SAN FRANCISCO -- He calls himself Abu Maysara al Iraqi, or father of Maysara the Iraqi, and he's a master at being everywhere and nowhere in the virtual world, constantly switching his online accounts and taking advantage of new technologies to issue his communiqués to the world.
American Internet sleuths know next to nothing about him, whether Abu Maysara is his real name, whether he's an Iraqi or even whether he's in Iraq. What is clear is that he is one of the most important sources of information from the country's insurgency, getting his message out through the Internet, and U.S. authorities are trying to silence him.
His updates, terse and businesslike, are released several times a week on radical Islamic Web sites. Acting as a spokesman for Abu Musab Zarqawi, the most wanted guerrilla leader in Iraq, he variously reports attacks on U.S. soldiers and killings of hostages. His words and images reach millions of people when they open their newspapers, turn on their TVs or go online in search of news.
"There's no way of stopping it anymore," said Evan F. Kohlmann, a counterterrorism consultant. "It's extremely frustrating. They can send out quality videos to millions of people uncensored."
As the 2004 presidential election approaches, the Bush administration finds itself in a propaganda war, trying to promote a picture of security and progress in Iraq.
But Abu Maysara's Internet communiqués convey another image. Abu Maysara declared in a Sept. 19 posting that he issues his reports so that his perspective "does not become lost in the media blackout that America imposes in order to deceive its people and its allies."
Rita Katz, director of the SITE Institute, a nonprofit group in the District that monitors terrorist sites for the federal government, said she believed that without the Internet, Zarqawi's group would not be as revered as it is today. "Zarqawi has progressed tremendously over the past two years," she said, "and I think that the Internet contributes very much to his reputation."
A Tool of Radicals
The Internet, which was created in the 1960s as a communications network that could survive a Soviet nuclear attack, has emerged as a prime tool of Islamic radicals. They use its anonymity to coordinate operations secretly and to get their message to the public sphere with little fear of detection.
Half a dozen federal agencies have assigned teams to monitor sites that carry postings from Abu Maysara and other radicals. The Justice Department has tried, with limited success, to use the authority of the Patriot Act, passed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to shut down Internet sites that carry such postings, on grounds that they incite violence.
The government's aggressive pursuit of Web hosting services, as well as the people who post the material on them, has led civil liberties groups to protest that security initiatives are impinging on free speech.
Another problem is that U.S. legal authority stops at the borders. Many of the sites with the target postings are located in other countries, so U.S. officials must depend on the good will of foreign governments to shut down the sites.
Radical groups have also used the Internet to research potential targets, communicate with each other, plan attacks and raise money. After the 2001 attacks in the United States, federal agents found a lengthy electronic trail. They believe that the hijackers coordinated their movements via e-mail, booked their tickets online and used the network to research such subjects as how to spread pesticides by air.
Peter Bardazzi, director of new media development at New York University, contends that the Internet has allowed terrorists to wage psychological warfare as never before, because they have direct control over shaping their own image and that of their foes.
The beheading videos, for instance, are set up "like a stage," he said. "They are trying to inspire followers but also to humiliate the enemy."