Early yesterday morning, a South Carolina Web designer who works at home managed to scoop al-Qaeda by publicly unveiling its new video, a feat she has accomplished numerous times since 2002. Within hours, cable news stations were broadcasting images of Osama bin Laden commemorating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and crediting the 50-year-old woman, who uses the pseudonym Laura Mansfield.
A similar event occurred Friday, when another group beat al-Qaeda by nearly a full day with the release of the first video images of bin Laden to appear publicly since 2004. That group, the SITE Institute, provided the tape to government agencies and news organizations at a time when many well-known jihadist Web sites had been shut down in a powerful cyberattack by unknown hackers.
It was the latest round of electronic warfare between al-Qaeda and a small community of individuals and companies that troll the Internet for messages from terrorists -- as a livelihood, a personal obsession or both. Often, the groups compete to be the first to find and post a new video or message. Frequently, they accomplish their goal several steps ahead of government agencies who turn to them for the material.
Since Friday, at least three high-profile video messages have been snatched from al-Qaeda-affiliated Web sites by groups using a combination of computer tricks, personal connections and ingenuity to find and download password-protected content. For some, it is a mission rife with contradictions: They maintain that they are seeking to serve their country while ensuring wide distribution of the words and images of terrorists intent on the destruction of the United States. They said their aim is to undermine support for the cause by disseminating what they consider to be outrageous statements.
"It's not about bragging rights, it's about the mission," said Ben Venzke, IntelCenter's founder. Venzke, who claims several intelligence and military clients in the United States and abroad, said there is value in giving Americans advance word of al-Qaeda's plans.
Though government intelligence agencies may independently obtain the same material through their own sources, Venzke said each release of a new video triggers requests from his government subscribers. "We're one of the primary sources for a lot of this stuff," he said.
The bin Laden video that surfaced Friday was promoted on several Islamic Web sites in messages posted by al-Sahab, a group that produces some of al-Qaeda's propaganda videos. U.S. officials now believe the video was intended for release on Saturday. But SITE, which operates a Web site and subscription service offering access to an archive of terrorist-group images and materials, obtained the video nearly 24 hours ahead of the scheduled release.
The group's founder, Rita Katz, declined to comment on the methods used to obtain the footage.
Katz said the competition began when a password-protected jihadist message board, al-Eklaas, first bannered word of a forthcoming bin Laden video. Once the video itself was ready for distribution, Katz told Newsweek, al-Qaeda's online arm made it ready for downloading with nearly 650 different and user-friendly Internet addresses -- in a variety of versions customized, for example, just for cellphone use or with audio only.
"This is a huge number, which I don't think we've seen before. Yet they did them within 48 hours," Katz told Newsweek.
The group's acquisition of the video on Friday came just before a cyberattack that caused dozens of al-Qaeda-supporting Web sites to shut down. Past attacks have been linked to hackers operating independently. The result, however, was that bin Laden succeeded in gaining the wide American audience he had sought for his 25-minute address, but he lost control over how and where his words were published.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Katz noted that, over time, al-Qaeda has become more skilled not only in production techniques but also in its attempts to protect its Web distribution channels from outsiders. Although bin Laden has been out of sight, others such as deputies Ayman al-Zawahiri and Adam Gadahn have appeared in at least five tapes since early 2005.
"Their propaganda team is getting larger and more sophisticated," said Katz, who has long sought to infiltrate radical Islamic groups.
The woman using the name Mansfield credited "persistence and tenacity" in obtaining an early copy of yesterday's bin Laden tape. "You have to look constantly," said the self-described "computer geek" and Arabic speaker, who said she was motivated by the Sept. 11 attacks to apply her skills toward exposing al-Qaeda's Internet secrets. "The video may be in an accessible place for only 15 minutes, and if you're not there at the right time, you miss it," she said.
The woman uses a pseudonym because she fears for her safety, saying she often receives hateful and threatening e-mails from al-Qaeda sympathizers. "I just got one today accusing me of disrespecting the martyrs" of Sept. 11, she said.
Yesterday's al-Qaeda video marked the Sept. 11 anniversary with an audio message from bin Laden, followed by a "last will and testament" prerecorded by Waleed M. Alshehri, one of the hijackers in the attacks. Al-Qaeda has routinely released videotaped messages from dead hijackers as part of the group's commemoration of the terrorist strikes. Bin Laden praises Alshehri in the tape and invites others to follow his example.
"I tell every young man among the youth of Islam: It is your duty to join the caravan [of martyrs] until the sufficiency is complete and the march to aid the High and Omnipotent continues," bin Laden says, according to a transcript provided by IntelCenter.
U.S. intelligence officials said they are reviewing the video -- the second featuring bin Laden in four days. Unlike the video aired on Friday, there are no references to recent news events or other indications of when the tape was made. Based on a voice analysis, the tape appears to be authentic, according to a U.S. counterterrorism official who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that he not be identified by name.
"The intent was to boost morale and to convey the impression that they are a force to be reckoned with," the official said.