Fancher on Jeffords and Al-Sumait, 'Covering bin Laden: Global Media and the World's Most Wanted Man'

Author: 
Susan Jeffords, Fahed Yahya Al-Sumait, eds.
Reviewer: 
Reagan Fancher

Susan Jeffords, Fahed Yahya Al-Sumait, eds. Covering bin Laden: Global Media and the World's Most Wanted Man. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. 304 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08040-1

Reviewed by Reagan Fancher (University of North Texas) Published on H-War (January, 2023) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57499

Following al-Qaeda’s ruthless execution of the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States, Osama bin Laden not only became an infamous household name for many Americans, but the dominant subject of the major headlines in media outlets across the world. In this edited volume titled Covering bin Laden: Global Media and the World’s Most Wanted Man, editors Susan Jeffords and Fahed al-Sumait have skillfully organized eleven chapters authored by various scholars examining how the al-Qaeda leader’s image has been shaped for diverse audiences, often in conflicting ways, by global media. The book is divided into three sections, each of which contains chapters analyzing different aspects of media portrayals of bin Laden and al-Qaeda since 9/11, and includes an introduction and an epilogue as well as a list of contributors and an index.

Located in “Part 1: Defining Political Actors,” the volume’s first three chapters include discussions of bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s use of media for propaganda purposes in addition to introducing the reader to Western and Arab media’s depictions of the exiled Saudi militant. Comparing bin Laden to a “ghost” that continues inflicting psychological harm, author Richard Jackson convincingly assesses the killing of the al-Qaeda leader as a mixed blessing for his enemies, pointing out that his death forces intelligence officials to rely on educated guesswork without being able to analyze his latest video or audio recordings for crucial details to apply in combating the ongoing threat of Islamist militancy. In “The bin Laden Tapes,” Andrew Hill concludes that much of the international media’s focus on bin Laden’s post-9/11 audiotapes appears to have inadvertently contributed to a popular portrayal of him as an elusive, diabolical tormentor capable of injuring and evading his foes, enhancing his image as an enduring hero to militant Islamists worldwide.

“Part 2: Comparing Global News Media” includes chapters 4-7, all of which focus closely on the nuances and intricacies of various global media networks’ coverage of bin Laden and al-Qaeda in the post-9/11 world. In “Words and War: Al Jazeera and Al Qaeda,” Courtney C. Radsch emphasizes how the 9/11 attacks virtually propelled the Qatar-based Arab news network to global fame in some parts of the world and notoriety in others. Radsch points out that Al Jazeera has traditionally been viewed as being antiestablishment in much of the Arab world, and states that the network’s apparent readiness to air bin Laden’s audiotapes and video footage appears to have inadvertently benefited al-Qaeda’s propaganda campaign, to the great frustration of many US and Western officials. According to Alexander Spencer in “Metaphorizing Terrorism: Al Qaeda in German and British Tabloids,” news coverage of al-Qaeda’s execution of vicious terror attacks influenced the general public’s views of counterterror tactics and strategies in Britain and Germany. Citing reports from two widely read newspapers in particular, Britain’s Sun and Germany’s Bild, Spencer emphasizes the media’s coverage of 9/11, the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing, the 2004 attacks in Spain, and the 2005 attacks in Britain, and connects this coverage to its subsequent impact on public perceptions of al-Qaeda’s Salafi jihadi ideology as being either uncivilized, “criminal,” or a pandemic-like disease, directly influencing many Western citizens’ views of both the jihadi group and their own governments’ purported counterterror policies.

Both before and during his decade of taunting his US and NATO pursuers in Afghanistan, bin Laden consistently captured and dominated not only the headlines of major Western, Arab, and South Asian newspapers, but also the imaginations of filmmakers and video game designers. Containing chapters 8-11, “Part 3: Engaging Popular Cultures” focuses on bin Laden’s image as presented in movies, video games, and other less traditional forms of media in the post-9/11 world. In a fascinating chapter titled “Without bin Laden: Tere bin Laden and the Critique of the War on Terror,” Purnima Bose analyzes a satirical film that reportedly provides “a generalized South Asian perspective on the War on Terror” (pp. 143-144). Bose insightfully concludes that the film’s producers effectively portray bin Laden as an outlaw meriting scorn and contempt as well as a mouthpiece capable of amplifying the grievances of many ordinary Pakistanis opposed to Washington’s policies in South Asia.

The chapters throughout Covering bin Laden are well researched and provide useful insights into the global media’s impact on diverse audiences’ perceptions of the late al-Qaeda leader. Contributors such as Simon Ferrari and Ryan Croken address the role of video games and social media in allowing participants to vent their anger at bin Laden in various, violent ways or praise his killing by the US Navy SEALs. Other contributors to the volume, such as Susan Moeller, Joanna Nurmis, and Saranaz Barfaroush, guide readers in comparing news coverage of the al-Qaeda chief’s killing with the coverage of the executions of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi.

The sources consulted by the book’s contributors include a diverse range of biographies, news articles, interviews, and entertainment magazines. Other sources include interviews with Hollywood and Bollywood film actors and producers; interviews with video game creators; letters and statements authored by bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Musab al-Suri, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi; and newspaper reports that have contributed to popular and often conflicting images of the jihadi group’s founding leader as a hero, villain, or both, from North America to South Asia. The biographies of bin Laden authored by Peter Bergen, Michael Scheuer, and Steve Coll serve as key sources, as does the memoir authored by bin Laden’s first wife, Najwa, and fourth-eldest son, Omar.

One of the volume’s very few potential drawbacks is that the reader can expect to learn little about bin Laden’s specific actions and motivations, other than his consistent, emphatic comments on the deployment of media as an invaluable psychological war weapon. Yet, as the editors correctly point out, the work is not a bin Laden biography but a collection of scholarly texts exploring his image in global media and the ways some governments and news organizations appear to have manipulated it since 9/11. Readers will appreciate the book’s many insightful chapters that emphasize diverse perspectives, such as those authored by Brigitte L. Nacos, Noha Mellor, and Aditi Bhatia. The volume’s contributors have succeeded admirably in providing a crucial window into bin Laden’s image as depicted by various types of Arab, South Asian, North American, and European media. They have produced a splendid resource that will improve our understanding of the power of diverse forms of media in manipulating bin Laden’s public image for audiences worldwide, and their work will greatly benefit scholars researching this ruthless but fascinating figure and his ongoing historical impact.

Citation: Reagan Fancher. Review of Jeffords, Susan; Al-Sumait, Fahed Yahya, eds., Covering bin Laden: Global Media and the World's Most Wanted Man. H-War, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57499

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