CNN lifts lid on Al Qaeda's obsession with media strategy

A new CNN documentary on the Al Qaeda terrorist network reveals the media strategy used by Osama bin Laden.

CNN Presents: In the Footsteps of bin Laden, presented by the broadcaster's chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, spans 10 countries and four continents, and took six months to complete.

CNN's senior investigative producer, Henry Schuster, who worked with Amanpour on the documentary, told Press Gazette: “To give a notion of how important the western media was, one of his earlier media advisors used the nom de guerre Abu Reuters. It was one of their main sub-committees in the Al Qaeda structure. The media meant and still means a lot to them.”

Bin Laden's first and only press conference was held in 1998 in Khost, Afghanistan where he went public with Al Qaeda's plan to attack the US.

CNN shows, for the first time on camera, the fatwa that was handed out at the conference which gave Al Qaeda "permission" to attack the US.

While the name bin Laden was still unknown to the public, by the '90s, international broadcasters were competing among themselves to secure the first interview with bin Laden.

In 1997, CNN's Peter Arnett was granted permission to interview bin Laden in Afghanistan and an Al Qaeda film crew simultaneously filmed the encounter.

Schuster said that it was not by chance that CNN gained the scoop, adding: "The first time he did full-scale interviews, bin Laden and his people were weighing up should he be on CNN, should he be on the BBC or should he be on CBS show 60 Minutes.

"They were savvy enough to say that the audience that they wanted to reach was CNN's international audience and its audience in the US."

The interview was the first occasion in which a western organisation recorded bin Laden declaring war on America on camera.

From the evidence that he has seen, Schuster believes that Al Qaeda is an incredibly media-savvy organisation.

He said: "Look at the tapes that keep coming out, they seem to get them out after a major event and in case you miss it they then put out the full-length version on the internet with English subtitles.

"They ain't dumb. They are all media strategists now. They have their own TV production company, al Sahab, and they put out very slick documentaries like the released one for the anniversary of the 7/7 bombings."

While some organisations such as the BBC have a policy on the use of Al Qaeda footage, CNN's Nick Wrenn said there is no "blackout policy" on his network.

He said: "Our policy with airing the tapes is that if they are newsworthy we'll air them. If we were to get a tape from bin Laden, from an Arab network or from any other source and we felt that there was a news value in that, then we would use it.

"We would treat it as the news would merit. Journalism comes into it and we'll take out the parts that we feel are relevant for the news story.

In the Footsteps of bin Laden premiered on CNN on Thursday (24 August) at 7pm. It will be repeated on Saturday 2 September at 8pm and Sunday 3 September at 8pm.

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