Al Qaeda ramps up its propaganda

The bin Laden video is the latest of the group's 2007 media blitz: 63 messages, so far.

A new video from Al Qaeda's media arm, with previously unseen and undated footage of Osama bin Laden praising the group's "martyrs," underscores the extent to which the group's propaganda campaign has improved in both production quality and volume over the past year.

Experts on the group say that nothing in the video indicates that Al Qaeda is, or is not, planning a major strike on Western targets, despite comments from US Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff last week saying that he has a "gut feeling" that Al Qaeda may stage a spectacular attack this summer.

But there is no question that Al Qaeda propaganda outlets have been working at a high rate over the past year, with frequent and timely broadcasts from the group's No. 2, the Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, who, like Mr. bin Laden, is believed to live in either Afghanistan or the tribal areas of neighboring Pakistan.

"It's a drumbeat. If they disappear for a while people say, 'Oh, they're dead or they're gone.' So they want to keep up with the drumbeat," says Evan Kohlmann, an author who closely tracks the propaganda efforts of Al Qaeda and other jihadi groups.

Mr. Kohlmann attributes the increased media output to three causes: better technology, a more secure position, and competition from other jihadi groups.

When the Al Qaeda media wing, known as As Sahab, became active at the end of 2005, it might have been worried that producing too many videos would lead to capture. But when that didn't happen, he says, they were encouraged to produce more of them, in addition to outsourcing the distribution and improving their technological savvy.

Sahab has released at least 63 audio and video messages so far this year, compared with 58 in 2006, according to the Associated Press. In many of those, Mr. Zawahiri has been able to respond to the news events within days, getting his group's perspective on radical Islamic websites.

Zawahiri has issued at least 10 messages since January on events such as Hamas's takeover of Gaza to the recent siege on a Pakistani mosque.

Some analysts say that this new technological prowess by Al Qaeda indicates that its leadership has recaptured the reins and it is far from being cut off and on the run.

This assessment is bolstered by a report from the US intelligence establishment that Al Qaeda has been gaining strength in many areas. Last week, AP reported a leak of a US intelligence summary titled "Al Qaeda better positioned to strike the West." That summary effectively declared that US operations against Al Qaeda since 9/11 have been a failure.

It says the organization has "regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001," that it has established effective havens in Pakistan for training and operational planning and that it has improved its ability to infiltrate operatives into Europe.

This newest video has attracted a fair degree of interest because of the footage of bin Laden. According to a translation by CNN, bin Laden asked in the video, "What is this status that the best of mankind wished for himself?" "He wished to be a martyr. He himself said: 'By Him in whose hands my life is! I would love to attack and be martyred.' "

But experts say there's nothing up-to-date in his brief and vague comments incorporated there and that his contribution could be months, if not years, old.

"If you look at the video, a lot of it looks rehashed, looks like it's from the archive. There's nothing in the video so new and unusual," says Kohlmann. "I don't really understand what it is about this video [that's attracting attention] other than it's coming in a week when Michael Chertoff said he had a 'gut feeling' Al Qaeda will attack again."

He said there have been other videos released in the past year with short clips of bin Laden taken from around the same period as the latest clip, which he suspects is pre-9/11.

Rita Katz, who runs the Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE) institute, the world's most active tracker of jihadi propaganda, agrees that the latest video is no departure from the norm. "The phones have been ringing off the hook [but] there's nothing in this video. It's just another propaganda video. The video of bin Laden is old."

The only point of interest in the latest tape, from Ms. Katz's perspective, is its focus on "martyrs" from Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda's media arm has put out similarly slick montages of men who have died in Iraq and other locations in the past, but she said as far as she knows this is the first one focusing on Afghanistan.

The 40-minute video, dedicated to Muslims who have left their homes to fight, included a series of animated scenes showing green fields overlaid with Arabic names written in gold, representing Arab fighters who had died in Afghanistan. Following one such sequence, the self-proclaimed leader of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan appeared, praising his fellow fighters.

"Your hero sons, courageous knights have left to the land of Afghanistan ... the land of jihad and martyrdom, answering the call for the sake of God to kick out the occupier who has desecrated the pure soil of Afghanistan," said Mustafa Abu al-Yazeed.

The Islamic hadith, or sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad, make a number of references of praise for those who fight and die for God and Islam, promising them paradise.

Where the debate arises for Muslims is in the matter of what causes are merited, and whether the killing of civilians is allowed, whether the cause is just or not.

Most mainstream Muslims believe that acceptable jihads are defensive ones. Al Qaeda has, in turn, created a narrative in which all of Islam is under constant attack by the US and the "West" and, therefore, almost any act that they interpret as hurting the US or its allies is, in their view, allowed.

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