This is surprising considering that Al-Jazeera shot to prominent fame internationally for being the preferred source for the distribution of messages by As-Sahab, Al-Qaeda's media production wing. Al-Jazeera which was formed in 1996, owed its spectacular growth in viewer ship ratings to the terrorist attack on September 11 and its ability to air previously unseen and newly produced messages from Al-Qaeda.
Among the infamous recordings which Al-Jazeera exclusively aired were the 29 October 2004, message from the Al-Qaeda leader which was addressed to the American people just prior to the U.S. presidential elections. It has been argued by many political commentators that the speech turned public opinion in favor of Bush, and resulted in his reelection. Significantly, it was during this recording that Bin Laden acknowledged his role in the September 11 attacks.
On 17 December 2007, a militant website aired a 90 minute videotaped interview with Aymaan Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda's deputy leader. At the end of the interview, Zawahiri invited questions from individuals and media outlets to be submitted to Jihadi websites, for him to answer them. If successful it would provide the first known instance of the internet being used to provide an interactive interface for the propagation of a terrorist ideology.
Significantly, the interview also provided the first sign of dissension against Al-Jazeera. Accusing the channel of distorting a critical message by Bin Laden to the Mujahideen groups in Iraq, he alleged manipulation by the channel to show Bin Laden in poor light.
Lashing out at the media in general, he accused them of "rarely bothering to reach out to the Mujahideen".
Another sign of a growing rift between the network and the organization was in the aftermath of the assassination of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. It has been alleged by the Pakistan government that Al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack with the government citing tapped telephonic transcripts for its declaration. Earlier, Al-Qaeda commander Mustafa Abu al-Yazid had contacted Asia Times and acknowledged the groups role in the assassination (Asia Times, 29 December 2007). Additionally, Yazid also contacted Italian news agency Adnkronos International to acknowledge the terror groups role in the assassination. (Adnkronos, 27 December 2007). Al-Jazeera was not seen as the preferred source to disseminate this information.
It is interesting to note that during the Afghanistan bombing campaign, the Al-Jazeera office in Kabul was targeted by an American Bomber, in what has been described as a stray bombing. It was widely suspected by western governmental sources that Al-Qaeda and Al-Jazeera shared a symbiotic relationship in which Al-Qaeda was able to spread its message to the Arab world and Al-Jazeera was able to profit from the increased viewer ship which followed. It was reported by the British newspaper 'The Daily Mirror", that the strike was authorized by President Bush in response to the increasing number of Al-Qaeda video releases from the channel.
Al-Jazeera is partly funded by the Qatari Emir and despite popular trend in the region the government has not interfered in the working of the television channel. Indeed, the channel claimed to be, and has, a record of being one of the more independent news channels in the Arab world. However, is this stance changing under American pressure?
Qatar and the United States are sharing an increasingly friendly relationship. The United States is starting to view Qatar as a preferable base camp for its military operations in the Middle East in view of the difficulties in relations with Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, Qatar provided important logistical support during Operation Iraqi Freedom and is now home to the US combat air operations center which was shifted from Saudi Arabia in 2003.
The question of Al-Jazeera's critical coverage of the Iraq war and its aftermath, and its perception to be a particularly anti-American news channel led the United States to establish the Al-Hurrah television channel in 2004. However, owing to the extremely disappointing viewer ship ratings the channel could not compete with the established Al-Jazeera network. It would therefore be a logical outcome for the United States to adopt pressure tactics with the Qatar government, owing to its relations with Al-Jazeera.
Al-Qaeda's decision to ditch Al-Jazeera can hence be attributed to the growing relations between the United States and Qatar. To promote a government funded channel, when the government itself is allying itself with the United States would have led to a realization of hypocrisy in the ranks of the Al-Qaeda. The latest development also provides Al-Qaeda a chance to improve its internet propaganda machinery, a medium which governments would find much harder to control, and has been effectively used by other terrorist organizations as well.