YouTube War/Iraqi Innovation: Individual Video Segments

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The twist added by the groups active in Iraq, evident fairly early in that conflict (not available to Khattab given the limitations of technology when the Chechens began producing their videos or required of Hezbollah, with control over its own television network), was to film individual attacks as short video segments, perhaps lasting only as long as a few seconds, so that, for example, many attacks on American convoys have been filmed by terrorists hiding in what amount to duck blinds. These segments are then uploaded individually to the web, rather than the terrorists waiting until they have assembled a large collection. This practice likely started in Iraq as a result of a confluence of technology—the easy availability of portable digital cameras and laptops—with opportunity—a combat theater where attacks on American soldiers were, in fact, taking place with some regularity. And once uploaded, of course, these videos become available to anyone who cares to download them. This made possible a radical change in the way terrorist websites were structured: previous sites, even those of groups which were quite violent, had avoided all references to violence, they certainly would not have featured actual images of brutal attacks.28

Susan B. Glaser and Steve Coll, writing in The Washington Post, argue that one reason abu Musab al-Zarqawi rose above the pack of terrorists and insurgents operating in Iraq to achieve international stature within the Islamist movement is that he and the people around him understood the possibilities intrinsic to the various technologies coming together at the same time, how to harness the specific technological moment if you will, in service to terrorism. And they further suggest that the way his group has done so makes clear the generational divide between Zarqawi’s group and bin Laden’s.

Zarqawi launched his jihad in Iraq “at the right point in the evolution of the technology,” said Ben N. Venzke, whose firm IntelCenter monitors jihadist sites for U.S. Government agencies. High-speed Internet access was increasingly prevalent. New, relatively low-cost tools to make and distribute high-quality video were increasingly available. “Greater bandwidth, better video compression, better video editing tools—all hit the maturity point when you had a vehicle as well as the tools,” he said.

The original al-Qaeda always aspired to use technology in its war on the West. But bin Laden’s had been the moment of fax machines and satellite television. “Zarqawi is a new generation,” said Evan F. Kohlmann, a consultant who closely monitors the sites. “The people around him are in their 20s. They view the media differently. The original al-Qaeda are hiding in the mountains, not a technologically very well-equipped place. Iraq is an urban combat zone. Technology is a big part of that. I don’t know how to distinguish the Internet now from the military campaign in general in Iraq.”29 After all, as they point out, until very recently, when the original al-Qaeda leadership wished to release an audio file (much less a video file), they went to the effort of getting a physical copy of a tape to an Arab satellite television network, an old-school way of doing things. Zarqawi’s group (now in its post-Zarqawi iteration), like the rest of the groups operating in Iraq, from the beginning would simply post the file to the Internet themselves.

This does tell us something about the priorities of the terrorist and insurgent groups American forces are fighting. With the exception of the ever escalating offense-defense arms race surrounding the improvised explosive devices,30 there are no reports of weapons being particularly advanced. Rather, they tend to be whatever is at hand, whatever can be found in leftover weapons caches or smuggled into the country, while the equipment used for the creation of propaganda, the cameras, the computers, the software, has continued to advance rapidly. On the one hand, there is clear and notable evolution in the technology being used in the generation of propaganda, based on what is being captured in the Iraqi battlespace:

Over time technology has gone bigger and bigger. We have seen more hard drives, as time goes on, hard drives coming off the battlefield have become more advanced, bigger hard drives, [with] more capability. Earlier in the fight [there were] 20 gig hard drives, now 40, some are 80, even 120. So we have seen an advancement as technology across the world has increased.31

It remains the case, in fairness, that most of the equipment recovered has generally been 3 to 5 years old.32 And there could be any number of reasons for that, starting with the fact that, given the difficulty of gaining access to computers in the country during Saddam’s time, the baseline was probably very far behind the curve, even compared to the rest of the region.

Where the technology itself is not the most advanced but is several generations behind, they use it to access cutting edge techniques, and constantly push the envelope in terms of creative applications of what technology allows. For example, the British have complained that insurgents have been using Google Earth to plan their attacks on British compounds in Iraq more precisely. Documents seized during raids on the homes of insurgents last week uncovered print-outs from photographs taken from Google. The satellite photographs show in detail the buildings inside the bases and vulnerable areas such as tented accommodation, lavatory blocks, and where lightly armored land rovers are parked. Written on the back of one set of photographs taken of the Shatt al Arab Hotel, headquarters for the 1,000 men of the Staffordshire Regiment battle group, officers found the camp’s precise longitude and latitude: . . . [a British intelligence officer said] “We are concerned that they use them to plan attacks. We have never had proof that they have deliberately targeted any area of the camp using these images but presumably they are of great use to them.”

. . . Anyone with the internet can sign up to Google Earth and by simply typing in the name of a location they can receive very detailed imagery down to identifying types of vehicles.

. . . A Google spokesman said the information could be used for “good and bad” and was available to the public in many forms. “Of course we are always ready to listen to governments’ requests,” he said.33

The terrorists attacking Mumbai, of course, famously used Google Earth in a similar way. The difference is that they had access to blackberries, a far more advanced platform, and one that permitted them to follow the press coverage as the attack unfolded. This was a return, in a sense, to the capabilities of the Munich Olympic terrorists, using the televisions in the athletes’ rooms to follow the press coverage and therefore keep track of the police. The advance in technology meant that the Mumbai terrorists could carry their “televisions” in their hands as they moved through the hotels, and simultaneously use them to keep geographically dispersed teams connected.34 Still, this is an advanced, creative application that requires Internet access, but not necessarily the most advanced platform on the market. By the same token, “. . . al-Qaeda [in Iraq] and other terrorist organizations used to articulate their battle plan with rocks and stones and sticks, now we see them using power points with laptops and projectors on a wall. So overall their [use of] technology has improved.”35 (It should be noted that there are clearly areas where, as a result of Coalition efforts, the ability of insurgent groups to produce propaganda had become so degraded by 2008, however, that they were reduced to spray painting graffiti on walls and underpasses, a technique that had not been seen for several years.)36 Labs are decentralized, apparently intentionally (even as media strategies seem to be centralized), and the labs themselves are never connected to the Internet. Rather, any editing, production, and video compression is done in the labs. Once complete, videos are downloaded to thumb drives or (more likely, given the size of video files) portable hard drives and then taken elsewhere to be uploaded to the web.37 (This is known in the vernacular as “sneaker net.”)

So many attacks, whether improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on convoys, the detonation of suicide bombers, the execution of hostages, or sniper attacks on soldiers, have been filmed that it has been suggested that attacks are staged to provide material that can be filmed, rather than the filming being an afterthought incidental to the point of the attack and added after the planning is complete. As Glaser and Coll wrote of Zarqawi’s organization in Iraq: Never before has a guerrilla organization so successfully intertwined its real-time war on the ground with its electronic jihad, making Zarqawi’s group practitioners of what experts say will be the future of insurgent warfare, where no act goes unrecorded and atrocities seem to be committed in order to be filmed and distributed nearly instantaneously online.38

They continue, “Filming an attack has become an integral part of the attack itself.” As Army Lieutenant Colonel Terry Guild (at the time focusing on Information Operations) explained:

They use a video camera as a mechanism to upload data on to a website, to al Jazeera, the way we use conventional weapons. It is part of their Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures. A U.S. soldier does a pre-combat inspection, he checks and makes sure he’s got his bullets, his water, all that stuff. Well, our enemy is doing that, those precombat checks [but they] include making sure that the video guy is there with the camera, with batteries, to either courier that video to some safe house or to get it uploaded to some website, make sure that what they’re doing, that message gets out. And it’s engrained . . . [it] would be unusual if they did not do it. A lot of it has to do with status. The bigger the attack the more video and the more media exposure, it seems [as if the more] these guys gain notoriety, [the more they] gain rank within the network.39

How important has this been to the efforts of the insurgency in Iraq? Between June and roughly November 2007 (in other words, roughly the period corresponding to the surge of additional forces to Baghdad), American forces captured and destroyed eight media labs belonging to al-Qaeda in Iraq. Two were in Baghdad, two were in Mosul, one in Diyala near Baquba, one in Samarra, and one in Garma. In the eight labs, they found a total of 23 terabytes of material that had not yet been uploaded to the web. Although in some cases the labs were discovered in the course of other operations, coalition forces: have made going after these media labs or propaganda labs a priority because we know how important these things are to al-Qaeda operations, we know that they use these videos and put them on the web to recruit and to get funding, so to attack its livelihood we have to go after these things, so we have targeted them [specifically.]40 The loss of these eight labs, according to MNF-I, resulted in more than an 80 percent degradation of al- Qaeda in Iraq’s capacity to get new material on the web as of September 2007. Colonel Donald Bacon, Chief of Plans for Special Operations and Intelligence, working public affairs matters in the Strategic Communication Department of MNF-I at the time, continued, saying: the Internet is how they recruit and get the money, so I think that we caught on, surely General Petraeus did, [that]this is a huge target set we have to go after, this is what brings in the guys from the pan-Arab world to become terrorists, these videos. Part of it is . . . the radical sermons and whatnot, but the Internet is a big part of that as well.41

That said, while visual material (and specific claims that accompany it) provide these groups a new and powerful means of attacking their target population’s will to continue fighting, they still need to find some way for that material to reach the traditional media for the visual product to be fully effective—it is highly unlikely that sufficient numbers of people will find this material simply by surfing the web for it to have enough of an impact to meet a terrorist’s groups needs or for the material’s full potential to be unleashed. For while some of their material does indeed find its way to the increasingly popular YouTube and similar sites, even YouTube has only so much potential unless clips from that site “go viral,” finding their way to multiple other sites, personal email accounts, and ultimately the traditional media.

To be clear, these groups are seeking to reach multiple audiences simultaneously. The video sharing sites may be inadequate for reaching non-Islamic audiences, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t perfectly suited for an Islamic one. Analysts are finding more and more of these clips posted to sites such as YouTube, Google Video, or Liveleak, where they have been seen by tens or hundreds of thousands of viewers. It is a significant concern that sympathizers of the cause outside of the Arab world who may not speak Arabic (and therefore lack easy access to the group’s own websites) can easily obtain this material—or for the merely curious to find it and thus become sympathizers.42 As-Sahab, al-Qaeda’s media distribution organization, as well as the Taliban, is now a regular presence on some of these sites. (Simply type as Sahab into the search engine of any of the sites to see how much of their material has been posted there.43) Michael Scheuer, former CIA analyst, offers another reason for the regular postings: Most recently, al-Qaeda’s al-Sahab media organization has demonstrated an ability to present, and help others to present, a reliable source of near real-time news coverage from the jihad fronts for Muslims. From both Iraq and Afghanistan—where heretofore the Taliban took almost no interest in media operations—there now flow almost daily, high-quality videos of mujahideen military activity against the forces of the U.S.-led coalitions, interviews with important insurgent commanders and tapes of the retribution exacted from those Muslims who cooperate with the “occupiers.” These tapes are a solid contribution to al-Qaeda’s goal of reducing Arab and Muslim defeatism, and offer Muslims around the world a third news source option. In addition to Western outlets like CNN, VOA, and BBC, and the Arab satellite channels like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyah, al-Qaeda, and its allies have, via the internet, given Muslims another option for viewing the news from the war zones, and one with a blatant but well-informed Islamist slant.

Beyond its battlefield successes, therefore, al-Qaeda and its allies have scored an impressive media achievement, moving from the status of jihadi cheerleaders to that of highly modern and competent media operatives and propagandists whose focus is on influencing the Muslim audience. . . . a pervasive media presence via the internet. This . . . denies the militaries of the United States and its Western allies one pillar of their military doctrine— information dominance. The success of al-Qaeda and the Islamists in the media arena has denied Western military planners much of their previous ability to shape the battlefield environment by controlling information flows. Indeed, it may be that the U.S. military and its allies are now in the position of having to look for means with which to break the Islamists’ information domination on battlefields and contested regions across the Muslim world.44

But the irony here is that traditional (legacy) American media outlets now depend on the terrorists and insurgents for content, so that by uploading this material to the Internet and making it available to anyone who finds it, these groups ensure that it will find its way onto American television network news shows as well. Because it has been impossible for the networks to consistently acquire visually compelling combat footage of either the fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan for any variety of reasons, all six news networks and news divisions—ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC (the cable partner of NBC), and Fox News— have made it a regular practice to download footage from terrorist and insurgent websites and integrate that visual product into their broadcasts, almost never with any indication that the audience would be able to determine the actual provenance of the footage. Further, these groups are so sophisticated that they are producing English language propaganda that is quite effective even aside from the attack videos. ABC News reported that when one soldier lost a video diary he had filmed for personal use in Iraq, the images popped up months later on the Internet and on al Jazeera—but with the original audio track stripped out. It had been replaced with the voice of another English speaker, one who purported to be the voice of the soldier, explaining to his mother in a Christmas message, among other things:

The crimes by our soldiers during break-ins started to merge, such as burglary, harassment, raping, and random manslaughter,” says the voice. “Why are we even here? The people hate us.”45

The propagandists overstepped when they ended their piece by pointing out that it was a tragedy that this poor soldier had been killed in Iraq before he ever made it home for Christmas. Unfortunately for them, ABC was able to verify that multiple claims made by the speaker were false, starting with the fact that it was unlikely the soldier would have been making a “Christmas message” for his family when he had actually left Iraq 6 months before Christmas and ending with the fact that the soldier was alive and well.46 ABC therefore posted it as a story about an audacious (but ineffective) attempt at propaganda. Thus while this may have worked as propaganda with the Arab audience, it didn’t successfully make the jump to the American audience.

In truth, in an interview with the author, Lieutenant Colonel Ed Loomis, the Public Affairs Officer for the 101st Airborne Division, the soldier’s home unit, made clear that in fact the propaganda was in this case quite effective: ABC was preparing to do a story about the tragedy of an anti-war soldier killed in Iraq, essentially picking up the story precisely as it was reported on al Jazeera. Despite the large number of inaccuracies in that story, (and what would seem to be the obviously over-thetop nature of the claims in the script) it was only by finally producing the living soldier that the Public Affairs Officer (PAO) was able to head off al Jazeera’s story from appearing on ABC News—a story that was created when a script written by the insurgent group the Islamic Army of Iraq provided the basis for an audio track subsequently added by al Jazeera. Loomis said:

. . . the only thing that they [ABC News] said was going to pull the plug on it was, I had to put Tucker [the soldier in question] in front of the camera. The fact that Tucker was alive, and the fact that they got the rank wrong, and the fact that there was no way that this was a Christmas letter by Tucker to his family in that he had left Iraq 6 months before Christmas . . . —lie, after lie, after lie [was not enough].47

Loomis points out that while the script was written by the Islamic Army of Iraq, “al Jazeera did the soundtrack, reading the letter was al Jazeera’s construct, something for which they have apologized to me over the phone,” although he does not know whether they ever issued any retraction on the air.48 Why was ABC almost fooled and why did Loomis have to work so hard to talk them out of running the piece as it was, despite the apparent falsehoods in the claims made by the speaker claiming to be the voice of Specialist Tucker and what would seem on face to be some fairly outrageous claims? Because that is the degree of sophistication reflected in terms of the ability to take a set of images, edit them in a way that seems to match a new script, and have the combination appear plausible (certainly not hurt in this case by having a network’s professional sound people adding the finishing touches). The implications are staggering: in a combat theater awash with soldiers’ personal digital media, commanders now must carefully instruct their people to secure not only weapons, ammunition, and other combat gear, but also their personal media, because any personal images lost in a combat zone can easily be used by the enemy in the creation of propaganda that has the potential to be quite effective and do serious damage. The amount of personal digital equipment carried by the troops has continued to skyrocket because the technology available to average citizens in terms of their own capacity to produce information and communicate with others has changed in ways that are nothing short of revolutionary. Digital cameras, both still and moving, of increasingly high quality, are now available in sizes that are not just portable but small enough to be embedded in a cell phone, and this technology is more and more affordable to the average person. Also available is the software that permits images to be edited (and manipulated) right on a laptop computer, before being uploaded onto the Internet.49

The modern battlefield is awash in digital cameras, video cameras, and MP3 players that store images as well as music, personal computers, and cell phone cameras. And all of this technology—and the way it permits troops to stay connected to the home front— is so essential to the morale of the force (and, just as important to retention, to the morale of the families), there is simply no putting the toothpaste back in the tube. Beyond mere email, we now have a force grown accustomed to using webcams to read bedtime stories to their children.50

These technologies all work together, and they work as well for the average citizen as they do for the professional journalist. (And, of course, therefore work as well for the terrorist as for either of them.) For the journalist, although only 18 months elapsed between the fighting in Afghanistan that initially overthrew the Taliban and the conventional combat phase of the war in Iraq, there was no comparison in terms of what was possible technologically. Camera crews in Afghanistan needed 75 to 100 cases for their equipment, and even then were still not able to transmit the fighting in real time, something that was possible in Iraq with equipment carried in only five or six cases.51

With the help of these technologies, the modern-day terrorist produces several categories of videos, which are then made available on the web: heavily produced videos that are several minutes long and with fairly high production values, sophisticated editing, and graphics, some of which may actually run as long as an hour; hostage videos, which run the spectrum from videos used to prove that a particular victim is in a group’s possession to the final video in which a victim is executed on film; statement videos, which are declarations coming from a group’s senior leadership for any one of a number of reasons; tribute videos, used to eulogize those lost to the cause (most especially, of course, martyrs); internal training and instructional videos, which are never meant to be distributed to the public and are often behind password-protected sites; the last will and testament of the suicide bombers; and then the operational videos, the new category developed out of the Iraq conflict.52

The majority of the operational clips come from Iraq, simply because this is where the bulk of such attacks have taken place since the strategy of filming and posting individual attacks originated (and given that the Taliban came to the game late, for a variety of reasons), and they grew increasingly sophisticated in terms of the graphics and audio used (a reflection of the increasing sophistication of the software available on the open market, software that generally requires no more training than reading the instruction manuals that come with the software itself.53) What is particularly striking is that many now come complete with English subtitles, even if the English is often quite bad (sometimes, were the context different, hilariously so.)54

In fact, as far as production values go, the software available on the open market may not be the limiting factor for these groups. An enormous amount of opensource software is available. (open-source software is that which is intentionally made available for free by the original programmer in the hopes that a community of users will develop, in the process assisting the programmer in improving the original program.) And that presumes the user is particular about sticking to the legal niceties—if the person producing the ultimate video is casual about such things, a great deal more software can become available through various mechanisms.55 Based on the materials captured on the battlefield, no Iraqi groups appear to be using Linuxbased computer software—in other words, they are not using open-source software, but instead appear to be limited to PC-based systems.56 This does not mean that open-source is not being used internationally; it means that those producing material inside Iraq are working within self-limiting parameters, either due to resource or, more likely, training constraints.

The gap between the degree of sophistication in videos produced in the battlespace, by “a guy and a laptop”; videos produced in more elaborate (and stationary) media labs, along the lines of those coalition forces were able to capture in late 2007; and those produced outside the theater entirely, is only going to shrink as time goes by. One company is marketing today a piece of equipment that they are calling “basically a live TV truck in a backpack.”57 Now, with “minimal training, anyone who can operate a computer can use it to broadcast professional-quality live video over the internet or on television.”58 It is clear that neither the manufacturers nor the technology reviewers are considering possible downsides to the way technology opens up broadcast-quality access to almost anyone with any kind of agenda. Yet if it were up to me, the same kind of export controls would be slapped on this that we put on fighter-bomber parts or Cray super-computers.

This disruption of the normal live video production process means content attractive to niche audiences is now worth televising to local communities or streaming worldwide. “You don’t have to have a million people watching,” said Nelson [Senior Vice President, NewTek], “because the budget of making the show is almost nothing.”

The TriCaster is essentially a high-powered computer with special ports. Like other computers, it plugs into a display and it is operated using a mouse and keyboard. The onscreen interface resembles a traditional TV-studio switching console, but after a short tutorial, just about anyone can figure out how to switch between cameras, add graphics, and so on. I saw how easy this was, and heard countless testimonials about high schoolers and church volunteers learning how to use it in a half hour. “We had to take a process that normally has 5 to 30 people creating a show and make it easy enough for one person to run, [someone] who has never run a TV show before,” explained Nelson. Indeed, the TriCaster allows a single operator to mix multiple cameras (higherend models support more cameras) interspersed with graphics, pre-recorded clips, real-time effects, and more than 300 three-dimensional transitions. The box outputs to the web, television stations, or big screens in churches and sporting arenas.

NewTek’s entry-level TriCaster, with support for three cameras, costs $4,000. That may seem like a lot, but considering that it can be used in place of a mobile production vehicle, four grand is small potatoes, relatively speaking.

The benefit to niche video broadcasters has been significant. Many high schools, colleges, and minorleague sports teams can now afford to broadcast and stream most or all of their games.59

While terrorist groups have always attempted to reach the public on their own, we are no longer in an age of mimeographed pamphlets or magazines reaching a few hundred true believers while staying one step ahead of bankruptcy from one issue to the next. In addition to the video segments, CDs and DVDs are still widely distributed, and, most importantly, they too have an enormous presence on the World Wide Web. Materials from the Iraqi battle space are found in video format, as DVDs, as 8 millimeter films, as minicassettes, or even in DVR format.60 These materials serve a variety of purposes simultaneously. They are used to recruit, to communicate between the already committed (but now geographically dispersed), and to provide training. The Internet, in short, became the new Afghanistan; cyberspace replacing the lost sanctuary in real space.61 The infamous hacker “Irhabi007” (literally “terrorist 007”) perfected the ability to hack into various servers—most famously that of the Arkansas State Department of Transportation - to host massive files on the web using cybercrime, such as identity theft, to finance the purchase of websites to supplement what he was able to hack as he created a global online network in support of al-Qaeda in Iraq (although he operated out of London.) The laptop of one of his associates contained 37,000 stolen credit card numbers.62

For a perfect visual representation of how important all of these various efforts are to the insurgency in Iraq, there is the video posted in June 2007 where the central image is that of the speaker, urging those with the ability to do so to take up the effort, not to fight but to persuade in any way it is possible to do so. The image of a single speaker is flanked on one side by a weapon, and on the other by a laptop, also a weapon, just of another sort.63 As Lieutenant Colonel Terry Guild put it simply, “[T]heir media infrastructure is quick, it’s collaborative, it’s virtual, it’s global, it’s technical, and it’s getting better all the time.”64 How seriously is this effort taken? One of the leading authorities on terrorist uses of the Internet, Gabriel Weimann, quotes an al- Qaeda-affiliated website as posting this warning: We strongly urge Muslim Internet professionals to spread and disseminate news and information about the Jihad through e-mail lists, discussion groups, and their own Websites. If you fail to do this, and our site closes down before you have done this, we may hold you to account before Allah on the Day of Judgment . . .65