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Al-Qaeda's Growing Online Offensive
Stars of As-Sahab
One of the more visible and intriguing faces on al-Qaeda videos is that of Adam Gadahn, a California native and convert to Islam who moved to Pakistan a decade ago.
Gadahn, who calls himself "Azzam the American," first appeared in a video in 2005, when he threatened attacks on Los Angeles. He's been cast as the star of several productions since then, and analysts said it is clear that al-Qaeda's leadership turns to him for advice on how to address a U.S. audience.
"I don't know how well he actually understands the U.S. market, but he understands it a whole lot better than any of them," the senior U.S. counterterrorism official said. "Al-Qaeda doesn't have a whole lot of choice. If they want to know something about the U.S., they either go to Gadahn or to Wikipedia."
While many analysts have dismissed Gadahn as a bit player, his videos are wildly popular among al-Qaeda foot soldiers in Europe.
British police, for instance, regularly find copies of Gadahn's videos during their investigations of homegrown terrorist cells, said Kohlmann, the consultant, who works as a senior investigator for the NEFA Foundation, a terrorism research group based in Charleston, S.C.
"His slogans become mantras for these people," Kohlmann said. "They find Gadahn to be a heroic figure, as a symbol, as a leader."
The man as-Sahab turns to most often, however, is Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's chief ideologue. He has appeared in 20 different videos and audios since January 2007, according to IntelCenter, a terrorism research firm based in Alexandria, Va.
In contrast to the charismatic bin Laden, who speaks in poetic Arabic and projects the image of a statesman, Zawahiri is an uncompromising pedant who tailors his messages to other radicals. He defends al-Qaeda's brutal tactics unflinchingly, justifying the killing of civilians by invoking a greater struggle against nonbelievers and corrupt Arab regimes.
"He resonates with the militants because he gives them tightly constructed Islamist arguments," said S. Abdallah Schleifer, a former NBC News bureau chief in Cairo who has known Zawahiri and his family for decades. "He's offering them a patterned, ideological take on life."
Some U.S. officials and analysts have questioned whether Zawahiri has become overexposed and whether his message is losing its bite. They point to surveys showing a plunge in public support for al-Qaeda, particularly in countries where the network has organized attacks against Muslim civilians, such as Jordan, Pakistan and Indonesia.
But others warn against underestimating Zawahiri's skill at keeping the debate focused on U.S. policy in the Middle East, a subject that strikes a chord with millions of Muslims, even those otherwise unsympathetic to al-Qaeda.
Perhaps his most effective video, they said, is an 80-minute documentary released last September titled "The Power of Truth."
In the film, Zawahiri and other al-Qaeda leaders offer a long narrative of alleged offenses by the U.S. government against Muslims, using video excerpts of U.S. leaders and commentators to bolster their argument.
"It's beautifully crafted propaganda, and it's a huge problem for us," said Jarret Brachman, research director at the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. "You're left shaking your head and saying, 'Yeah, I guess they're right.' "
Special correspondent Munir Ladaa in Berlin contributed to this report.