By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
The Web sites through which the insurgency in Iraq communicates with the world sound shadowy and illicit when they are mentioned in American media. On the nightly news, a blurry bit of violence in a dun-colored country is introduced with a vague reference to a new video posted on a jihadist Web site. These glancing and reductionist descriptions do little to capture the breadth and sophistication of the not-so-underground world of Iraqi insurgent media, according to a report released yesterday by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
The makers of Web-based propaganda may not be easy to track down, but their work isn't hard to find. As the report, titled "The War of Images and Ideas," makes clear, there is an astonishing array of media product feeding the worldwide appetite for news from the other side of the war in Iraq.
The report, which the authors believe is the first of its kind available to the public, focuses on Sunni insurgent groups, in part, says one its authors, Daniel Kimmage, because the Shiite viewpoint has access to Iraq's established media outlets.
What he found was a surprisingly rich mix of news and religion and entertainment.
For example, "Top 20," produced by Ansar al-Sunnah, is a compilation video of attacks on U.S. forces, presented as a greatest-hits competition among "insurgent brigades" for footage of the most spectacular attack. It is made with the express intention to encourage "healthy" rivalry among cells of fighters.
"It is very fast-paced and clearly aimed at the video game generation," says Kimmage, who is an Arabist and a regional analyst for the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which broadcasts into Iraq.
Insurgent groups cater to a wide array of media consumption habits, from high-quality videos with long download times to compact, shorter videos suitable for cellphones. People who prefer to read aren't neglected either.
Whole books can be downloaded. Among them are the extensive "martyr biographies," collections of obituaries with inspirational messages detailing the lives of young men who have died in the struggle. The slickly designed compendia celebrate the deaths of often privileged, educated, technologically savvy young men whose directionless lives were turned around by the call to martyrdom in Iraq. The martyrdom biography of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, killed in June 2006, was a book in its own right, presented as an "encyclopedia" of his statements and accomplishments.
Magazines, some with regular publication cycles, can be downloaded as well. Issue No. 10 of Al-Fursan (or The Knights), was published in September 2006. It is in full color, 64 pages long and includes sophisticated maps and graphics detailing attacks by the Islamic Army in Iraq. It has news from the United States (an article on U.S. soldiers fleeing to Canada to avoid service) and an Arabic translation of a statement by Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward (apparently taken from an appearance on the CBS newsmagazine "60 Minutes," says Kimmage). There's also poetry, a column called the Oasis, devoted to inspirational thoughts and stories, and a martyrdom story celebrating the life of a sniper who killed American forces.
An entire category of narrative -- the view of the war through the eyes of those fighting the United States -- has mostly eluded American media outlets. Those stories are available in abundance in the insurgent media. The report summarizes a story, called "The Devoted Son," told in a recent insurgent publication.
"The highly personalized account tells the story of an educated [Egyptian] young man who gains access to jihadist circles through the Internet, travels to Mosul in Iraq, works in Al-Qaeda's media unit in Al-Falujah under the direction of Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, and finally blows himself up near a group of American soldiers," writes Kimmage and his co-author, Kathleen Ridolfo.
The report stresses that there are no monolithic media empires producing this material. And it reveals internecine arguments about tactics among insurgent groups, especially the bloody strategy of al-Qaeda. But there is a wider network of jihadist Web sites that helps support the local Iraqi insurgent production.
Amateur filmmakers can download jihadist songs from free music sites -- male choruses most often chanting in a resonant acoustic, giving their video a jolt of musical testosterone. One popular chant begins, "Strike the long-awaited blow / And kill as many infidels as you wish." Webmasters can also copy and paste coding to add a "news crawl" that constantly updates readers on the number of U.S. casualties (the report says the estimates exaggerate the official U.S. tally by a factor of 10).
Major insurgent groups brand their video with their logos, borrow well-known jihadist songs from free download sites, cull footage of U.S. forces from widely available video-swapping sites, and weave together increasingly sophisticated, cinematic accounts of attacks on American forces. Statements by major insurgent leaders are presented with CNN-style banners beneath them and sometimes with a digitally generated "newsroom" as a backdrop. New videos are announced on popular bulletin boards, next to the identifying logo of the group that produced them.
From there, it's a short step to the mainstream media. Arabic language media have interviewed spokesmen for insurgent groups, and insurgent videos receive substantial exposure on Arabic language television outlets such as al-Jazeera.
The report is a survey of media, but hints of larger concerns about the war and its aftermath. Kimmage detects a sobering amount of religious hatred in the Sunni media, enough to raise fears of religiously fueled genocide.
"To get more conclusive evidence, we have to do the homework that the world failed to do before Rwanda," he says. The basic communications climate for genocide is already in place -- the ability to spread information rapidly, a pool of suspicion and animosity, a tendency to inflate grievances into hysterical rhetoric.
More immediately worrisome for Americans, perhaps, is the hiding in plain site of everything in this report. Kimmage and Ridolfo weren't using material that is difficult to find. Everything in their report is based on what a savvy observer with Web smarts and a knowledge of Arabic could find with a few clicks of the mouse.
They have been very busy, though, giving briefings to people who you might assume know everything in the report already. That includes committees on Capitol Hill, officers at the National Defense University, and some government officials so high up they won't name them.