LONDON — Al Qaeda’s expertise with digital technology, which has helped fan Muslim rioting over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, drew a warning from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday that the United States is falling behind the terrorists in the information age.
“Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today’s media age, but for the most part we — our country, our government — has not adapted,” Mr. Rumsfeld said in New York.
Mr. Rumsfeld did not directly link the riots to al Qaeda’s use of the Internet, e-mail and other forms of digital communication, but the effectiveness of the terrorist network in communicating its message underscored his point.
News of a boycott of Danish goods and products in Saudi Arabia following the publication of the cartoons in a Danish newspaper has been accompanied by a much more sinister campaign on the Web, involving pro-al Qaeda Web sites.
All of the dozen or so best-known jihad sites immediately started carrying banner ads supporting the boycott, along with graphics and messages urging violence in Europe and against Western interests in the Muslim world.
A video containing death threats against the editors of the newspaper is now circulating among extremists. It shows photographs of the two editors and a rifle scope-like cross hairs settle on each of them in turn, between the eyes, and a gunshot rings out on the soundtrack.
The accompanying message says the video was issued so that all Muslims would be able to recognize them and take action.
Islamist computer hackers have also joined the fray and launched a “denial of service” attack against the Web site of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which first published the cartoons.
Lists of Web logs, many of them American, that have republished the cartoons online are also now being named on lists of targets for attack.
In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday, Mr. Rumsfeld sounded a theme he frequently raises as a key to eventually winning the global war on terrorism: countering anti-Western messages from Islamic extremists.
He said al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups have poisoned the Muslim public’s view of the United States through deft use of the Internet and other modern communications methods that the American government has failed to master.
He quoted Ayman al-Zawahri, the chief lieutenant of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, as saying that their terrorist network is in a media battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims.
The extremist groups are able to act quickly on the information front, with relatively few people, while the U.S. government bureaucracy has yet to keep up in an age of e-mail, Web logs and instant messaging, Mr. Rumsfeld said.
“We in the government have barely even begun to compete in reaching their audiences,” the Associated Press quoted Mr. Rumsfeld as saying.
After the Muhammad cartoons were published in the West, British militant groups reiterated on their Web sites that killing critics of the prophet is permitted by the Koran.
During a demonstration held outside the Danish Embassy in London two weeks ago, members of extremist groups held up placards calling for critics of Islam to be beheaded.
Such protests appear to be coordinated in the same way as demonstrations over purported abuse of the Koran at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, early last year.
Then, as now, several deaths resulted as angry protests swept the world, even though Newsweek retracted a story that contained a claim about the Koran being flushed down a Guantanamo Bay toilet.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.