e-Qaeda | In a Real War, a Cyber War
The Web as Weapon
Tuesday, August 9, 2005
Last of three parts
The jihadist bulletin boards were buzzing. Soon, promised the spokesman for al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers, a new video would be posted with the latest in mayhem from Iraq's best-known insurgent group.
On June 29, the new release hit the Internet. "All Religion Will Be for Allah" is 46 minutes of live-action war in Iraq, a slickly produced video with professional-quality graphics and the feel of a blood-and-guts annual report. In one chilling scene, the video cuts to a brigade of smiling young men. They are the only fighters shown unmasked, and the video explains why: They are a corps of suicide bombers-in-training.
As notable as the video was the way Abu Musab Zarqawi's "information wing" distributed it to the world: a specially designed Web page, with dozens of links to the video, so users could choose which version to download. There were large-file editions that consumed 150 megabytes for viewers with high-speed Internet and a scaled-down four-megabyte version for those limited to dial-up access. Viewers could choose Windows Media or RealPlayer. They could even download "All Religion Will Be for Allah" to play on a cell phone.
Never before has a guerrilla organization so successfully intertwined its real-time war on the ground with its electronic jihad, making Zarqawi's group practitioners of what experts say will be the future of insurgent warfare, where no act goes unrecorded and atrocities seem to be committed in order to be filmed and distributed nearly instantaneously online.
Zarqawi has deployed a whole inventory of Internet operations beyond the shock video. He immortalizes his suicide bombers online, with video clips of the destruction they wreak and Web biographies that attest to their religious zeal. He taunts the U.S. military with an online news service of his exploits, releasing tactical details of operations multiple times a day. He publishes a monthly Internet magazine, Thurwat al-Sinam (literally "The Camel's Hump"), that offers religious justifications for jihad and military advice on how to conduct it.
His negotiations with Osama bin Laden over joining forces with al Qaeda were conducted openly on the Internet. When he was almost captured recently, he left behind not a Kalashnikov assault rifle, the traditional weapon of the guerrilla leader, but a laptop computer. An entire online network of Zarqawi supporters serves as backup for his insurgent group in Iraq, providing easily accessible advice on the best routes into the country, trading information down to the names of mosques in Syria that can host a would-be fighter, and eagerly awaiting the latest posting from the man designated as Zarqawi's only official spokesman.
"The technology of the Internet facilitated everything," declared a posting this spring by the Global Islamic Media Front, which often distributes Zarqawi messages on the Internet. Today's Web sites are "the way for everybody in the whole world to listen to the mujaheddin."
Little more than a year ago, this online empire did not exist. Zarqawi was an Internet nonentity, a relatively obscure Jordanian who was one of many competing leaders of the Iraq insurgency. Once every few days, a communique appeared from him on the Web. Today, Zarqawi is an international name "of enormous symbolic importance," as Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus put it in a recent interview, on a par with bin Laden largely because of his group's proficiency at publicizing him on the Internet.
By this summer, Internet trackers such as the SITE Institute have recorded an average of nine online statements from the Iraq branch of al Qaeda every day, 180 statements in the first three weeks of July. Zarqawi has gone "from zero to 60" in his use of the Internet, said Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA unit that tracked bin Laden. "The difference between Zarqawi's media performance initially and today is extraordinary."
As with most breakthroughs, it was a combination of technology and timing. Zarqawi launched his jihad in Iraq "at the right point in the evolution of the technology," said Ben N. Venzke, whose firm IntelCenter monitors jihadist sites for U.S. government agencies. High-speed Internet access was increasingly prevalent. New, relatively low-cost tools to make and distribute high-quality video were increasingly available. "Greater bandwidth, better video compression, better video editing tools -- all hit the maturity point when you had a vehicle as well as the tools," he said.
The original al Qaeda always aspired to use technology in its war on the West. But bin Laden's had been the moment of fax machines and satellite television. "Zarqawi is a new generation," said Evan F. Kohlmann, a consultant who closely monitors the sites. "The people around him are in their twenties. They view the media differently. The original al Qaeda are hiding in the mountains, not a technologically very well-equipped place. Iraq is an urban combat zone. Technology is a big part of that. I don't know how to distinguish the Internet now from the military campaign in general in Iraq."