The announcement by alleged supporters of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that they are creating an animated film designed to teach children about the group's ideology has stirred controversy in the Arab world.
The announcement was published on "al-Shumoukh", a website used by various branches of al-Qaeda. An alleged jihadist using the nickname Abu Laith al-Yemeni made the announcement. Al-Yemeni said he is producing a cartoon for children to draw them to al-Qaeda's ideology.
Al-Yemeni, who claims to be a supporter of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, presented four scenes from an animated film, which is "in the final stages" of production and addresses al-Qaeda's history. The Quilliam Foundation, a London think-tank devoted to countering extremism, said the film aims to inspire children to commit acts of terrorism.
Al-Yemeni said the cartoon is "a very exciting story that presents the facts about who let down the Islamic religion and the Prophet, and who among Arab leaders are agents of the West, among other topics. The cartoon aims to encourage children to follow in the footsteps of Islamist jihadist figures and features real events and heroic acts by the mujahedeen in the Prophet's peninsula."
He added, "These events include raids, armed clashes, and assassinations. This film is a religious effort to educate our children about how to live a noble life under Sharia law and is an alternative to the poison broadcast by other TV channels to our children."
Quilliam analysts noted that some of the public comments on the al-Shumoukh website addressing al-Yemeni's announcement welcomed the move while others suggested not using the al-Qaeda name specifically in the cartoon so as not to alienate potential supporters. This confirms the apparent conviction among al-Qaeda supporters that the organization's name no longer draws supporters but alienates them instead.
Several press reports confirmed that US officials confiscated a letter from Osama bin Laden's home in Abbottabad, Pakistan indicating he was convinced before his death in May that the organization's name was tarnished and became associated with the shedding of blood. The negative image that the organization carried required re-launching operations under a new name.
The admission by bin Laden that al-Qaeda has become a tarnished brand raises questions about the point of producing a cartoon about the organization's history when its leaders themselves acknowledge that they need to launch a new group under a name that is not linked with al-Qaeda's history.
Unless the producers of the animated film intend to present a partial history of al-Qaeda, extolling only its "merits" and omitting its "faults", especially its engagement in acts of killing that sparked protests in wide sectors of the Arab world that consider such acts to be inconsistent with the teachings of Islam.
Al-Qaeda takes this matter very seriously, and it did not hesitate to use children in operations in the past, particularly in Iraq after the siege was tightened around it in 2008. An organization called "Birds of Paradise" relied on children while another organization, the "hareem" of al-Qaeda relied upon women to conduct terrorist operations.
The Birds of Paradise were in the spotlight again in 2010 when authorities in Fallujah, Iraq, apprehended a child wearing an explosive belt before he could blow himself up. It was also reported on July 26th that an al-Qaeda member in Iraq was killed along with his two children as he was rigging a car with explosives in the garage of his home with his children in close proximity. This does not, however, confirm that he intended to use the children in potential attacks.
The al-Qaeda branch in Iraq produced a cartoon years before al-Yemeni's announcement. In 2005, jihadist web sites circulated a cartoon intended for children urging them to perform jihad. The strip lasted less than five minutes and was titled "Terrorist".
According to a report by Al-Hayat on the film in 2005, it included scenes of a suicide attack whereby a car bomb collides with an official convoy as it passes in front of a tall building, thus "killing the tyrant".
Al-Hayat quoted fundamentalists who praised the film, some of whom underscored the need for "devising a scenario" in the future, in addition to relying on dialogue and recitation of "(Quranic) verses and (the Prophet's) sayings that urge jihad", and the utilization of those means "to rear the cubs of Islam about loving jihad and those who engage in it."
A fundamentalist fan of this animated film, nicknamed "Abu Hajar" called for the production of "a series of episodes on how to develop jihadists from childhood. That would be excellent in terms of preparing the next generation for jihad," according to al-Hayat.
Discussing the cartoon al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula produced, Noman Benotman, an analyst with the Quilliam Foundation and former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a jihadist group, warned, "Al-Qaeda is using new methods that make extremism seem exciting to young people, even children."
He said this method of attracting young children could elicit an adverse reaction from their parents who might see it as an attempt by al-Qaeda to destroy families and undermine the authority of parents over their families.
Kuwaiti newspaper al-Watan published a sarcastic commentary by a writer under the name of "Plateau al-Aila" (family plateau). The writer wrote, "al-Qaeda, which has spread terror throughout the entire world and rattled the stability of many countries, both Arab and foreign, now comes up with a hellish idea, from their point of view, of course, which is the recruitment of our children with cartoons to create a new generation of terrorists that invade both the East and the West with their radical ideas. Many questions swirl around in my head… hasn't there been enough killing and bloodshed?"
He continues, "Instead of our children's beloved cartoon characters… teaching them fine human values and traditions that advocate love, peace, and helping others, would they give them lectures on the fundamentals of terrorism and bombings? These are strange times indeed, God save us and our children and countries from the evils of al-Qaeda and its cohorts."