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Al-Qaeda's Growing Online Offensive

The video file is then edited, stored on a tiny computer memory stick and given to a human courier. The memory stick usually passes through several sets of hands to disguise its route, until an operative finally sits down in an Internet cafe and saves the data to a password-protected Web site, they said.

Analysts said that as-Sahab is outfitted with some of the best technology available. Editors and producers use ultralight Sony Vaio laptops and top-end video cameras. Files are protected using PGP, or Pretty Good Privacy, a virtually unbreakable form of encryption software that is also used by intelligence agencies around the world.

"We all think of them as a bunch of guys living in caves, and Miran Shah may be the other side of the moon," said a senior U.S. counterterrorism official speaking on the condition of anonymity, referring to a Pakistani town near the Afghan border that has served as a refuge for al-Qaeda operatives. "And yet their guys are all communicating on laptops, just like I do from one of the most wired buildings in Washington."

Speeches by bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders can appear online less than a week after being recorded, although it usually takes two to three weeks before they are released, officials and analysts said.

"It is clear that they are under no real pressure," said Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "They are very relaxed. They have plenty of time to go to their film archives and edit their productions."

Despite years of trying, U.S. intelligence agencies have been unable to trace the videos of bin Laden and his lieutenants back to their origins. But officials said the network's leaders expose themselves to risk every time they make a new recording.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda's franchise in Iraq, was killed in a U.S. military airstrike in June 2006, two months after he showed his face on a video for the first time. In May 2007, Mullah Dadullah, a senior Taliban commander, was killed by NATO and Afghan forces in Helmand province 36 hours after he surfaced to give a television interview.

A New Distributor

In 2005, al-Qaeda's propaganda machine was seriously ailing.

Al-Jazeera, the terrorist group's channel of choice, had stopped airing al-Qaeda videos in their entirety. Many bin Laden followers complained bitterly in Web forums that al-Jazeera was distorting the leader's speeches by playing clips out of context.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government and its allies were successfully pressuring Internet service providers to shut down Islamist Web sites. Many key technology experts had been captured or killed. The founder of one influential Web forum was killed in Saudi Arabia.

In October 2005, British police arrested Younis Tsouli, a Moroccan-born webmaster who had played an instrumental role in building communication networks for Iraqi insurgents and other al-Qaeda affiliates.

About the same time, al-Qaeda supporters designed a new propaganda distribution network called al-Fajr Media Center. Al-Fajr, which means "dawn" in Arabic, eventually linked dozens of anonymous webmasters around the world.


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