Terror's media: war over the Web

US releases key jihadi's letter in battle against Al Qaeda's Net campaign.

Wanted: Video editors, writers, and webmasters to help Al Qaeda spread its message. Contact: The Global Islamic Media Front via e-mail.

It sounds unlikely, but such messages have appeared on radical Islamist Internet sites in the past week. They are just the latest sign of Al Qaeda's increasing sophistication in communications that is allowing the terrorist network to expand its universe of sympathizers around the world.

Prior to 9/11, only a handful of extremist websites existed. Now there are thousands of increasingly sophisticated sites offering everything from chat rooms to videos of beheadings as well as in-depth instructions on kidnapping, bomb- making, and recruiting.

Earlier this month, an Italian newspaper reported that Al Qaeda started producing what is essentially an "All Al Qaeda, All The Time" video news release, providing converts and sympathizers an Islamist perspective on the day's events.

Intelligence experts contend that these recent developments are a sign that the terrorist organization continues to evolve, thrive, and, in parts of the Muslim world, maintain the upper hand in the ideological debate, despite Washington's attempts to step up its publicity campaign.

"The implications are clearly that [Al Qaeda mastermind Osama] bin Laden is able to talk to the people who form his base of his support, and from which he'll draw more support" says Michael Scheuer, the CIA's former top Al Qaeda expert. "The one lesson that should come home more than anything else is that these people are not medievalists and anti-modern. They may be anti-Western, but they're devotees of the tools of modernity in communications and weapons."

Several experts, including Scheuer, argue that America has given "free reign" to bin Laden's increasingly successful efforts to spread his message through the Internet following his Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US. This has enabled him, these experts say, to further radicalize angry young Muslims and maintain contact with independent extremist cells around the world.

American intelligence officials, however, say they have basically isolated bin Laden, as well as his No. 2, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and do track and disrupt some Internet communications.

For example, a letter from Dr. Zawahiri and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda operations in Iraq, has been obtained by US forces and posted on the website (www.dni.gov) of the director of national intelligence.

In the letter, Zawahiri discusses other communications he sent that may have been seized and claims US intelligence services have his laptop computer.

Zawahiri also admonishes his Iraqi compatriots to remember that "more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media."

Intelligence experts compare the current battle of Internet-spread ideas to a political campaign where one side, in this case the US, allows its opponent, Al Qaeda, to define the terms of the debate and sway voters.

"[The terrorists] appear, and we've let them fill this vacuum that's the Internet without any push back," says Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terrorism at the RAND Corp. in Washington. "This has not been like a political campaign where immediately there's some response and an effort to take their message and spin it in a different direction."

But that may be changing. Besides the publication of the Zawahiri letter, in a speech last week, President Bush appeared to signal a new understanding of the importance of attacking Al Qaeda in the field of ideas. He aggressively assailed its "ideology of hatred," challenging basic tenets of the terrorist organization's claim to spiritual and political superiority over the West.

Bush said that "Islamic radicalism, like the ideology of communism, contains inherent contradictions that doom it to failure," and he compared Islamist extremism to fascism.

Experts say that the Bush administration has much further to go, though. "We may be setting up new TV and radio stations, and that's fine, but ... they're getting their information from the Internet," says Mr. Hoffman.

Other intelligence analysts agree and add that the Internet gives Al Qaeda and its terrorist allies unprecedented tools in waging their battle.

"The Internet gives them direct access," says Brian Jenkins, an expert on terrorism at RAND Corp. in Santa Monica. "It even allows them to segment their audiences so they can communicate with potential recruits, with those who are already in the organization, and with broader sympathetic audiences as well as their enemy. They can do ... modern marketing and these communications have enabled them to be very, very effective and they've been increasingly adept in exploiting this. I don't think we have yet fully fathomed the sophistication of their communication strategy."

That presents a daunting challenge for the West, experts say, because of the depth of frustration and alienation from the West in parts of the Muslim world.

"We're talking decades before a kid who's willing to strap a suicide bomb around his belly will say, 'Maybe I shouldn't do that,' " says former intelligence official MacGaffin.

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