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

Al-Qa'ida Transcript Coding Project

Al-Qa'ida Transcript Coding Project


Project Details


This project involved the coding of 58 transcripts from al-Qa'ida leaders, especially from bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, for the types of communication tactics they used 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.

Primary Findings: 

The major findings from this project have been related to the type of rhetorical approach used by al-Qa'ida leaders, namely that their argumentation is of a style that 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 al-Qa'ida 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 has been an extensive and labor-intensive process of coding the 58 transcripts. This process has provided an extensive data set 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 U.S. 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. This coding process, in particular, is extremely time consuming to code, organize and analyze. Until recently, this has been one of the primary approaches to conducting content analysis of these types of messages, but the resulting data have been used to consider how to develop new approaches involving computer science to analyze the rhetorical style and the language.


Project Period: 
June 2006 to May 2009