Videos Win Support for Iraq Insurgency

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Videos by Jihadist groups are widely available on the Web, and under the counter in Baghdad CD shops. The films are violent, disturbing and are used to help foster sympathy for the insurgency in Iraq.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Iraq's Interior Ministry cancelled all police and Army leave today. Since explosions destroyed the golden dome of a Shiite shrine, dozens have been killed and many Sunni mosques have been attacked.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

To understand why the situation in Iraq is so volatile, it helps to look at computer screens there. We've been following the way insurgents use the web. Today, we report on the online recruiting of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

As NPR's John Hendren reports, the website has a surprisingly broad appeal in Baghdad.

(Soundbite of chimes)

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

You know a video is going to be violent when it starts off with the al-Qaeda logo. Then up flashes what looks like the emblem for 20th-Century Fox, only it says Islamic Media Front Studio. Then there's a lengthy Koranic verse in fiery English letters saying, I will instill terror into the hearts of the unbelievers.

(Soundbite of al-Qaeda video)

HENDREN: The title super says Top Ten in letters that mimic the David Letterman Show. Then to the music of Jihad, begins a grim countdown of Iraqi insurgent strikes against American troops.

(Soundbite of explosions)

HENDREN: A car bomb. Another car bomb. The video is downloadable on the web from a number of sites Iraqis call mekhaoma(ph), or resistance sites. It's also widely sold here in Baghdad at local CD shops under the counter along with pornography. U.S. military officials believe some of the proceeds go to the insurgency. This is one way al-Qaeda and its allies use new media to wage war here in Iraq, and throughout Middle East and central Asia.

U.S. military officials say al-Qaeda uses the internet to recruit, finance, direct, and communicate with foot soldiers. There are informational sites telling suicide bombers how to pass legally to Iraq through Syria. Sites that show how to build a roadside bomb, and sites that allow web surfers to use an online system called Pay Pal to finance the Jihad on credit. But perhaps the most effective thing they do is propaganda.

(Soundbite of sirens and bombings)

HENDREN: At an internet caf´┐Ż in Baghdad, 30 year old businessman Majid Hamid views an insurgent video on the web, between office emails. He snickers, as he sees a sniper shoots an American soldier. He says the films give him assurance that the Iraqi insurgency is restoring the honor of a nation brought low by foreign occupation.

Mr. MAJID HAMID (Iraqi Businessman, Baghdad): (Through Translator) The operations that the resistance carries out against the Americans are logical, because they are resisting an enemy who has invaded the country, an occupation that is hurting the people and destroying the country. This is something we are proud of.

HENDREN: Not far away, a married 26 year old, new father who asked to be identified only as Sommar(ph) agrees. He says it's not just radical Jihadists who watch the videos with sympathies; it's a broad swath of Iraqi society. Sommar distances himself from suicide bombers who kill civilians. But he enjoys watching videos of Juba, the Baghdad sniper, who's revered here locally as a folk hero, because the story goes, he never fires more than once, and only American troops die.

Mr. SOMMAR (Iraqi Citizen, Baghdad): You know, it's only one single shot. So, you know, he won't hurt civilians on the scene. When you see the film, he's very professional in choosing the place, the time, and the target. I mean, in one of the shots, he shot down one of the soldiers. And his colleagues, the soldier colleagues, were standing smoking not knowing what happened to their friend, because he uses a silencer on his rifle.

(Soundbite of Jihad song)

HENDREN: In one segment from a video titled The Baghdad Sniper, Juba waits as Iraqi children walk past an American soldier, then fires. As the soldier falls to the ground, a teenager in the background continues to juggle a soccer ball. But despite the sniper's iconic status, it's still a snuff film.

(Soundbite of explosions)

HENDREN: Another video, readily available on the web, Jihad Hidden Camera, is a bloody parody of a slapstick comedy.

(Soundbite of American cartoon sound effects)

HENDREN: Complete with a laugh track and cartoon sound effects, it's a series of short vignettes; in each one, American soldiers are killed or wounded. Compared to the others, Jihad Hidden Camera is a slick production.

Mr. PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON (Hollywood director): It was an attempt to look professional, but in fact, it was pretty crudely done.

HENDREN: Phil Alden Robinson knows what a Hollywood production looks like. He directed Field of Dreams, Sneakers, and other big budget movies.

Mr. ROBINSON: They used sort of phony film leader at the head, which is available from software. And they used some kind of cheesy animation and other effects. Again, all available in consumer software; it was probably put together on a laptop computer. But it's an attempt to look like it's a professional production.

HENDREN: Robinson says the film doesn't look like it was made in the Middle East at all. Which, if true, would highlight the global nature of the cyber Jihad.

Mr. ROBINSON: I have a feeling this may have been done in America. I have a feeling because the very beginning of the countdown leader says Adobe Premier, which is a software that you use for video editing. There's also references to Tarzan, and to Fox News, and to Green Cards. It certainly feels like someone who has some familiarity with the American culture. But it's certainly intended for an American audience. Its titles are in the English language, and the references are American.

HENDREN: Larry Johnson is a former CIA and State Department counter-terrorism official. He now works for Berg Associates, a Washington security consulting firm. Johnson says the websites reveal a generational gap between baby-boomers Jihadists, like Osama bin Laden, who apparently lives in caves, records analog videotapes, and has them hand delivered to al-Jazeera, and al-Qaeda in Iraq's Gen-Xer, Abu Musab Zarqawi, whose allies post their video on Jihadi blogs.

One site, uruknet.info, even posts a daily Iraqi resistance report in English, with news from the insurgents' point of view.

Mr. LARRY JOHNSON (CEO and Founder, Berg Associates): I have several friends of mine who are in the military and the information operations business say that they envy what these guys do. Like a war room in a campaign, they're getting their message out much quicker, and much more effectively than we are.

HENDREN: Even the U.S. military grudgingly gives al-Qaeda high marks for its use of technology. Major General Doug Lute is the director of operations for the U.S. Central Command. He says there's little the U.S. military can do to combat what he calls, an internet library of bin Ladenism.

Major General DOUG LUTE (Director of Operations, U.S. Central Command): here he uses the internet, in particular, very effectively to do a number of things, which were not well structured to counter. He uses the internet: to communicate, to recruit, to train, to some extent, to command and control; to raise finances, and so forth. So, you can imagine an army, or an armed forces, which were built to defeat the Soviet Union trying to deal with an enemy who is not only lurking in the shadows of the physical battlefield, but now, increasingly using to his advantage, using the internet.

(Soundbite of Jihad song)

HENDREN: Pentagon officials say there are more than 4,000 websites that belong to what they call a virtual caliphate, promoting an extremist agenda seeking the rule of Islamic law throughout the Muslim world.

HENDREN: John Hendren, NPR News, Baghdad.

(Soundbite of Jihad song)

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