little country,” and more than one prominent world figure compared Israel to the Nazis. It was as if the restraints on criticizing Israel placed on Europeans since the Holocaust had been lifted. As one respected anchorwoman for Europe1 put it: “This death annuls, replaces, erases the picture of the boy in the Warsaw Ghetto.” In other words, al Durah was a get-out-of-Holocaust-guilt-free card.
Here we see the diabolic genius of the jihadi cognitive war against the West. Having borrowed extensively from the depraved archive of Western anti-Semitism, jihadis played on the scarcely repressed anti-Semitism of the West and reintroduced it via anti-Zionism. Even as Europeans insisted that anti-Zionism was not the same as anti-Semitism, they used anti-Zionism to free themselves of the restraints that decent guilt about the Holocaust had placed on their desire to heap abuse on Jews: Hatred of Israel, they claimed, had nothing to do with Jews, even as Israel’s behavior showed that Jews with power were no better than Nazis.
Three cemeteries belonging to Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in North America, are tucked away in Manhattan, a visible legacy of New York City’s long-ago Jewish past