Middle East

Experts: Al-Qaida boosts video offensive

Updated: 2007-06-02 03:25
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Al-Qaida's latest offensive appears to be taking place on computer and television screens, and uses techniques associated more with Madison Avenue than Fallujah.

Although viewership is difficult to measure, analysts say the group's videos seem to be reaching a wider audience than ever, piggybacking on the popularity of blogs and video-sharing programs like YouTube. Key to the operation are two broadcast anchors, Libyan firebrand Abu Laith al-Libi and an American fugitive, Adam Yehiye Gadahn.

"You're losing on all fronts, and losing big time," Gadahn, also known as Azzam al-Amriki, told President Bush in an Internet video posted this week on YouTube.

Al-Qaida's as-Sahab media wing already has released 48 videos this year, on a pace to double last year's output of 58 videos, according to Virginia-based IntelCenter, a firm that tracks and analyzes the material. In 2005, the terror group released 16 videos.

Groups in Iraq's predominantly Sunni Arab insurgency, including an al-Qaida affiliate, are also boosting video output and quality. Even the Taliban, which frowned upon cameras when it ruled Afghanistan, has been issuing videos.

"They're all ramping up their propaganda campaigns," said Jeremy Binnie, a terrorism analyst with the Jane's military affairs consultancy in London.

Although no in-depth studies have been done on the impact of such videos, Binnie said, "We've got enough case studies that show the jihadist media does play a role in radicalizing people."

He cited the New Jersey case in which young men were charged with plotting to kill soldiers at Fort Dix. Officials said the men had watched terror training videos, clips featuring Osama bin Laden and tapes of armed attacks on U.S. military personnel.

Binnie said recent terror plots in Europe also involved participants who watched such videos. Jihadist media "played a significant part in radicalizing these guys as teenagers," he said.

Gadahn, once a California heavy metal aficionado named Adam Perlman, changed his name, his religion and his attitude toward his native land and appears to have taken a job as al-Qaida's news anchor. U.S. authorities charged him with treason for working with al-Qaida.

An Internet link introduced his latest clip as a "Message from the Mujahedeen Brother" and shows Gadahn with flowing beard, glasses and turban.

Al-Qaida's as-Sahab media operation, which is thought to be based in Pakistan, releases its offerings in multiple video formats that can even play on mobile phones.

One recent release offered English-speakers the opportunity to listen to the original Arabic and read subtitles or opt for English dubbing, said Ben Venzke, IntelCenter's chief executive. Text transcripts for media coverage of jihadist speeches are routinely issued in Arabic and English and sometimes French and Urdu, he added.

The videos feature promotional title screens and animated graphics. A couple of recent versions were shot in wide-screen format, Venzke said. "We're expecting their next step to be high-definition TV."

Signs point to the heightened release tempo being a deliberate strategy directed by al-Qaida's senior leadership.

Recent video from al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri and al-Libi have stressed the importance of the group's video wing. Al-Libi recently urged Islamic insurgents in Somalia, who have mostly ignored the medium, to begin using videos to foster awareness of their fight, Venzke said.

"The exposure these things get now is very significant and moves quickly," he said. "Just look at the media coverage alone, not just in the States but all over the world. Younger people share these videos just like you and I share text e-mails. Some of these are getting huge exposure."

Audiences vary from budding terrorists to those bent on stopping them.

Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security analyst, said he repeatedly watched a recent video from a man claiming to be al-Qaida's new leader in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu al-Yazeed, to get a flavor for the man's intelligence and grasp of objectives.

"You get a personal connection to these people through video. I was impressed with his speech and the way he presented the policies of al-Qaida," said Alani, a Sunni Arab who was exiled from Iraq by Saddam Hussein's regime and now works for the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.

For Western analysts, the biggest worry is the videos in English may help groups recruit the most dangerous kind of terrorist — someone who has a Western passport and is familiar with the culture of the country he wants to attack, like the British citizens of Pakistani origin who staged the London transit bombings.

"They're interested in influencing that audience," said Binnie, the analyst at Jane's. "It's easier to conduct operations in the U.K. or the U.S. if you've already got a passport and know the culture."