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The Web as Weapon
The video -- all in Arabic -- appeared on the al-Ansar forum, where it was found one Sunday in December 2004 by the SITE Institute. The forum where Berg's beheading had also first appeared was one of Zarqawi's preferred Internet venues, among the dozens of password-protected jihadi Web forums that have proliferated over the last few years.
This and other Arabic-language forums hosted discussions on the latest news from Iraq, provided a place for swapping tips on tradecraft, circulated religious justifications for jihad, and acted as intermediary between would-be fighters and their would-be recruiters. Most of the sites prohibit postings from unapproved users, but they can be accessed in the open and rely on widely available software called vBulletin ("instant community," promises the software's maker).
Many postings to the boards were not official statements from al Qaeda but unsolicited advice, such as the recent notice called "the road to Mesopotamia" posted on an underground Syrian extremist site, in which one veteran offered a detailed scouting report, down to advice on bribing Syrian police and traveling to the border areas by claiming to be on a fishing trip.
The bulletin boards also make information quickly available from Iraq, where fighters are gaining combat experience against the U.S. military. In one case cited by John Arquilla, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, would-be insurgents in the Sahara Desert were able to ask for -- and receive -- information from the ground in Iraq about how best to build bombs.
And the bulletin boards keep track of Zarqawi's corps of suicide bombers, with long online lists of the "martyrs" compiled from various sources. Israeli researcher Reuven Paz has a list gleaned from the postings of more than 400 Zarqawi recruits who have died in Iraq. Paz said the biographies are an informal census very much in keeping with the profile of an Arab Internet user -- middle class and highly educated, "people with wives and kids and good jobs," Paz said, "going, as if by magic, after the virtual leader."
In March, one of the al-Ansar forum's own members became another entry. For the previous 11 months, Zaman Hawan had confined his jihad to 178 online postings to the forum. But on March 24, 2005, according to another forum member's announcement, he "carried his soul on his hand, and went to jihad for the sake of Allah," dying in a suicide attack in Baqubah, Iraq. The posting went on to list phone numbers in Sudan for forum members to call Hawan's father and brother and congratulate them on his "martyrdom."
By April, the al-Ansar bulletin board had become too well known as Zarqawi's outlet. The forum closed without notice. Alternatives quickly appeared. For a while, "mirror" sites emerged featuring many of the same users, with the same logins and passwords. They, too, disappeared. The al-Masada forum briefly took up the banner. Then participants began to warn that it had been breached by Western intelligence -- and the jihadists abandoned it, as well.
The upheaval has resulted in a much more decentralized system for disseminating the bulletins from Iraq, with new boards constantly cropping up. As soon as a posting from Zarqawi's group appears now, dozens of new links to it are copied to the other jihadist sites within minutes, making for an intricate game of Internet cat-and-mouse. And even if the forums or fixed Web sites are temporarily out of commission, other ways still exist -- such as mass e-mails sent out several times a day with the latest in Iraq guerrilla videos, communiques and commentary from Yahoo e-groups such as ansar-jehad.
While Zarqawi's group has moved away in recent months from videotaped beheadings of foreigners, the shock value of the Berg beheading has created a race for more and more realistic video clips from Iraq. Filming an attack has become an integral part of the attack itself. In April, a cameraman followed alongside an armed insurgent, video rolling, as they ran to the scene of a helicopter they had just shot down north of Baghdad. The one member of the Bulgarian crew found still alive was ordered to stand up and start walking, then shot multiple times on film as the shooter yelled, "This is Allah's judgment." The three-minute video from the Islamic Army of Iraq came at a time when many of the bulletin board sites were down; SITE Institute's Rita Katz found the link through the ansar-jehad e-group.
"It's the exact reason why we built the Internet, a bargain-basement, redundant system for distributing information," said Kohlmann. "We can't shut it down anymore."
Indeed, just last week, a notice went out on the jihadist bulletin boards: The Ansar forum that had disappeared in April was back up and running.
The Information Battle
A few weeks ago, al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers released the third version of its online magazine, Thurwat al-Sinam. This latest issue lectured on the recipe for a successful raid, an almost-scientific procedure involving six steps for planning and executing, with five groups of fighters designated by tasks such as "protection," "gap-making" and "pushing in."
The magazine also held up a model for the Internet campaign that has built Zarqawi's reputation, provided his recruits, served as his propagandist and his carrier pigeon. In an essay aimed broadly at the Muslim world, the magazine claimed the 7th-century Koran as a useful blueprint for today's wired warriors in Iraq, calling its story of the prophet Muhammad's pitch to the people of Mecca "a very good example of how to conduct an information battle with the infidels."
Battles can be won in Iraq but then ultimately lost if they are not on the Internet. "The aim is not to execute an operation, which is followed by complete silence, but telling the reason why it was executed," the magazine advised. "It is a must that we give this field what it deserves. . . . How many battles has this nation lost because of the lack of information?"
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.