- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2006

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The bitter winter winds were howling through the mountains of Afghanistan when, cameraman Qari Mohammed Yusuf said, a courier brought a summons from al Qaeda’s No. 2: “The emir wants to send a message.”

The emir was Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy. He wanted to send a message to the world that he had safely survived a U.S. attempt to kill him. So Mr. Yusuf, following the courier’s directions, said he traveled to al-Zawahri’s Afghan hide-out last January and shot the tape that would become another contribution to al Qaeda in the propaganda battles that are critical for its terror campaign.

Al-Zawahri was wearing crisp white robes and turban. “Everything was ready,” the cameraman, a dark-skinned man in his mid-30s with a long, scruffy beard, told AP.

“There was just myself and the emir,” said Mr. Yusuf. “I used a small Sony camera. It lasted just half an hour. They chose the place. … These are their rules and no one asks any questions.”

The video aired on Al Jazeera, the Arabic television network, on Jan. 30, less than three weeks after the U.S. air strike on a building just across the border in eastern Pakistan that targeted al-Zawahri but instead killed 13 villagers. Pakistan said four al Qaeda militants were also killed in the attack, but their identities were never proven.

In the video, a combative al-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.”

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

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

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

‘Not on the run’

“The active communications and active recruitment is proof positive of their resilience and the fact that they are not on the run,” Mr. 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 mini-cam and the editing suite have become essential weapons of terror, as the gun and bomb, and just as routinely used,” he said.

For five years or so, al Qaeda has used its own media production company, As-Sahab, Arabic for cloud, which is listed as producer on al Qaeda videos and compact discs.

Ahmad Zaidan, Al Jazeera correspondent in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, said couriers have delivered two messages to him from bin Laden and two from al-Zawahri, but none since November 2004. He said Internet access now allows al Qaeda to post its messages directly on a militant Web site or send them electronically to a TV network.

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

‘Astonishingly effective’

“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 consultant on terrorism. “The sophistication is also quite compelling.”

As of June 23, As-Sahab had released 10 videos last month, including three from al-Zawahri — its highest monthly production ever, according to IntelCenter, an Alexandria-based contractor that provides counterterrorism intelligence services to the U.S. government. So far this year, it has released 33 videos, IntelCenter said June 23.

Mr. 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 to the 1980s Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the Pakistan-based Islamic insurgency it provoked.

If more complex editing and mixing are needed, couriers may take the video to Peshawar or Lahore, where, Mr. Kohlmann noted, al Qaeda’s electronic signals can also better mix into the urban airwaves.

The final product is posted online and distributed in bazaars.

Cassettes passed out

“We make the movie on a small cassette, which we shift to the computer and edit,” Mr. Yusuf said. “We make it into a CD or a cassette, and then we take it from place to place. We do the editing, but we do not use the satellite where we film. The cassettes are sent to the city area to special places and we give them to these people.”

The distribution network appears to have no chain of command. Distribution falls to a variety of hands, including members of Pakistan’s best-organized religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami, which once had close links with Afghanistan’s outlawed Hezb-e-Islami and its leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Also involved are loyalists of a second Hezb-e-Islami faction led by Yunus Khalis, who welcomed bin Laden to Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996.

“They pass the discs from one person to another person,” said a Jamaat-e-Islami member who gave his name only as Abdullah. He said he has a personal library of hundreds of As-Sahab, Taliban and other militant CDs, some of which he shared with the AP. “I have gotten mine from friends of mine from jihad days,” he said, referring to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The AP’s meeting with Mr. Yusuf came after a month of seeking contact with al Qaeda’s production company through Hezb-e-Islami members, particularly in Afghanistan’s northeastern Kunar province, where the U.S. military targets al Qaeda, Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami insurgents.

Shrouded in secrecy, the meeting took place in northwest Pakistan in a car that drove for miles along dusty roads, weaving among rickshaws, horse-drawn carts and trucks. Mr. Yusuf wore a cream-colored shalwar kameez, the region’s traditional dress of long shirt and baggy pants.

Taliban spokesman

It was not possible to verify Mr. Yusuf’s account of the taping by al-Zawahri, but Jamal Mutalab Beg, police chief of Afghanistan’s Kunduz province until this month, confirmed many of the details that Mr. Yusuf gave about his family and his life. Mr. Zaidan, the Al Jazeera correspondent, identified Mr. Yusuf as an occasional Taliban spokesman.

Chief Beg said Mr. Yusuf “was not a small person with the Taliban.” He said police think he came to Afghanistan’s Baghlan province last year to carry out sabotage against the Afghan government but was unsuccessful and returned to the Pakistani border regions.

Mr. Yusuf said all four of his brothers died waging a jihad, giving him impeccable credentials for al Qaeda membership. He said two of them were attached to al-Zawahri and one was a key Taliban liaison with militants from neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

He said his association with al-Zawahri goes back seven years.

“Because of my brothers, he had trust in me. This is why I explain to you who I am so you understand why he trusts me. He knows I am loyal. I love him,” Mr. Yusuf said of al-Zawahri.

He seemed nervous about talking to a Westerner and was careful not to reveal details, such as where the al-Zawahri tape was shot, lest it provide clues to the al Qaeda’s lieutenant’s whereabouts. He refused to be photographed.

As-Sahab videos emanate only from Afghanistan, Mr. Zaidan said. The footage has included attacks on U.S. soldiers and messages from terrorist leaders. Absent so far are beheadings or other executions, the grisly trademark of tapes produced by the late Abu Musab Zarqawi’s group, al Qaeda in Iraq.

AP correspondent Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

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