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SITE In The News
Jihadists Take Stand on Web, and Some Say It's Defensive
By ROBERT F. WORTH
Published in: New York Times
March 13, 2005


BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 12 - It is an all-too-familiar ritual. Hours after an attack on an American convoy or an Iraqi police patrol, a brief statement begins appearing on Islamist Web sites claiming it was carried out by fighters loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Iraq's most wanted man.

But in the past two weeks something has changed. Every day now, new messages appear on the Web offering encouragement to resistance fighters, and last week Mr. Zarqawi's group started an Internet magazine, complete with photographs and 43 pages of text. Other Islamist groups are joining the effort, including one calling itself the Jihadist Information Brigade.

The Iraqi insurgency appears to have mounted a full-scale propaganda war.


SITE Institute
The SITE Institute, a monitoring group, said an Islamist Web site ran a video of a recent attack near the Sadr Hotel in Baghdad, above, and said an audio clip claimed that it was home to many Jews and a security firm.

And while the methods are not new - most militant groups now rely on the Web to recruit new adherents - the recent flurry of propaganda from Iraq has a distinctly defensive sound. The violence here has not let up, but the relatively peaceful elections, and the new movements toward democracy in other Arab countries, appear to have had a dispiriting effect on the insurgents, terrorism analysts say.

"I think they feel they are losing the battle," said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Institute, an American nonprofit group that monitors Islamist Web sites and news operations. "They realize there will be a new government soon, and they seem very nervous about the future."

One recent Web posting, for instance, angrily disputed "the infidels' claim that the mujahedeen are weakened and their attacks are fewer." Another insisted that Mr. Zarqawi was "in good health" and still planning operations. Yet another warned against recent entreaties to insurgents to "sit down at the bargaining table" with Americans and their allies.

It is hard, of course, to be sure of the authenticity of Internet postings. But American officials say those that appear with the Zarqawi logo seem to be credible, and that has led them to conclude that he does indeed have a news operation.

Even before the January election, Mr. Zarqawi released a tape of a lengthy didactic speech explaining why democracy was heretical. The new Internet magazine repeats some of that material and makes further efforts to convince Iraqis that the government now forming will not be legitimate.

The group, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, is also making new efforts to cast itself as a defender of Muslim lives. After an attack Wednesday on a hotel in central Baghdad, the group quickly released an Internet statement claiming credit, and noting, "As for the time, the deadly attack should always be before the start of the working day so that it won't harm Muslims who are passing by."

Last week, the Zarqawi group quickly denied news reports that it was responsible for a suicide car bomb in Hilla that killed 136 people. The attack was aimed at police and army recruits gathering outside a clinic, but many civilians, including women and children, were also killed. Residents of Hilla staged large and angry demonstrations against the violence that were featured on Arabic satellite television stations and Web sites.

The Zarqawi group's denial noted, correctly, that it had claimed responsibility for a separate attack on the same day aimed at American soldiers in southern Baghdad - not for the Hilla attack.

"We, the media department of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, declare that we have our own means of publication and that we observe the accuracy and truth of our statements," the statement said. "No one should aspire to say about us what we have not said."

Terrorist groups around the world rely increasingly on Internet chat rooms, more anonymous than traditional Web sites, to recruit fighters and to communicate with one another. Mr. Zarqawi became widely known last year after his group released a videotape of the beheading of an American hostage, Nicholas Berg, and in a sense he is simply raising his news operation a notch.

But the jihadists seem highly sensitive to perceptions that they have been weakened or demoralized in recent weeks.

Many of the groups' new messages, for instance, refer to American claims that some of Mr. Zarqawi's loyalists have been captured, and that the noose is tightening around him. When Iraqi government officials released new photographs of Mr. Zarqawi on Monday, the group quickly responded with an explanation: the Americans had obtained them after killing a member of its "press department" in Falluja.

The jihadists often complain that their own successes are not getting enough play. "Where are the media correspondents in Iraq, and where is the media coverage in Mosul, Anbar, Diyala, Samarra, Basra and southern Baghdad?" they demanded in a statement on Monday.

To some extent, the insurgents are creating their own press coverage, and successfully. After Wednesday's hotel attack in Baghdad, for instance, one group quickly released its own videotape of the bombing, along with statements explaining why and how it chose that target. Within hours, all of it was appearing not only on Arabic Web sites and chat rooms but also on television stations and even in some Western news reports.

But just in case, the group is adding a forum of its own. The new Internet magazine is called Zurwat al Sanam, Arabic for "the top of the camel's hump," a metaphorical phrase meaning the ideal of Islamic belief and practice.

The magazine's cover features photographs of Osama bin Laden and President Bush, along with titles highlighting the articles inside. There is also a photograph of Abu Anas al-Shami, a former leader in the Zarqawi group who was killed by an American missile in September, and a written tribute to him inside. Like other Qaeda-linked Web publications, the new magazine is partly a reaction against the Arab state media, which often misrepresent terrorist attacks, said Michael Doran, a professor of Near East Studies at Princeton University who monitors traffic on Islamist Web sites and chat rooms.

But the new propaganda effort may also be motivated by a belief that as the war grinds on, it may get harder to recruit foreign fighters, said Ms. Katz, at SITE, which stands for the Search for International Terrorist Entities. For that reason, the insurgent groups appear to be focusing more on winning and retaining the sympathies of Iraqis, she added.

The Zarqawi group's quick disavowal of the Hilla attack would appear to be part of this strategy. It also seems clear that the group is sensitive to those who criticize it for killing fellow Muslims.

The new magazine, for instance, addresses this issue in its first section, titled "What Is Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia?"

After laying out the group's aims - mainly ridding Muslim lands of Westerners and reviving the "pure" Islam of the seventh century - the statement concludes, "One of the basic rules of our religion is not to spill a drop of Muslim blood unless it is justified, because the destruction of the world is no less an offense than that."

The magazine goes on to defend attacks on members of the Iraqi Army and police officers, saying they have abandoned their religion and become mere pawns of the West.

The text then continues in a somewhat plaintive tone: "Why are our brothers the mujahedeen denounced? Those who left their countries, their wives and children, and sacrificed their blood, all to protect your honor and expel the invaders from your land?"

It is impossible to say how successful these Internet appeals will be. But one thing is clear: the Internet allows outsiders an occasional glimpse of the insurgents' strategy.

On Wednesday, for example, a member of a jihadist Internet message board wrote to point out that the recent shooting of a newly freed Italian hostage had increased political pressures on Italy to withdraw its troops from Iraq. The writer proposed taking another Italian hostage here to "add fuel to the fire while it is hot" and perhaps force Italy out of Iraq - much as the terrorist attacks in Madrid last year contributed to Spain's withdrawal.

That posting drew a response from Abu Maysar al-Iraqi, the pen name used by the spokesman for Mr. Zarqawi's group. He promised to "repeat the nightmare, again and again."

Iraqi employees of The New York Times contributed reportingfrom Baghdad for this article.

Source: http://http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/13/international/middleeast/13propaganda.html?


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