By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/4/2004 8:03:04 PM ET 2004-08-05T00:03:04

CD burners, video downloads and Internet chat rooms are the latest weapons of choice in al-Qaida's quest for holy war. On-going raids on al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan have turned up laptops and CDs with coded messages, allegedly targeting key U.S. financial buildings. And when al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the March murders of four American contractors in Iraq or last week's attempted assassination of Pakistan's next prime minister, al-Qaida chose DVDs — and it's own Web site — to make the point.

“These are well-educated people who are completely fluent in 21st century technology,” says media analyst Paul Eedle.

Kidnappings and executions of al-Qaida's enemies — often Americans — are now almost routine on several Islamist Web sites, giving the militants instant, unfiltered access to a world audience.

“It shows us they are more organized than we have ever seen before,” says Michael Ware of Time Magazine's Baghdad bureau.

They're even able to hijack some Web sites, like one belonging to a Silicon Valley mapping company, to quickly upload gruesome images of American hostage Paul Johnson, the American hostage beheaded in Saudi Arabia.

“It's very sophisticated.  They're very media-savvy and they know what kind of impact this kind of material has,” says counterterrorism expert Neil Doyle.

But digital technology can backfire.  Intelligence sources believe Abdulaziz al-Muqrin, al-Qaida's top operative in Saudi Arabia, who was found and killed in June, left too many clues on Web sites used to disseminate Johnson's execution.

“The desire to show their brutality may have led to the undoing of their leadership,” says Middle East analyst Jonathan Paris.

Another clever technique used increasingly by al-Qaida — inserting hidden messages into music and picture files, a process called steganography. 

And now, with heightened terror alerts in three U.S. cities, the fear is that al-Qaida will only get better at using technology to rally its friends — and terrorize its enemies.

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