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SITE In The News
Iraq insurgents escalate war of words on cyber-battlefield
By Rick Jervis
Published in: USA Today
December 7, 2005

BAGHDAD - Insurgents in Iraq have launched a publicity blitz. They increased the number of Web postings to 825 last month from 145 in January, according to the U.S. military. Most postings detail insurgent bombings or attacks on Iraqi and U.S. forces.

The Web postings are also growing more sophisticated and frequently include video, soundtracks and professional editing, Army Maj. Gen. Richard Zahner, the top U.S. military intelligence officer in Iraq, said Tuesday.

Many of the messages are from al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group led by terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is behind some of the deadliest attacks and kidnappings. "It is the centerpiece of their effort," Zahner said of the publicity campaign. Zarqawi "has always been excellent at it. Lately, he's been turning it faster."

Concerned that insurgents were gaining an advantage in the information war, the U.S. military has stepped up efforts to counter the publicity onslaught from the insurgents.

"The information environment has become a battlefield in a very real way," said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman. "There was a decision early on that this was not something we could allow to go uncontested." He said efforts have accelerated to combat insurgents' media campaign.

Some of those efforts have generated controversy. The U.S. military is looking into reports that Iraqi news media were paid to run stories generated by the U.S. military without revealing the source. At the center of the controversy is a Washington-based contractor, the Lincoln Group, which was paid by the Pentagon to promote positive news about U.S. efforts in Iraq.

Johnson said the military is reviewing the allegations.

Nearly all insurgent groups operating in Iraq have media teams responsible for posting statements on the Internet and creating videos for Web and television broadcasts, said Col. Pat McNiece, an intelligence officer.

Some groups post lies. A group called the Victorious Sect Army uses fancy computer graphics, but U.S. officials have been unable to verify that it carried out any of the attacks claimed in its Web postings, McNiece said.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq has the most sophisticated media team and sticks close to the facts, at times even following up with corrections, McNiece said.

Sometimes a terrorist group will steal a video from another insurgent website in an effort to take credit for an attack, said Rita Katz, director of the Washington-based SITE Institute, which monitors terrorists' websites. Terrorist groups are eager to take responsibility for attacks. "Videos are coming by the dozen from Iraq," Katz said.

In general, insurgents want to promote a picture of Iraq in chaos to foster the idea that insurgents are winning, Zahner said.

Insurgent messages often target Iraq and the Arab world, McNiece said. The messages are used as a recruiting tool for militants and as a way to raise money for the insurgency, he said.

"They don't kill anybody," McNiece said of the messages. "But they certainly help the terrorists shape perception in the Arab world. It's a problem."

The U.S. government monitors websites but rarely makes an effort to shut them down because it's so easy for terrorists to set up new ones, said Ben Venzke of IntelCenter, a Washington-area think tank that monitors terrorist declarations and does work for U.S. intelligence.

"If you shut it down, it will be back in about five seconds in a million other locations," Venzke said.

There may also be intelligence value in watching the sites.

"Occasionally, it would be more beneficial (for the government) to leave the site online in order to gather intelligence information," Katz said.

For militants, it's important to publicize the attacks, widening the impact of a bombing or a kidnapping to help influence public opinion. Insurgents sometimes rehearse suicide missions with the group's cameraman to find the best angle to capture the attack on tape, Zahner said. Cameramen then join militants on missions. They film the attacks, then edit and post them on websites, sometimes within a matter of hours, he said.

As roadside bombs become more sophisticated, so do the methods to record them. Recently, insurgents synchronized a roadside bomb with a remote-controlled video camera to film the explosion, Zahner said. "It's a virtual jihadist experience," he said. "That's what gets them the money. That's what gets them the recruits."

Contributing: John Diamond in Washington


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