Cameraman Sheds Light on al-Qaida Videos
By KATHY GANNON
The Associated Press
Sunday, June 25, 2006
PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- The bitter winter winds were howling through the Afghan mountains when, cameraman Qari Mohammed Yusuf says, a courier brought a summons from al-Qaida's No. 2: "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 safely survived a U.S. attempt to kill him.
So Yusuf, following the courier's directions, says he travelled to al-Zawahri's Afghan hide-out last January and shot the tape that would become another contribution to al-Qaida's PR in the propaganda battles that are a critical component of 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, recalled in an interview with The Associated Press.
"There was just myself and the emir," said Yusuf. "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 TV network, on Jan. 30, less than three weeks after the U.S. airstrike on a building just across the border in eastern Pakistan that targeted al-Zawahri but instead killed 13 villagers. Pakistan said four al-Qaida 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."
Yusuf, an Afghan, said he is one of a half-dozen cameramen used by al-Zawahri, depending on who is physically closest 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 sophisticated 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, says Bruce Hoffman, counterterrorism expert and director of the Rand Corporation'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 mini-cam 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-Qaida has used its own media production company, As-Sahab, Arabic for cloud, listed as producer on al-Qaida videos or compact discs.
Ahmad Zaidan, Al-Jazeera correspondent in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, said couriers have delivered to him two messages from bin Laden and two from al-Zawahri _ but none since November 2004. He said Internet access now allows al-Qaida 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.
"The al-Qaida 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 al-Zawahri _ its highest monthly production level ever, according to IntelCenter, an Alexandria, Va.-based contractor that provides counterterrorism intelligence services to the U.S. government. So far 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-Qaida technicians and blends easily into Pakistani traffic. The courier network often draws on ties that hark back decades 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, Kohlmann noted, al-Qaida's electronic signals can also better mix into the urban airwaves.
The final product is posted online, and distributed in bazaars.
"We make the movie on a small cassette, which we shift to the computer and edit," 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 party 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 and said he had 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.
The AP's meeting with Yusuf came after a month of seeking contact with al-Qaida's production company through Hezb-e-Islami members, particularly in Afghanistan's northeastern Kunar province, where the U.S. military targets al-Qaida, 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. Yusuf wore a cream-colored shalwar kameez, the region's traditional dress of long shirt and baggy pants.
It was not possible to verify Yusuf's account of the al-Zawahri taping, but Jamal Mutalab Beg, the police chief of Afghanistan's Kunduz province until this month, confirmed many of the details that Yusuf gave about his family and his life. Zaidan, the Al-Jazeera correspondent, identified Yusuf as an occasional Taliban spokesman.
Beg said Yusuf "was not a small person with the Taliban." He said police believe 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.
Yusuf said all four of his brothers died waging a jihad, giving him impeccable credentials for al-Qaida 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," 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-Qaida's lieutenant's whereabouts. He refused to be photographed.
As-Sahab videos emanate only from Afghanistan, 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 al-Zarqawi's group, al-Qaida in Iraq.
Associated Press writer Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.