Early this year, a religious radical calling himself Abu Hamza had a question for the deputy leader of al-Qaeda regarding the Egyptian secret police. "Are they committing unbelief?" he tapped on his keyboard. "And is it permissible to kill them?" A few weeks later, an answer came from a man with a $25 million bounty on his head, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Killing the police is justified, Zawahiri replied, because they are "infidels, each and every one of them."
The exchange was part of the latest propaganda coup orchestrated by al-Qaeda: an online chat between Zawahiri -- one of the world's most wanted fugitives -- and hundreds of curious people around the globe. After announcing in a Web forum in December that he would entertain questions on virtually any topic, Zawahiri received 1,888 written queries from journalists and the public. He patiently answered about one-fifth of them, even hostile postings that condemned al-Qaeda for harming innocents and perverting Islam.
The war against terrorism has evolved into a war of ideas and propaganda, a struggle for hearts and minds fought on television and the Internet. On those fronts, al-Qaeda's voice has grown much more powerful in recent years. Taking advantage of new technology and mistakes by its adversaries, al-Qaeda's core leadership has built an increasingly prolific propaganda operation, enabling it to communicate constantly, securely and in numerous languages with loyalists and potential recruits worldwide.
Every three or four days, on average, a new video or audio from one of al-Qaeda's commanders is released online by as-Sahab, the terrorist network's in-house propaganda studio. Even as its masters dodge a global manhunt, as-Sahab produces documentary-quality films, iPod files and cellphone videos. Last year it released 97 original videos, a sixfold increase from 2005. (As-Sahab means "the clouds" in Arabic, a reference to the skyscraping mountain peaks of Afghanistan.)
U.S. and European intelligence officials attribute the al-Qaeda propaganda boom in part to the network's ability to establish a secure base in the ungoverned tribal areas of western Pakistan.
Some U.S. officials acknowledge that they missed early opportunities to disrupt al-Qaeda's communications operations, whose internal security has since been upgraded to the point where analysts say it is nearly bulletproof.
"In many, many ways, the damage has already been done," said Evan F. Kohlmann, an expert on al-Qaeda's online operations who serves as a consultant to the FBI, Scotland Yard and other agencies. "It certainly would have been a lot easier if the U.S. government had taken this seriously back in 2004. Back then, these guys were looked upon as miscreants and cretins, like they were just Internet terrorists and not for real."
U.S. officials have also acknowledged their inability to counter al-Qaeda's ideological arguments, despite a multibillion-dollar investment in public diplomacy and covert propaganda efforts aimed at Muslims.
"It is just plain embarrassing that al-Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in a speech in November. "As one foreign diplomat asked a couple of years ago, 'How has one man in a cave managed to outcommunicate the world's greatest communication society?' " High-End Tools
When Osama bin Laden wants to deliver a speech, a trusted video cameraman is summoned to a safe house somewhere in Pakistan, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials and analysts.The video file is then edited, stored on a tiny computer memory stick and given to a human courier. The memory stick usually passes through several sets of hands to disguise its route, until an operative finally sits down in an Internet cafe and saves the data to a password-protected Web site, they said.Analysts said that as-Sahab is outfitted with some of the best technology available. Editors and producers use ultralight Sony Vaio laptops and top-end video cameras. Files are protected using PGP, or Pretty Good Privacy, a virtually unbreakable form of encryption software that is also used by intelligence agencies around the world.
"We all think of them as a bunch of guys living in caves, and Miran Shah may be the other side of the moon," said a senior U.S. counterterrorism official speaking on the condition of anonymity, referring to a Pakistani town near the Afghan border that has served as a refuge for al-Qaeda operatives. "And yet their guys are all communicating on laptops, just like I do from one of the most wired buildings in Washington."
Speeches by bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders can appear online less than a week after being recorded, although it usually takes two to three weeks before they are released, officials and analysts said.
"It is clear that they are under no real pressure," said Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "They are very relaxed. They have plenty of time to go to their film archives and edit their productions."
Despite years of trying, U.S. intelligence agencies have been unable to trace the videos of bin Laden and his lieutenants back to their origins. But officials said the network's leaders expose themselves to risk every time they make a new recording.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda's franchise in Iraq, was killed in a U.S. military airstrike in June 2006, two months after he showed his face on a video for the first time. In May 2007, Mullah Dadullah, a senior Taliban commander, was killed by NATO and Afghan forces in Helmand province 36 hours after he surfaced to give a television interview.
A New Distributor
In 2005, al-Qaeda's propaganda machine was seriously ailing.
Al-Jazeera, the terrorist group's channel of choice, had stopped airing al-Qaeda videos in their entirety. Many bin Laden followers complained bitterly in Web forums that al-Jazeera was distorting the leader's speeches by playing clips out of context.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government and its allies were successfully pressuring Internet service providers to shut down Islamist Web sites. Many key technology experts had been captured or killed. The founder of one influential Web forum was killed in Saudi Arabia. In October 2005, British police arrested Younis Tsouli, a Moroccan-born webmaster who had played an instrumental role in building communication networks for Iraqi insurgents and other al-Qaeda affiliates.
About the same time, al-Qaeda supporters designed a new propaganda distribution network called al-Fajr Media Center. Al-Fajr, which means "dawn" in Arabic, eventually linked dozens of anonymous webmasters around the world. U.S. intelligence officials and analysts still know very little about the network's inner workings. But over time, it has taken over the dissemination of online propaganda for scores of radical Islamist groups. In addition to as-Sahab, it distributes material for al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq, Somalia, North Africa and Yemen, as well as for the Taliban and other militant groups. Many of the videos ultimately are subtitled in English as well as German, Italian, French, Pashto, Turkish and other languages. Al-Fajr is heavily decentralized, with its webmasters generally unaware of one another's true identities for security reasons, intelligence analysts said. It also has separate "brigades" devoted to hacking, multimedia, cybersecurity and distribution.
The network receives propaganda material from individual terrorist groups and then posts it online. Each release is announced on popular Islamist Web forums, where thousands of members are encouraged to copy the videos and redistribute them on other sites.
The Web forums are password-protected and highly regulated. In certain sections, only high-ranking moderators have the authority to post material -- such as bulletins announcing a new bin Laden video. As a result, al-Fajr and others can quickly spot fake material, ensuring that the propaganda maintains a high level of reliability and consistency, analysts said.
"By controlling that content, al-Fajr Center can make sure everybody who is getting that information knows they're getting it from an authentic source," said Josh Devon, senior analyst at the SITE Intelligence Group, a private firm that monitors Islamist terrorist groups online and serves as a consultant to U.S. and foreign government agencies. "It'd be extremely difficult for the CIA or another intelligence agency to introduce credible and effective counterpropaganda."
Al-Fajr is extremely security-conscious, Devon said. It distributes a manual called the "Technical Mujahid," which advises how to cover electronic footprints and avoid infiltration.
Devon and other analysts said al-Fajr may have had security weaknesses in its early days but is well protected now. It is designed so that new webmasters can be recruited to replace others if necessary.
"Even if you arrested 20 people, the long-term effects would be minimal," he said. "You could disrupt things and create some chaos, but it'd only be a temporary measure. There'd be a pool of over 50,000 other people to draw from to take their spot."
Some U.S. lawmakers are trying to attack the distribution system anyway.
Last month, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, wrote to Google officials, urging them to take down YouTube videos produced by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. YouTube said that it pulled some videos but that others targeted by Lieberman were not violent or did not qualify as "hate speech." Other officials said such an approach was unlikely to be effective because the videos are so widespread and can resurface almost immediately on other sites.
"Initially, that was reflexively the first option people came to -- 'Let's not let Osama bin Laden speak' or 'Let's not let the extremists on the Internet,' " the senior U.S. counterterrorism official said. "I don't think that's possible. Yes, we could go around shutting down Web sites, but it doesn't really work as a strategic weapon against al-Qaeda." One of the more visible and intriguing faces on al-Qaeda videos is that of Adam Gadahn, a California native and convert to Islam who moved to Pakistan a decade ago. Gadahn, who calls himself "Azzam the American," first appeared in a video in 2005, when he threatened attacks on Los Angeles. He's been cast as the star of several productions since then, and analysts said it is clear that al-Qaeda's leadership turns to him for advice on how to address a U.S. audience.
"I don't know how well he actually understands the U.S. market, but he understands it a whole lot better than any of them," the senior U.S. counterterrorism official said. "Al-Qaeda doesn't have a whole lot of choice. If they want to know something about the U.S., they either go to Gadahn or to Wikipedia."
While many analysts have dismissed Gadahn as a bit player, his videos are wildly popular among al-Qaeda foot soldiers in Europe.
British police, for instance, regularly find copies of Gadahn's videos during their investigations of homegrown terrorist cells, said Kohlmann, the consultant, who works as a senior investigator for the NEFA Foundation, a terrorism research group based in Charleston, S.C.
"His slogans become mantras for these people," Kohlmann said. "They find Gadahn to be a heroic figure, as a symbol, as a leader."
The man as-Sahab turns to most often, however, is Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's chief ideologue. He has appeared in 20 different videos and audios since January 2007, according to IntelCenter, a terrorism research firm based in Alexandria, Va.
In contrast to the charismatic bin Laden, who speaks in poetic Arabic and projects the image of a statesman, Zawahiri is an uncompromising pedant who tailors his messages to other radicals. He defends al-Qaeda's brutal tactics unflinchingly, justifying the killing of civilians by invoking a greater struggle against nonbelievers and corrupt Arab regimes.
"He resonates with the militants because he gives them tightly constructed Islamist arguments," said S. Abdallah Schleifer, a former NBC News bureau chief in Cairo who has known Zawahiri and his family for decades. "He's offering them a patterned, ideological take on life."
Some U.S. officials and analysts have questioned whether Zawahiri has become overexposed and whether his message is losing its bite. They point to surveys showing a plunge in public support for al-Qaeda, particularly in countries where the network has organized attacks against Muslim civilians, such as Jordan, Pakistan and Indonesia.
But others warn against underestimating Zawahiri's skill at keeping the debate focused on U.S. policy in the Middle East, a subject that strikes a chord with millions of Muslims, even those otherwise unsympathetic to al-Qaeda. Perhaps his most effective video, they said, is an 80-minute documentary released last September titled "The Power of Truth."
In the film, Zawahiri and other al-Qaeda leaders offer a long narrative of alleged offenses by the U.S. government against Muslims, using video excerpts of U.S. leaders and commentators to bolster their argument.
"It's beautifully crafted propaganda, and it's a huge problem for us," said Jarret Brachman, research director at the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. "You're left shaking your head and saying, 'Yeah, I guess they're right.' "