Terror in the digital domain

An image taken from an Islamist Web site on June 16 shows a hooded man purported to be Saudi al-Qaida leader Abdul Aziz al-Moqrin making a statement threatening to kill American hostage Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia.  Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

The video shows Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr addressing his admirers, intercut with President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair looking confused in comparison to the jutted-jaw strength of the Iraqi firebrand.

Another video shows "news of the day," featuring Iraq civilians apparently killed or wounded by American attacks.

What all these sequences have in common, apart from the similiar message, are the words, "Created with Nero."

No, not Nero, the infamous emperor who watched Rome burn and threw the Christians to the lions. Nero, the popular CD and DVD authoring software used by many a computer user to burn their favorite tunes and video to disk.

The Nero credit is the first thing to appear on the screen of a dozen video CDs created by al-Sadr’s insurgent group, the al-Mahdi Army. 

It's been a quick rise from obscurity to fame for al-Sadr, the thirty-something rebel who led an uprising against the American occupation here this spring.  

Al-Sadr's message of violent resistance has spread even further, thanks to tools such as these cheap, mass-produced CD-ROMs. Once the exclusive preserve of teenagers in the developed world, adolescents here on the front lines are now using digital technology to further their bloody cause.

The news-of-the-day offerings, set to triumphant-sounding battle hymns, illustrate the amateur authorship: shaky digital video shot by kids who get closer to the street fighting than most journalists given the current security situation, followed by images of dead Iraqi men lying in pools of blood on the sidewalk.

Next, a bloodied child lies in a hospital bed. The English subtitles tell us that he lost both of his arms and his entire family when a missile was fired at his house.  "Is this the way you liberate?" the child asks.  "You kill us?  This pain.  How will I live with it?” The sound goes up to an angry sermon and the picture dissolves to a mosque.

Imagery of war
"The images from Iraq that will last will be more like those from Vietnam than from World War II," said Professor Floyd McKay, a media historian at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

"The digital camera is one of those things that will prove to be important. We've always been able to benefit from footage shot by amateurs who've been at the right place at the right time. But digital takes it to a whole new level."

Many of the digital literati have already developed the perverse habit of quickly locating whatever al-Qaida-related Web site is hosting the latest execution video. One particular discussion board site was immediately overloaded last week when word got out that American engineer Paul Johnson had been beheaded in Saudi Arabia. 

The search was on for images of his decapitated body online. You can still find the brutal clip of the slaying of Nicholas Berg on dozens of sites — a short, fuzzy bit of amateur video disseminated for free around the planet. It's cheap, effective public relations available to any extremist.

‘Double-edged sword’
"It's a double-edged sword, it depends who's holding on to it," said Charlie White, executive producer of the digital video editing site Digitalvideoediting.com.  "It can be the sword of justice or the sword of evil."

White said the Berg video suddenly alerted him to the incredible power that technology has placed in the hands of video editors.

"My 11-year-old daughter can do it without any instruction from me. It's cheap and accessible. You can use iMovie, it comes free with a Mac. Windows Movie Maker comes with every copy of Windows." 

[MSNBC is a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft, the creator of Windows.]

White added that it doesn't matter if the quality of the video doesn't look like it was shot for the evening news. "The Berg video ... was lame. But if you have a compelling piece of video, be it good or bad, the power will be if the content is there."

And without the benefit of a respected news organization's journalistic standards, that content can be distorted to suit the aims of a particular cause. 

The digital photographs of the prison abuses of Abu Ghraib (taken, ironically, by American soldiers with their digital cameras and shared by CD and e-mail) are also widely distributed by al-Sadr's forces.

You'll see the now-familiar images of naked human pyramids, the hooded prisoner connected to electrodes (with a "60 Minutes II" logo in the bottom corner) on their Web site. But the Abu Ghraib images are also interspersed with the front-page headlines of the London tabloid Daily Mirror's allegations of similar abuses by British soldiers. Those disturbing images were later proven to be fakes.

There are also still frames taken from pornographic movies of actors wearing military fatigues in various sexual positions. All of this meant to given the viewer a factual impression of the horror perpetuated by the occupiers.

"The Abu Ghraib scandal CDs are very popular — there is a lot of demand from them," said Rael Abdul Elah, who sells the disks in his Baghdad shop.  "People are angry at what the American soldiers are doing."

These CDs, selling for the equivalent of 75 cents, are especially popular with poorer Iraqis who can't afford to shell out the $150 it costs to buy a satellite dish, said one local manufacturer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.  

Media standards called into question
Some images do make it to mainstream media, such as the Berg video and the al-Qaida Web site announcing the execution of Paul Johnson. 

And that has Western Washington's McKay worried that the competitive pressures of 24-hour news will lower news editors' standards when it comes to getting the most compelling shots out there first.

"News media has to exercise some good judgment.  We have to subject these images to some strong questioning," he said.  "It's very hard to catch the fakes.  The software for manipulating is terribly powerful."

Cheap digital compression tools and the Internet may give groups like al-Qaida and the al-Mahdi Army the power to bypass traditional media outlets like Al-Jazeera and NBC News, but Charlie White doesn't believe that days are numbered for journalists in this digital free-for-all.

"There'll always be these regulated outlets that will be the respected sources of news, that's not going anywhere," the digital video expert said. "But there'll be these rogue sources of video.  And they'll have a brand-new power we've never seen before. They will usurp our stranglehold on the reins of this electronic beast."