BAGHDAD – When it comes to staying relevant with the rush to go online, even an extremist has to keep up with developments in the digital age.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, a high ranking Al-Qaeda member, has recently become the internet’s most unlikely blogger.
The jihadist group, ultra efficient at tapping into cyberspace as a means of getting across its propaganda, has invited people to quiz Zawahiri by writing via two websites it operates.
The “blog” is the latest innovative move by Al-Qaeda, which has a long history of using the internet to post written, audio and video statements by Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants to spread their extremist messages.
The shadowy network is rivaled only by the Islamic Army, one of Iraq’s main Sunni insurgent groups, in its constant use of the internet as a propaganda tool — and as a means to inspire fear, such as in videos of hostages pleading for their lives or being shot or beheaded.
The big advantage is that messages can be uploaded from virtually anywhere in the world and become instantly available to anyone with a cyber connection — the groups’ target audiences.
Dropping off a video tape at a broadcaster contains considerable more risk — and there’s no guarantee that the channel will air it anyway.
Al-Qaeda’s latest big effort was on Jan. 6 when one of its American members urged Islamist militants to target U.S. President George W. Bush “with bombs” during his trip to the Middle East.
Bush should be welcomed “not with flowers and applause, but with bombs and car bombs,” said Adam Gadahn, a convert to Islam who has been indicted for treason by a U.S. jury, in a video message.
On December 30, bin Laden warned Muslims against supporting Iraq’s U.S.-backed government and promised the “liberation of Palestine,” in an online audio message. In the 56-minute tape, the Western world’s most wanted man accused the United States of seeking to control the region through the Iraqi government, and singled out Iraqis fighting against Al-Qaeda in Anbar province as “traitors” to Islam.
Whereas Al-Qaeda’s messages are often long and verbose, the Islamic Army of Iraq’s are short — and chilling.
The group’s greatest media creation is Juba, a mythical marksman who is shown shooting U.S. soldiers and Iraqi policemen from a high powered rifle fitted with a silencer — and a video camera.
The latest “Juba” video — the third — is posted on http://www.baghdadsniper.net.
One sequence shows the marksman taking aim at the silhouette of a soldier, which appears in the window of a concrete watchtower. A shot rings out and the body collapses like a puppet, and then falls from view.
Other soldiers are seen being shot but it is unclear if they are actually killed. A scary sequence shows one Iraqi policeman after another being sized up, put in the cross hairs and then coldly shot.
Juba — a nom de guerre — made his first appearance on the Internet in 2005. The film was of poor quality but it showed shocking images of American soldiers being gunned down by insurgent snipers.
The second compilation, released in October 2006, transformed Juba into the “sniper of Baghdad” and a hero to many young Iraqis. The group posts website clips almost daily and propaganda is a key weapon in its arsenal. One of the first videos it posted was of a ground-to-air missile being fired at a DHL-owned Airbus transport aircraft.
In April 2005, it posted a video showing a Blackwater transport helicopter being brought down outside Baghdad by a similar missile.
The only survivor, Bulgarian co-pilot Lyubomir Kostov, is shown staggering from the wreckage, before a gunman arrives on the scene and shoots him dead.
The group worked hand in glove with Al-Qaeda in Iraq until 2005 but then turned against bin Laden’s network and now frequently comes to blows with it — both on the ground and in cyberspace.