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The Web as Weapon

Winning Prominence

"The Winds of Victory" opens with footage of the American bombing of Baghdad. It is nighttime, and the screen is dark except for the violent orange explosions and the wry captions "Democracy" and "Freedom" written in Arabic.

The film was the first full-length propaganda video produced by Zarqawi's organization, complete with scenes of mutilated Iraqi children and the horrors of Abu Ghraib prison -- and it hit the Internet in June 2004, a month after Berg's killing.

For the first time, the video put names and faces on the foreign suicide bombers who had flocked to Iraq under Zarqawi's banner, showing staged readings of wills and young men from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world looking alternately scared and playful. Video footage of their explosions followed their testimonials, often filmed from multiple angles.

But the hour-long film was too big to send out all at once online and had to be broken into chapters released one a week. "Hardly ideal for a propaganda video," Kohlmann said.

That same summer, as copycat beheaders circulated footage of their attacks in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Zarqawi was fully exploiting his electronic distribution network. In early July, he released his first audio recording, putting it directly on the Internet -- unlike the tapes of al Qaeda leaders bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, which still go directly to Arab satellite television. His beheading of Berg was completely justified, Zarqawi said, and those Muslims who disagreed were just "slaves."

Later that month, "astonished" at mistaken reports about the group's activities, Zarqawi's organization urged its audience "not to believe this false information." Henceforth, Zarqawi said, "all of our statements are spread by means of the brother Abu Maysara al-Iraqi," making him an official Internet spokesman.

At the same time, Zarqawi was in negotiations in a series of online missives with al Qaeda about pledging allegiance to bin Laden. For months, a main sticking point was Zarqawi's insistence on targeting representatives of Iraq's Shiite majority as well as the U.S. military, bin Laden's preferred enemy.

But Zarqawi had acquired huge new prominence through his Internet-broadcast beheadings. The once-wary al Qaeda leadership seemed to take a new attitude toward him, and the online magazine of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia hailed him as the "sheikh of slaughterers."

On Oct. 17, 2004, the deal was struck and announced in cyberspace as the U.S. military was launching an offensive in Fallujah, determined to drive Zarqawi's men out of their sanctuary. Zarqawi pledged fealty to bin Laden and spoke in his online posting of eight months of negotiations, interrupted by a "rupture." Experts believe their contact was almost exclusively in the open space of the Internet.

Two days later, Zarqawi put out his first statement in the new name of his organization. Once called Tawhid wal Jihad (Unity and Holy War), it was now the Al Qaeda Committee for Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers.

Instant Communication

For 26 minutes, the instructional video lays out in precise detail how to construct the item that more than any other has come to symbolize the Iraq insurgency -- a suicide bomber's explosive belt.

It shows how to estimate the impact of an explosion, how best to arrange the shrapnel for maximum destruction, how to strap the belt onto the bomber's body, even how to avoid the migraine headache that can come from exposure to the recommended explosive chemicals.


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