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Cameraman sheds light on Al Qaeda video-making

Media machine called `astonishingly effective'

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- The winter winds were howling through the Afghan mountains, cameraman Qari Mohammed Yusuf said, when a courier brought a summons from Al Qaeda's number two: ``The emir wants to send a message."

The emir, meaning prince or commander, was Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri. He wanted to send a message to the world that he had survived a US attempt to kill him.

So Yusuf, following the courier's directions, said he traveled to Zawahri's Afghan hideout in January and shot the tape that would become another contribution to Al Qaeda's public relations campaign in the propaganda battles that are a critical component of its terrorism.

``There was just myself and the emir," Yusuf recalled in an interview . ``I used a small Sony camera. It lasted just half an hour. They chose the place. They fix it, and then they just say to me to come, and my job is only to record it. These are their rules, and no one asks any questions."

The video aired on Al-Jazeera, the Arabic television network, Jan. 30, less than three weeks after a US air strike on a building just across the border in eastern Pakistan that targeted Zawahri, but instead killed 13 villagers.

Pakistan said four Al Qaeda militants also were killed in the attack, but their identities were never confirmed.

In the video, a combative Zawahri taunted President Bush: ``Bush, do you know where I am? I am in the midst of the Muslim masses, enjoying what Allah has bestowed upon me of their support, hospitality, protection, and participation in waging jihad against you until we defeat you."

Yusuf, an Afghan, said he is one of a half-dozen cameramen used by Zawahri, depending on who is physically closest at the time. Most are Arabs, and not all are known to one another, he said.

From their mountain hide-outs in Afghanistan or Pakistan's remote tribal regions, bin Laden and Zawahri provide raw material that becomes sophisticated multimedia presentations to encourage supporters, recruit fighters, raise money, and threaten the West.

Their sophistication and quality contradict Bush administration assertions that bin Laden presides over a debilitated organization, said Bruce Hoffman, counterterrorism specialist and director of the Rand Corp. 's Washington office.

``The active communications and active recruitment is proof positive of their resilience and the fact that they are not on the run," Hoffman said. ``Even though we are given an image here in the United States of them on the retreat, an image of a movement that has been weakened, in fact that is not true, and their ability to communicate is almost the oxygen with which they can breathe.

``The minicam and the editing suite have become essential weapons of terror, as the gun and bomb, and just as routinely used."

For the past five years or so, Al Qaeda has used its own media production company, with As-Sahab, Arabic for cloud, listed as producer on Al Qaeda videos or compact discs.

Ahmad Zaidan, Al-Jazeera correspondent in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, said couriers have delivered two messages to him from bin Laden and two from Zawahri, but none since November 2004.

He said Internet access now allows Al Qaeda to post its messages directly on a militant website or to send them electronically to a television network.

In another advance, the messages now use graphics sequences and English translations.

``The Al Qaeda media machine is astonishingly effective, and it has definitely gone into a major upswing over the last nine months or so," said Evan Kohlmann, an international terrorism consultant. ``The sophistication is also quite compelling."

As of Friday, As-Sahab had released 10 videos in June, including three from Zawahri, its highest monthly production level ever, according to IntelCenter, a contractor in Alexandria, Va., that provides counterterrorism intelligence services to the US government.

This year, it has released 33 videos, IntelCenter said Friday.

Yusuf said As-Sahab puts together its videos in a minivan that was turned into a mobile studio by Al Qaeda technicians and blends easily into Pakistani traffic.

The courier network often draws on ties that go back decades to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and the Pakistan-based Islamic insurgency it provoked.

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