Al Qaeda's Homegrown P.R. Firm

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The al Qaeda media arm as-Sahab has doubled its productivity this year, releasing 75 messages so far — about one every three days. Ben Venzke, head of IntelCenter, analyzes the effectiveness of al Qaeda's media campaign.

ALISON STEWART, host:

It's a media company called The Clouds. It's been around about seven years and it produces some of the most-watched and influential videos in recent memories. Its biggest and only client, al-Qaida. As-Sahab, which means the clouds, is the media arm that produces and distributes messages for the terrorist group. Initially, their sort of like cable access looking tapes has now grown into sophisticated productions. Here in this clip, Ayman al-Zawahiri sits on a set with lighting, a backdrop; he's miked better than some of the bands at rock concerts - as he tells Americans they just need to get with Islam.

Mr. AYMAN al-ZAWAHIRI (Member, al-Qaida): (Arabic spoken) American get with Islam.

STEWART: This is benign compared to some of the propaganda shown such as blown-up U.S. Humvees or say a release this week of a tape of Osama bin Laden urging Iraqis to join him. Let's bring in Ben Venzke. He's a chief executive officer of IntelCenter, a firm that tracks and analyzes al-Qaida messages. Good morning, Ben.

Mr. BEN VENZKE (Chief Executive Officer, IntelCenter): Hi. Good morning.

STEWART: So in reading up on this, there was an expert interviewed in The Washington Post - not you by the way - that said if you want to stop al-Qaida on the communications front, you should concentrate on their IT manager instead of Osama. Do you think that's accurate?

Mr. VENZKE: Well, I think the one problem that we have here is you have to understand the reality of the modern age. There might be an interest by some to stop these messages from coming out and then other things like that. And even if you go after the IT manager instead of bin Laden - while it's certainly appropriate when you look at how these messages are released, technologically, it's just simply impossible. If somebody wants to put something out on the Internet and circulate it around the world, there really isn't anything that you can do to prevent that kind of activity.

STEWART: It appears that as-Sahab are their early adaptors of technology -adoptors of technology, I should say. Can you give me a couple examples of how they've used technology to step up the dissemination of the message?

Mr. VENZKE: Yeah. You can actually — it's kind of very interesting because you can actually chart their progress in direct relationship with the number of technological advances. They are more specifically - originally, when they did videos, they did them on VHS tapes. Well, VHS tapes are big. They're bulky. They are not easy to move around.

As soon as CD-ROMS became available, they started using something called the VCD, which is sort of an early predecessor to the DVD that would allow you to play video on a computer. That allowed them to greatly increase the number of people that they were able to, you know, physically copy and move these around to.

And then as soon as Internet speeds became faster, as soon as storage space became much cheaper and more available, that same quality version that was going out on a VCD would then be available on the Internet. And every kind of technological advance that would either allow them to do better animation, do better graphics or distribute the videos more broadly, we've seen them adopting the second that it's commercially available.

STEWART: So, when I think about - this is a P.R. media arm, am I supposed to think about them in some urban area somewhere, or are we talking about people in the hinterlands of Pakistan?

Mr. VENZKE: Well, I think when you look at how their organization is structured and the kinds of things that you're doing, it's multi-faceted. You know, obviously, the people that they are interviewing, the subjects that they're talking to, and I think the direction and coordination for the effort is something that could be in the very remote areas in the mountains along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan where Bin Laden is believed to be hiding.

When you look at the other side of the operation that would actually be taking the videos and uploading them to Internet sites and things like these, while some of that can be done in a remote area you're more likely to find the kind of resources that they need in terms of just simply bandwidth speed, being how quickly they can upload things, being in a more urban area.

STEWART: In terms of uploading videos, why aren't they traceable?

Mr. VENZKE: Well, you know, it's a very understandable question. I think, that everyone sees when they see all these videos coming out, especially now that they're doing - releasing them at a rate of one every three days, people go, well, you know, right there is Bin Laden, why can't you follow the video back, whether it's going on to the Internet or being handed to Al-Jazeera or another news organization.

And the simple answer is they're very good at their operational security. And while there is definitely a logical connection there between - when the video goes public and going all the way back to, say, where Bin Laden is located or at least the video production operation where they're physically located, they are very good at inserting sort of cutouts and security measures along the way, in order to prevent a direct trace back to where they are.

STEWART: Who is funding all of this?

Mr. VENZKE: The - we know in both with al-Qaida as well as with the Taliban and others, they believe incredibly in the importance of this work. And we believe that the - there are actually these organizations, as-Sahab in this case, is actually a direct part of the al-Qaida organization. So the funding and the support and the resources being dedicated to it would be coming from al-Qaida.

And I think with the increased production and the quality of the material and the fairly significant amount of computers and other resources in time that they are - putting into this effort shows that al-Qaida feels that this is a real critical element to the overall fight in addition to attacks and the other kinds of things that we more commonly associate with a terrorist group.

PESCA: Then that brings me to my question which is, when you look at how much emphasis they place on the message, should we rethink what the "war on terrorism," quote/unquote, is? I mean, are we in a war with al-Qaida, or are we in an - is the U.S. in an argument with al-Qaida?

Mr. VENZKE: Well, I think there's no question that we are in a war with al-Qaida when you have their side going around and blowing up buildings and hijacking planes and other things which - while we haven't seen any large-scale attacks in the United States since 9/11, we have seen them rather relentlessly around the rest of the world.

And I think the important thing here that we need to take to heart, though, is, you know, if you go back, say, 20 years, we would have killed to have terrorist groups explain ad nauseam about their philosophies, their approaches, their targeting preferences, filming their training, filming their operations so that we can see how the attack took place instead of trying to reconstruct the attack afterwards. We never had anything like that before.

And if we look at what al-Qaida is doing now and all the groups are doing, they're filming every aspect of this material and releasing it. But the problem is, instead of recognizing how valuable this is and how much we would have loved to have had this 20 years ago, we now have this tendency to look at and go, oh, this is just propaganda. This is just them sort of spinning things and they're sort of mouthing off and dismissing it out of hand. When in reality if we want to understand what they're going to target, how they're going to do it, they have a long history of telling us ahead of time. It's just we need to choose to listen to it.

STEWART: Ben Venzke is CEO of IntelCenter.

Thanks for being with us, Ben.

Mr. VENZKE: Thank you.

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