Tracking Al-Qaida's Media Production Team

Analyst Evan Kohlmann talks with Renee Montagne about al-Qaida's public relations arm and multimedia production team, al-Sahab. The group produced a video that connected al-Qaida to the USS Cole bombing in 2000, and has since produced high-quality videos and audio tapes about al-Qaida's activities around the world.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

An Iraqi group called the Mujahideen Shura Council has released gruesome footage of two corpses it says are American soldiers killed last month. In the video, one body is decapitated. The group dedicated the video to an Iraqi girl who American soldiers are accused of raping and killing. Videos have been a key part of the communication strategy of terrorist groups, something we're going to take a closer at this morning. It's part of our conversations on the inner workings of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida.

When bin Laden wants to speak to the world, he reaches out to al-Sahab. Al-Sahab is the public relations arm and production company for al-Qaida. It's responsible for producing numerous videotapes, some featuring Osama bin Laden, and just last week, the London bombers.

Evan Kohlmann monitors al-Sahab. And he joins us from New York.

And just to begin, as the public relations arm of al-Qaida, what is al-Sahab responsible for?

Mr. EVAN KOHLMANN (Counterterrorism Expert, Globalterroralert.com): Well, since about the year 2000, al-Sahab has been responsible for putting out videotapes and video recordings from inside of central Afghanistan and southeastern Afghanistan depicting propaganda, and it's also a little bit of documenting military operations.

MONTAGNE: Well, the part that's propaganda, or to some (unintelligible), advertisement, it is pretty reasonably professional, right?

Mr. KOHLMANN: Oh, it's very professional. It's actually amazing. You're talking about very, very high quality video subtitling. You're talking about English translations. Graphic sequences have been done showing rockets being fired into an American flag, and having the American flag exploding into pieces. And it, you know, these are very high quality videos. They're very dramatic. They get passed around like baseball cards. They're being distributed in formats that you can even watch on your cell phone.

So it shows us there are dedicated teams of individuals working on this. And that they're spending quite a bit of time on this, that this is almost like their full-time profession.

MONTAGNE: How does al-Sahab stack up against other propaganda, if you will, machines of...

Mr. KOHLMANN: Yeah, sure.

MONTAGNE: ...other terrorist organizations?

Mr. KOHLMANN: Well, I think you bring up an interesting point. There are competing media wings within al-Qaida. You know, al-Sahab is just al-Qaida's media wing with regards to operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and occasionally in Saudi Arabia. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's apparatus in Iraq, extremely professional, and they have done some incredible stuff with their video. That being said, no one tops al-Sahab.

MONTAGNE: And one particular individual who's quite interesting, who does a lot of this work, is a young American by the name of Adam Gadahn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Tell us about him.

Mr. KOHLMANN: Yeah. Adam Gadahn is quite a interesting fellow. He started off in California. He grew up on a goat farm. He was the son of a, you know, an old time psychedelic rocker, and not exactly the background of most al-Qaida operatives that I know. But Adam became affiliated with a group of radical and Muslim, I guess, you call them operatives or activists. So in about 2000, this white kid from southern California goes over to Pakistan, makes contact with senior al-Qaida leaders, and becomes really a major influence within al-Qaida, principally through his role at the al-Sahab media foundation, al-Qaida's media wing.

From the very first of al-Qaida's recordings, the English translations, which have proven so important to al-Qaida - number one, in communicating its message to the Western world, but number two, also in recruiting others like Adam Gadahn - these subtitles and these translations were being done by Adam. And that's why they were so professional. They were so accurate. And they made these productions so good. It also - it seems apparent form his latest appearance that he's also involved in perhaps some of the actual video production work.

MONTAGNE: Now, how does al-Sahab manage to do all this recording and fancy production, distribute it?

Mr. KOHLMANN: Well, al-Sahab has assistance, has supporters, has people that do some its work for it. First of all, it should be stated that, you know, the actual recording of these interviews is done by cameramen who don't necessarily work for al-Sahab. And I say work, because very few of these people are actually paid. This is all volunteer work. But the video will then be given over to al-Sahab. And al-Sahab will tape that video and then re-edit it. From there, al-Sahab then hands that video off to individuals. First of all, at Al-Jazeera in order to preview it, but then, second of all, on the Internet.

And it's actually - what al-Sahab has is it has almost what you'd like to call the PR newswire of terrorist propaganda. It's something called the al-Fajer Media Center. And the al-Fajer Media Center is a group of individuals on the Internet who have taken it upon themselves to be responsible for distributing authentic terrorist propaganda. So it really is remarkable. I mean, it works almost the same way that you would expect Associated Press or Reuters to work in a Western context.

MONTAGNE: When you look at the different videotapes that al-Sahab has produced and distributed over the last few years, what do you learn about their media strategy, about their audience, and about how their strategy might have even changed.

Mr. KOHLMANN: Well, right after 9/11, al-Qaida released its first videotape documenting its role in the 9/11 attacks, the will of a 9/11 hijacker. And then, a year later, in order to prove that it really was involved in the planning and the recruitment of these individuals, al-Sahab released a second video of another 9/11 hijacker will.

Now, once again, you see the exact same phenomenon coming up now with the London 7/7 bombings. Again, you have a video that's released just after the attacks of one will, of on suicide bomber. And then, a year later, after, you know, God knows how many people have come out with statements saying that the London bombings was the work of a homegrown cell and it had nothing to do with al-Qaida, al-Qaida and al-Sahab come up with another recording of another suicide bomber in order to prove their involvement in this.

So in some ways, these videos are meant to recruit. But it's also a calling card. Al-Sahab leaves these videos in order to prove that al-Qaida is not some, you know, mythical, shadowy organization that's been conceived by the U.S. government, but that it really exists and that it really plays a role in masterminding terrorist attacks, even today.

MONTAGNE: Well, just one final thing. You follow these - you track these videos. What significance is it that Osama bin Laden has not been seen in this way since America's 2004 election?

Mr. KOHLMANN: Part of it is that he saves himself up for the big shots. He doesn't want to get people to use to seeing him. He wants his appearances to mean something. But there's also a security element in this. And again, this goes back to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. Zarqawi is someone who never ever released a video of himself, ever up until April of 2006. Why not? Well, by, you know, recording a video and by releasing it, you're divulging a lot of information about what you look like, about where you are, about who you're with.

And in Zarqawi's case, at least if you believe this story being told by the U.S. military, it certainly sounds likes him recording that video played a big part in the U.S. military being able to track him, and eventually kill him only a month later - or two months later. Excuse me. Bin Laden - the loss of bin Laden would be, you know, have a serious symbolic impact on al-Qaida. And a symbolic impact that I don't think they really want to take the chance of encountering.

MONTAGNE: Evan Kohlmann, thanks very much for taking with us.

Mr. KOHLMANN: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Evan Kohlmann speaking to us from New York. He consults with the Justice Department and Scotland Yard in terrorism cases. He has been carefully monitoring al-Qaida's public relations arm, al-Sahab.

Tomorrow: al-Qaida recruitment.

This NPR News.

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