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Al-Qaeda's Growing Online Offensive




Al-Qaeda's Growing Online Offensive
Al-Qaeda's Growing Online Offensive



http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/06/23/AR2008062302135.html 

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
June 24, 2008

CAIRO Second of two articles

Early this year, a religious radical calling himself Abu Hamza had a 
question for the deputy leader of al-Qaeda regarding the Egyptian secret 
police. "Are they committing unbelief?" he tapped on his keyboard. "And 
is it permissible to kill them?"

A few weeks later, an answer came from a man with a $25 million bounty 
on his head, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Killing the police is justified, 
Zawahiri replied, because they are "infidels, each and every one of 
them."

The exchange was part of the latest propaganda coup orchestrated by 
al-Qaeda: an online chat between Zawahiri -- one of the world's most 
wanted fugitives -- and hundreds of curious people around the globe. 
After announcing in a Web forum in December that he would entertain 
questions on virtually any topic, Zawahiri received 1,888 written 
queries from journalists and the public. He patiently answered about 
one-fifth of them, even hostile postings that condemned al-Qaeda for 
harming innocents and perverting Islam.

The war against terrorism has evolved into a war of ideas and 
propaganda, a struggle for hearts and minds fought on television and the 
Internet. On those fronts, al-Qaeda's voice has grown much more powerful 
in recent years. Taking advantage of new technology and mistakes by its 
adversaries, al-Qaeda's core leadership has built an increasingly 
prolific propaganda operation, enabling it to communicate constantly, 
securely and in numerous languages with loyalists and potential recruits 
worldwide.

Every three or four days, on average, a new video or audio from one of 
al-Qaeda's commanders is released online by as-Sahab, the terrorist 
network's in-house propaganda studio. Even as its masters dodge a global 
manhunt, as-Sahab produces documentary-quality films, iPod files and 
cellphone videos. Last year it released 97 original videos, a sixfold 
increase from 2005. (As-Sahab means "the clouds" in Arabic, a reference 
to the skyscraping mountain peaks of Afghanistan.)

U.S. and European intelligence officials attribute the al-Qaeda 
propaganda boom in part to the network's ability to establish a secure 
base in the ungoverned tribal areas of western Pakistan.

Some U.S. officials acknowledge that they missed early opportunities to 
disrupt al-Qaeda's communications operations, whose internal security 
has since been upgraded to the point where analysts say it is nearly 
bulletproof.

"In many, many ways, the damage has already been done," said Evan F. 
Kohlmann, an expert on al-Qaeda's online operations who serves as a 
consultant to the FBI, Scotland Yard and other agencies. "It certainly 
would have been a lot easier if the U.S. government had taken this 
seriously back in 2004. Back then, these guys were looked upon as 
miscreants and cretins, like they were just Internet terrorists and not 
for real."

U.S. officials have also acknowledged their inability to counter 
al-Qaeda's ideological arguments, despite a multibillion-dollar 
investment in public diplomacy and covert propaganda efforts aimed at 
Muslims.

"It is just plain embarrassing that al-Qaeda is better at communicating 
its message on the Internet than America," Defense Secretary Robert M. 
Gates said in a speech in November. "As one foreign diplomat asked a 
couple of years ago, 'How has one man in a cave managed to 
outcommunicate the world's greatest communication society?' "


High-End Tools

When Osama bin Laden wants to deliver a speech, a trusted video 
cameraman is summoned to a safe house somewhere in Pakistan, according 
to U.S. counterterrorism officials and analysts.

The video file is then edited, stored on a tiny computer memory stick 
and given to a human courier. The memory stick usually passes through 
several sets of hands to disguise its route, until an operative finally 
sits down in an Internet cafe and saves the data to a password-protected 
Web site, they said.

Analysts said that as-Sahab is outfitted with some of the best 
technology available. Editors and producers use ultralight Sony Vaio 
laptops and top-end video cameras. Files are protected using PGP, or 
Pretty Good Privacy, a virtually unbreakable form of encryption software 
that is also used by intelligence agencies around the world.

[...]


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