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Backfire: Al-Qaeda's Failed Message and Breached Security By: Steve Schippert
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, September 11, 2007


A miserable failure. That is the al-Qaeda senior leadership (AQSL) internal assessment of the effectiveness of bin Laden's recent message “to the American people.” That much is clear. And what the world may be seeing is the end of Adam Ghadan's days of advising al Qaeda's leadership on American domestic politics and the manipulability of the American psyche.

But al Qaeda has a greater problem on its hands than a single failed message – one which can be recovered from with a subsequent 'successful' and compelling message. Al Qaeda's more urgent problem is one of internal security, as the media and intelligence storm surrounding al Qaeda's latest message was set off by the reporting of an American-produced transcript of bin Laden's words before the video was publicly released by as-Sahab, al-Qaeda's media arm.

First, consider the key elements of a message that clearly backfired and did more harm than good to the image of al-Qaeda in general and Usama bin Laden personally. There is much commentary on the caricature-esque nature of the political tone of bin Laden's words. Such can be supported here by referencing just a few specific details.

Bin Laden assails capitalism in a tone that was certainly intended to appeal to the anti-capitalist bent among the American anti-war adherents. A phrase used liberally throughout the speech was “major corporations” and reference to these corporations' grip on power and wont for war and resultant profit. In a moment that conjured instant images of Donald Sutherland's soliloquy at the end of Oliver Stone's 1991 conspiracy theorist epic, “JFK,” bin Laden clumsily referred to John F. Kennedy and Vietnam in saying that the assassinated president “wanted to stop this unjust war,” but “that angered the owners of the major corporations who were benefiting from its continuation.”

That driving corporate dynamic of American warfare, bin Laden (and the typical American anti-capitalist anti-war activist) persists, is alive and well today.

The al-Qaeda leader then praises the American electorate for electing the Democrat Party into majority control of both Houses of Congress, yet he lambastes the new majority for “the failure of your representatives in the Democratic Party to implement your desire to stop the war.” This, also, is a complaint not unique to bin Laden, but also shared by the anti-war Left activists. Bin Laden addresses Americans broadly, but clearly speaks in language either derived from or directed at (or both) the segment of the American electorate which opposes the Iraq War and extend their protest to encompass the whole of the American effort against al-Qaeda beyond Iraq.

But the ridicule of bin Laden's message began even before the words were known. Part of his messages include purposeful imagery, such as the employment of various symbolic props like an AK-47, specific attire and pious surroundings to match his words. Al-Qaeda messages are always preceded by published announcement banners of the forthcoming message at jihadi Web sites. Immediately noticed – and ridiculed – was bin Laden's newly-blackened beard, with the grey removed presumably to project a stronger, younger image of the world's premiere terrorist leader.

However, shortly after international comment turned from one of speculating about the meaning and/or authenticity of bin Laden's new facial hair alterations to a reaction of laughing ridicule, the banner image was replaced with an older 2001 photograph where bin Laden's beard was naturally darker and also conveniently obscured by the butt of an AK-47.

It is curious that bin Laden, who champions himself as pious and ridicules the Saudi Royal family for its un-Islamic vanity (among many other things), has employed the dying of his facial hair just as Saudi King Abdullah. Abdullah likely has the most unnaturally black facial hair of any octogenarian on Earth, including his eyebrows. The objectives of both are to obscure the effects of age and project a younger, stronger image.

But perhaps more important than the failed tone and imagery is the very real security weaknesses of al-Qaeda's information network, up to and including as-Sahab and its distribution channels. As-Sahab has developed into a very professional production outfit with videos that have become increasingly high quality technically, bin Laden's latest notwithstanding.

From concept to published audio/video Internet distribution, al-Qaeda senior leadership must rely on several layers and linkages between them in order to get the message out via various Internet servers and networks for instant global dissemination. Each link has inherent security reliance and thus accompanying security risk. Closer to al-Qaeda senior leadership, the risks are more human than technical. Nearer the points of distribution, the risks are more technical (network security) than human.

According to Nick Grace, a Washington, DC-based Web developer and terrorism analyst familiar with al-Qaeda's Internet distribution methods and means, the security breach for al-Qaeda appears to have occurred before its Internet distribution process, suggesting al-Qaeda's security problem is closer to home than its Internet distribution system.

Grace provides the following time line:

Thursday (9/6/07) 2000 GMT - New promotional banner posted on AQ message forums to build buzz surrounding the new UBL video. The banner promises "a big surprise" on the 9/11 anniversary.

Friday (9/7/07) 1400 GMT - ABC News reports that U.S. intelligence has acquired the video and created a transcript in English.

Friday 1500 GMT - All AQ Web sites go on emergency lockdown.

Friday 2100 GMT - SITE Institute acquires the full video and delivers it to NBC and other media subscribers. Al-Jazeera broadcasts an excerpt.

Saturday (9/8/07) 0000 GMT - AQ Web sites slowly resume operation.

Saturday 0200 GMT - Video file seeding process begins and the video is uploaded to over 500 individual host computers.

Saturday 1200 GMT - As-Sahab officially releases the video along with a newly designed promotional graphic that "hides" UBL's beard and makes him appear more masculine.

Al-Qaeda will have dozens of “Internet seeders” save the encrypted and compressed video files to many servers on various file sharing services' networks before the release. These al-Qaeda IT specialists do not have access to the password to actually open the video file. Their job is to ensure that the files are in the multiple locations required for global distribution. Once everything has been put into place, links to the encrypted files are sent to a primary as-Sahab handler who will then decrypt the video files and ensure that the original announcement banners then link to the discussion board entries that in turn link to the various open files.

Here's why understanding this process matters: Some of the servers al-Qaeda uses to host the video files produce a time stamp that reflects when the file was initially saved on that server. According to Grace's research, those that have time stamps reflect September 8, 2007. This means that the seeding process of the encrypted files did not begin until Saturday, the day after ABC News reported that the United States had both the video and a translated transcript, which was likely another day (or more) after the United States actually obtained it.

How the United States obtained the video is open to speculation. The lower quality of the bin Laden video in comparison to the professional broadcast quality of recent as-Sahab productions of Ayman al-Zawahiri's messages suggests that it may have been recorded using a video chat session rather than a studio production. This, according to Grace, may also explain the glitch that appears in the video.

It is perhaps possible that US intelligence intercepted the original recording of the video. It is also possible that a well-placed human asset obtained a copy of the original file and got it out. Regardless, it is also clearly a question in which the factual answer need not be trumpeted publicly. But al-Qaeda is certainly addressing the situation and likely in a frantic search for the breach, be it human or technical (or both) in nature. And yet another means US intelligence had of monitoring al-Qaeda senior leadership and other activities and communications has likely evaporated.

Could bin Laden's message itself have been the “big surprise” awaiting the world on September 11, 2007? Considering the rushed Internet distribution on Saturday following the knowledge of US possession of the recording and the subsequent media publication of the transcript, perhaps. It could also have been intended to be released on September 11th to coincide with a same-day attack. However, there is no reference to any specific reason or tie-in to the message other than a sweeping criticism of capitalism and American actions and the suggestion that shari'a law is the only suitable substitute.

While an attack is always possible and always an al-Qaeda desire, on September 12th we may wake to realize that the only significance of this latest message was its ushering in the end of Adam Gadahn's days as a principle advisor to al-Qaeda on the US political psyche, the end of al-Qaeda's employ of male hair coloring, and the loss of another means of monitoring al-Qaeda activity in Pakistan and on the Internet.


Steve Schipper is co-founder of the Center for Threat Awareness and managing editor for ThreatsWatch.org.


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