A Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

Content Analysis of al-Qaida Statements

Content Analysis of al-Qaida Statements


Project Details


This project explores two main research questions: (1) what trends can be identified across messages from al-Qaida leadership? and (2) Do trends in the leaders' messages relate to al-Qaida's actions? To address this, the research team examines communication trends in 58 messages delivered via video and the internet by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The researchers studied English language translations of these messages, developing coding schemes to identify themes and rigorously analyze language patterns within the messages.

Primary Findings: 

This project involved the coding of 58 transcripts from al-Qaida leaders, especially from bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, for the types of communication tactics they use in their persuasive messages between 1998 and 2006. Specific information, such as the referent content of the messages and the related negative to positive valence associated with those referents, as well as broader communication tactics such as compliance gaining and the justification and motivations for actions were coded. The major findings from this project have been related to the type of rhetorical approach used by al-Qaida (AQ) leaders, namely that their argumentation style reflects an Arab cultural approach to persuasion. What would be considered extreme, overblown tactics in English-speaking approaches to argumentation is not unusual in this cultural style of argument. One of the challenges with this style of argument is that style and substance can easily be confused, especially because the AQ leaders' persuasion is related to violent activity, which itself is extremist in its valence. This approach to argumentation needs to be better understood from a communication perspective, so that the content of the message can be interpreted correctly by separating what in the message is hyperbolic style and what in the message is a real threat.


The primary method used for these analyses was coding the 58 transcripts. This process provided an extensive dataset of coded referents and valences as well as coded tactics such as compliance gaining and motivation/justification for actions. These data have then been analyzed statistically for trends over time regarding the referents, i.e., are there shifts in the valence communicated about various referents, from national entities, such as the US and Israel, to people groups, such as Christians and Jews. The secondary method used has involved qualitative analysis, which takes into account the argumentation approach toward persuasion.


Project Period: 
June 2006 to May 2009