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
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
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
"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
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
"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?' "
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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