The as-Sahab Institute, as the terror network’s media arm calls itself, is often in the global spotlight -- as it was last week after releasing Osama bin Laden’s message to Americans and two other videos to mark the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But little is known about the institute or how it operates, and its existence presents a knotty conundrum for U.S. intelligence: It would be hard to close down, and besides, allowing it to operate might be the best chance of finding bin Laden.
Technology and the globalized 21st century “make it possible for a relatively small group of people to exercise tremendously disproportionate power” in a “tremendously asymmetric struggle,” CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden said of as-Sahab Tuesday.
“It might be disappointing, but it shouldn’t be surprising” that they continued to operate, he told United Press International.
According to IntelCenter, a U.S. firm that tracks and analyzes al-Qaida’s audiovisual messages for clients including U.S. agencies, as-Sahab has released more than 75 videos this year -- an average of one every three days.
That is double the rate the institute managed last year, when it produced 58. It released just 16 videos in 2005, its first year of operation.
The videos are messages from and interviews with al-Qaida’s leaders, and propaganda films made by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. And they are released more or less simultaneously in a bewildering variety of formats and quality standards.
“The scale of the operation implies a large stable of technically skilled people,” al-Qaida analyst and author Peter Bergen told UPI.
He cautioned that he doubted there was a central base for the group, saying they seemed to have “no fixed studio or other location you could find with overhead (satellite) imagery or bomb.”
Ben Venzke, CEO of IntelCenter, added that the amount of computing power required for the fast turnaround is considerable and that the group appears to be using the latest widely available off-the-shelf hardware and software.
“They are right on the cutting edge of the adoption of new technologies,” he said. “They grab ahold of the new stuff as soon as it becomes available and start using it.”
He said that the bin Laden video was made available in five different versions, ranging from high definition to a special format called 3GP that can be downloaded to mobile devices. The versions were downloadable at more than 20 different places on the Web, and most messages are also released on a CD-ROM format disc as well.
“They produce versions (subtitled) in different languages, and for each of those versions the graphics and the content might be different, too,” he said.
U.S. officials are tight-lipped about as-Sahab. "The production of video messages and other communications is done by tech-savvy individuals who have become increasingly sophisticated in their methods,” said a U.S. counter-terrorism official authorized to speak to the news media. “The quick posting of materials in the aftermath of events, use of subtitles and multiple languages demonstrates their advanced technical capabilities."
The use of subtitles -- in English, but also German, Danish and many other languages -- indicates something else about the messages: They are aimed at the West.
“These messages are carefully tailored for a Western audience,” said Raymond Ibrahim, a scholar of Islam and Middle Eastern history at the Library of Congress.
Ibrahim, who recently translated and published a collection of al-Qaida writings and other messages, says the videos are propaganda, “an effort to demoralize and de-legitimize the West and incite Muslims … through a consistent narrative of victim-hood” that portrays the United States as an imperial power, visiting oppression on Muslims.
But the videos are also an attempt to portray al-Qaida as “a romanticized revolutionary movement in the Che Guevara mold … fighting to overthrow oppression and exploitation.”
He says a much truer reflection of al-Qaida’s ideology is to be found in the writings, often un-translated and sometimes unavailable online, in which the group’s leaders lay out their interpretation of Islamic law and theology.
“The world view portrayed there is very different,” he said, and much less “reader-friendly” for Western audiences. “They are written in a very legalistic style,” and they concern “principles of Islamic law.”
Al-Qaida leaders “take their information operations extremely seriously,” said Bergen, noting a letter bin Laden wrote prior to the Sept. 11 attacks to Afghanistan’s Taliban ruler Mullah Omar in which the al-Qaida leader said “90 percent of the war” was being fought on the battlefield of public opinion.
Bergen also said that as-Sahab might be an Achilles heel for the network, because of the possibility that the videos could somehow be traced back to their origin.
“Understanding the inner workings of as-Sahab is probably as good a way as any I can think of to get close to bin Laden and Zawahiri,” he said.
The media operation would be hard to shut down, he said, and that might not be the best course of action. “You’d have to capture or kill everyone involved, and if you knew who they were you might want to follow them instead,” he said.
“Don’t presume that’s not happening,” cautioned former National Counter-Terrorism Center Director John Brennan. Current U.S. officials declined comment on their strategy towards the group.
But IntelCenter’s Venzke said that a large part of what his group did was to provide the videos to U.S. intelligence in special formats “designed to support technical exploitation.”
“The guys doing technical analysis have a variety of very specialized requirements for formatting,” he said.