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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Al-Qaida Goes to War Online

WASHINGTON -- The jihadist bulletin boards were buzzing. Soon, promised the spokesman for al-Qaida in the Land of the Two Rivers, a new video would be posted with the latest mayhem from Iraq's best-known insurgent group.

On June 29, the new release hit the Internet. "All Religion Will Be for Allah" is 46 minutes of live-action war in Iraq, a slickly produced video with professional-quality graphics and the feel of a blood-and-guts annual report. In one chilling scene, the video cuts to a brigade of smiling young men. They are the only fighters shown unmasked, and the video explains why: They are a corps of suicide bombers-in-training.

As notable as the video was the way Abu Musab Zarqawi's "information wing" distributed it to the world: a specially designed web page, with dozens of links to the video, so users could choose which version to download. They could even download a cell phone ring tone.

Zarqawi has deployed a whole inventory of Internet operations beyond the shock video. He immortalizes his suicide bombers online, with video clips of the destruction they wreak and biographies attesting to their religious zeal. He taunts the U.S. military with an online news service of his exploits, releasing tactical details of operations multiple times a day.

A year ago, this online empire did not exist. Today, Zarqawi is an international name "of enormous symbolic importance," as U.S. Army Lieutenant General David Petraeus put it in a recent interview, on a par with Osama bin Laden largely because of his group's proficiency at publicizing him on the web.

The original al-Qaida 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 Kohlmann, a consultant who closely monitors the sites.

On April 9, 2004, a short video clip was posted on the Internet, the first attributed to Zarqawi's group, according to Kohlmann. It it showed several black-masked men laying a roadside bomb, disguising it in a hole in the dusty road, then watching as it blew up a U.S. armored personnel carrier.

On May 11, 2004, a posting with a link to the video of Zarqawi decapitating Nicholas Berg appeared on the al-AnsarWeb forum. Soon, it had been downloaded millions of times. A wave of copycat beheadings by others followed. Zarqawi became a household name.

That same summer, Zarqawi was in negotiations in a series of online missives with al-Qaida about pledging allegiance to bin Laden. For months, a main sticking point was Zarqawi's insistence on targeting representatives of Iraq's Shiite majority as well as the U.S. military, bin Laden's preferred enemy.

But Zarqawi had acquired huge new prominence through his Internet-broadcast beheadings. The once-wary al-Qaida leadership seemed to take a new attitude toward him, and the online magazine of al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia hailed him as the "sheikh of slaughterers."

A few weeks ago, al-Qaida in the Land of the Two Rivers released the third version of its online magazine, Thurwat al-Sinam. This latest issue lectured on the recipe for a successful raid, an almost-scientific procedure involving six steps for planning and executing.

Battles can be won in Iraq but then ultimately lost if they are not on the Internet. "The aim is not to execute an operation ... but telling the reason why it was executed," the magazine advised. "How many battles has this nation lost because of the lack of information?"