Summer 2011

The Origins of the Sunni Awakening

– The Wilson Quarterly

Jihadists have come to hate al-Jazeera. They call it "al-Khanzeera," a pun that means "pig station".

From 2005 to 2007, a changein sentiment rippled across Iraq—the Sunni population turned against Al Qaeda and started working with U.S. forces. Many analysts believe this transformation is what turned the war around and gave the 2007 American military surge the legitimacy among Iraqis it needed to succeed. What kindled this transformation? The surge can’t be the cause; it began after the Awakening was already under way. Other common explanations include Al Qaeda’s extremism, which repelled Sunnis, and America’s counterinsurgency strategy, which attracted them. But to understand how anger at Al Qaeda’s violence spread and how the United States was able to communicate its good intentions, says George Washington University political scientist Marc Lynch, it’s necessary to examine an overlooked force: Arab-language news media.

Television is the primary source of news for an estimated 80 percent of Iraqis. Until 2004, there was really only one channel available: al-Jazeera. Its “close and often emotional coverage” sparked outrage against the U.S. occupation. But in 2004, competitors began emerging. The Iraqi government–backed al-Iraqiya was received skeptically, but Arab options from outside Iraq, particularly the Saudi-supported al-Arabiya, gained popularity. Launched in 2003 to compete with al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya was no friend of Al Qaeda. One program, Death Makers, showcased “an endless series of exposés featuring hitherto unknown [Al Qaeda] defectors, stories about their extremism and brutality, allegations about their sources of funding,” and other revelations. Sunni leaders who had turned against Al Qaeda were al-Arabiya’s go-to sources and commentators.

Jihadists have come to hate al-Jazeera. They call it "al-Khanzeera," a pun that means "pig station".

At the same time, al-Jazeera’s portrayal of Al Qaeda began to shift. The network now refused to air videos of Al Qaeda’s beheadings and often hosted critical discussions about Iraqi jihadists. Jihadists came to hate al-Jazeera, calling it “al-Khanzeera,” a pun meaning “pig station,” and regarding it as part of the “Zionist-Crusader media.”

In this changing media environment, public opinion rapidly tipped away from Al Qaeda. It wasn’t so much that the alternative channels directly persuaded anyone, Lynch believes, but that the proliferation of choices meant that new ideas and opinions could emerge and spread.

THE SOURCE: “Explaining the Awakening: Engagement, Publicity, and the Transformation of Iraqi Sunni Political Attitudes” by Marc Lynch, in Security Studies, Jan. 2011.

Photo courtesy of United States Forces in Iraq