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The Web as Weapon

The Videotaped Atrocity

After Abu Musab Zarqawi swung the curved blade of his sword and decapitated Nicholas Berg, he picked up the bloodied head of his victim and screamed out praise to Allah. The camera lingered on the dead man's wild eyes.

The exact date of this atrocity is unclear. The date the world came to know about it is not.

On May 11, 2004, a posting with a link to the video appeared on the al-AnsarWeb forum. Soon, it had been downloaded millions of times, freezing up servers from Indonesia to the United States. A wave of copycat beheadings by other groups followed. Zarqawi became a household name.

It was, said Kohlmann, "the 9/11 of jihad on the Internet -- momentous for them and momentous for us. For years, people were saying how the Internet would be used by terrorists. And then all of a sudden somebody was beheaded on camera and it was, 'Holy smokes, we never thought about the Internet being used this way!' "

Televised beheadings were not uncommon in Saudi Arabia. But Zarqawi did not use the long executioner's sword of Saudi government-sanctioned beheadings. Instead, he invoked the imagery of his American captive as an animal.

"They take what anyone who's ever been to a halal butcher shop would recognize as a halal butcher knife and they cut the side of the neck and saw at it, bleed him out, just as they do when they're killing sheep," said Rebecca Givner-Forbes, who monitors the jihadist Web sites for the Terrorism Research Center, an Arlington firm with U.S. government clients. "Originally, they used the word for 'sacrifice,' which suggests the death has some kind of meaning, and then they used the word they use to butcher animals."

Khattab, a Jordanian-born commander of foreign fighters in Chechnya, videotaped graphic attacks on Russian forces in the 1990s and packaged them together as videotapes called "Russian Hell," which sold in Western mosques and Middle Eastern bazaars and now circulate on the Internet.

The immediate precursor to the Berg video was the 2002 execution-style killing of journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, which was taped and distributed electronically when mainstream news outlets refused to show it. But even the horrific scene of Pearl's throat being slit failed to gain the audience that Zarqawi commanded two years later, coming as it did before widespread availability of broadband Internet to play back the video.

Zarqawi, a veteran fighter who had run his own training camp in the western Afghan city of Herat before fleeing to northern Iraq during the 2001 U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, had never been known as an Internet innovator. His first statement from Iraq that gained wide circulation did so not because it was online but because it was intercepted and released by the U.S. occupation authority. The January 2004 letter to al Qaeda urged creation of "armies of mujaheddin."

On April 9, 2004, a short video clip was posted on the Internet, the first attributed to Zarqawi's group, according to Kohlmann. It was called "Heroes of Fallujah," and it showed several black-masked men laying a roadside bomb, disguising it in a hole in the dusty road, then watching as it blew up a U.S. armored personnel carrier.

Later that month, on April 25, Zarqawi issued his first written Internet communique, asserting responsibility for an attack near the southern city of Basra. "We have made the decision and raised the banner of the jihad," it said. "We have taken spearheads and javelins for a boat in our cruise toward glory."

And then it cited a verse from the Koran: "Fight them, Allah will torture them at your hands. . . . "

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