Recent videos of beheadings by Iraq’s most wanted terrorist leader have been growing in sophistication, using animated graphics and editing techniques apparently aimed at embellishing the audio to make a victim’s final moments seem more disturbing. It is a sign of the importance that terrorists in Iraq now place on such propaganda efforts.
U.S. officials say that the leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose group is blamed in the beheading deaths of two Americans last week, seems acutely aware of the impact he and his followers can have through the media, and that they are becoming more adept in how to use it.
“They have, obviously, a media element because they make these terrible videos of the hostages, including the executions, and they get that media out to the different outlets,” said John Brennan, director of the U.S. Terrorist Threat Integration Center.
Rapid improvement in production
Early videos from al-Qaida and like-minded terror groups were grainy and sometimes just thumb-size video boxes that popped up on a computer monitor. But the quality of a video posted on a Web site last week, showing the beheading of U.S. contractor Eugene Armstrong, demonstrates that militant groups now apparently have access to improved technology.
In the nine-minute Internet video, the images of Armstrong are captured in greater and more gruesome detail than early videos. Animated graphics are used, including a Quran with an assault rifle standing atop it. The opening sequence also is more elaborate than in earlier videos, including words that fade in and out. A title page says in Arabic: “The Media Division of the Tawhid and Jihad Group presents: The slaying of the first hostage.”
Audio and forensic science experts suspect that the group embellished the audio to make Armstrong’s final moments seem even more disturbing.
The producer, for example, apparently used a noise-reduction technique to highlight sounds of anguish, said Al Yonovitz, a partner at Yonovitz & Joe forensic tape analysis in Dallas who has studied audio for 25 years.
“There is an enhancement,” Yonovitz said. “It is an amateur version of the Hollywood effects.”
He and Lawrence Kobilinsky, associate provost and forensic science professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, also believe extra audio was added at the end, apparently to make Armstrong’s final moments seem longer. However, neither is sure what the sound is.
Another expert, Ben Venzke, a U.S. government terrorism consultant, has seen instances in recent videos of roadside bombings in which the producer will copy, paste and repeat a normally quick explosion segment or play it in slow motion to stretch it.
“They do that when they think the reality is too brief,” said Venzke, chief executive of the IntelCenter in Alexandria, Va.
As for the graphic detail in the taped beheadings, “the reason for the visual brutality of it is because it has an impact,” he said.
Al-Zarqawi, who was born in Jordan and is believed to be about 37, leads a loose yet powerful band of insurgents in Iraq who have wreaked havoc on U.S. efforts to stabilize the country.
In June, the United States increased the reward for information leading to his killing or capture to up to $25 million, the same as for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
“All evidence points to Zarqawi being a real problem, not just for American forces and American civilians in Iraq, but also the Iraqi government,” said Brennan, who heads the relatively new terrorism center connecting the CIA, the FBI and other agencies.
Al-Zarqawi’s group “unfortunately has become a magnet for a lot of the anti-coalition activity,” he said, adding later, “He is a real force to be reckoned with.”