Hearts and Minds: Power of 'The Clouds'

Al-Qaeda's Growing Online Offensive

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 24, 2008

CAIRO Second of two articles

Early this year, a religious radical calling himself Abu Hamza had a question for the deputy leader of al-Qaeda regarding the Egyptian secret police. "Are they committing unbelief?" he tapped on his keyboard. "And is it permissible to kill them?"

A few weeks later, an answer came from a man with a $25 million bounty on his head, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Killing the police is justified, Zawahiri replied, because they are "infidels, each and every one of them."

The exchange was part of the latest propaganda coup orchestrated by al-Qaeda: an online chat between Zawahiri -- one of the world's most wanted fugitives -- and hundreds of curious people around the globe. After announcing in a Web forum in December that he would entertain questions on virtually any topic, Zawahiri received 1,888 written queries from journalists and the public. He patiently answered about one-fifth of them, even hostile postings that condemned al-Qaeda for harming innocents and perverting Islam.

The war against terrorism has evolved into a war of ideas and propaganda, a struggle for hearts and minds fought on television and the Internet. On those fronts, al-Qaeda's voice has grown much more powerful in recent years. Taking advantage of new technology and mistakes by its adversaries, al-Qaeda's core leadership has built an increasingly prolific propaganda operation, enabling it to communicate constantly, securely and in numerous languages with loyalists and potential recruits worldwide.

Every three or four days, on average, a new video or audio from one of al-Qaeda's commanders is released online by as-Sahab, the terrorist network's in-house propaganda studio. Even as its masters dodge a global manhunt, as-Sahab produces documentary-quality films, iPod files and cellphone videos. Last year it released 97 original videos, a sixfold increase from 2005. (As-Sahab means "the clouds" in Arabic, a reference to the skyscraping mountain peaks of Afghanistan.)

U.S. and European intelligence officials attribute the al-Qaeda propaganda boom in part to the network's ability to establish a secure base in the ungoverned tribal areas of western Pakistan.

Some U.S. officials acknowledge that they missed early opportunities to disrupt al-Qaeda's communications operations, whose internal security has since been upgraded to the point where analysts say it is nearly bulletproof.

"In many, many ways, the damage has already been done," said Evan F. Kohlmann, an expert on al-Qaeda's online operations who serves as a consultant to the FBI, Scotland Yard and other agencies. "It certainly would have been a lot easier if the U.S. government had taken this seriously back in 2004. Back then, these guys were looked upon as miscreants and cretins, like they were just Internet terrorists and not for real."

U.S. officials have also acknowledged their inability to counter al-Qaeda's ideological arguments, despite a multibillion-dollar investment in public diplomacy and covert propaganda efforts aimed at Muslims.

"It is just plain embarrassing that al-Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in a speech in November. "As one foreign diplomat asked a couple of years ago, 'How has one man in a cave managed to outcommunicate the world's greatest communication society?' "

High-End Tools

When Osama bin Laden wants to deliver a speech, a trusted video cameraman is summoned to a safe house somewhere in Pakistan, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials and analysts.

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