The Web site run by al-Qaida in Iraq was strangely quiet during the referendum on the new Iraqi constitution. There were no threats against voters, no boasts of disrupting the vote.
And now we know one reason why. A top propaganda agent for al-Qaida in Iraq, known as Abu Dijana, was captured shortly before the vote, according to the U.S. military. Abu Dijana was responsible for much of what has appeared on the Web site called "al-Qaida in Iraq," including provocative videos of suicide bombings and crucial communications to al-Qaida fighters.
Here is how the al-Qaida Web site works: On any given day in Baghdad, Baquba, or any of a dozen cities, a suicide car bomb explodes. The target is an American convoy, local Iraqi police or perhaps civilians exiting a mosque. Within minutes, a report is sent out by news services like The Associated Press and MSNBC.com. But, the news also circulates on a fascinating and, some would say, disturbing Web site operated by al-Qaida.
The "al-Qaida in Iraq" Web site immediately takes "credit" for the bombing. In one typical case, just three hours after an attack, the site showed video of a man identified as the suicide bomber Abu Musab al-Iraqi, who says, "I have dreamed about this moment. I am sure if my family is watching this they will be more proud of me."
Musab's words are followed by a video of a car he is said to be driving, blowing up in the midst of an American convoy. The incident is replayed again and again with more of Musab's speech superimposed over the ball of flames and smoke rising above the U.S. convoy. "Thank God this day I went to kill many crusaders." His declaration ends, "Today I will be in heaven."
Among propagandist Abu Dijana's responsibilities, say his American captors, was to gather information of impending attacks and provide equipment to his cell members to record attacks. Afterward, Dijana collected the photographs and video for distribution through the "al-Qaida in Iraq" Web site.
The images, also distributed to local newspapers, are meant to intimidate Iraqi citizens and security forces, according to a statement released by the American military command.
The Web presentations could also be meant to inspire more young men to sacrifice their lives for al-Qaida's cause. Videos show upbeat smiling young men deciding who among them will be the next suicide bomber. The atmosphere is more akin to deciding who gets tickets to the weekend's big football game. The "al-Qaida in Iraq" site claims there is a backlog of 12,000 such volunteers, in what it calls a ‘suicide brigade.’
In the unique environment of the Iraq war, the Web serves also as a vital communications link for an organization paranoid about using telephones or meeting in large numbers for training.
That's why the "al-Qaida in Iraq" site, available to members only, features highly detailed tutorials on bomb-making, strategy for assassinations, and even a workshop on hacking into secret American government Web sites. The Web site claims it has 4,000 members.
For reasons of security, each new member of the site must be approved by a committee of existing members. "It's full of intelligence information and the enemy might use it against us," one member said. With as many as 1,500 members logging on in a single day, the Web site is also an effective security tool for al-Qaida. When its operatives get word of an impending U.S. raid, it puts out flash security warnings to fighters who might be targets.
Ironically, propaganda chief Dijana was caught in just such a raid, one of a series which recently captured or killed more than a dozen key aides of Iraq's top terrorist, Abu Musab al- Zarqawi.
The Web site’s home page features pictures of Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden. It still brags about bin Laden's biggest operation, saying "heleads us with the power of faith. With commercial planes we turned America into hell." The Web site also publishes detailed analyses of the sometime cryptic statements released by the two al-Qaida leaders.
Several other Web sites operated by local Iraqi insurgents are open to the public. They are primarily propaganda tools in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi population.
Unlike al-Qaida, which justifies its war as a defense of the religion of Islam against western infidels, most local insurgents use Web sites to appeal to political and nationalist sentiments, arguing the new Iraqi government is allowing outsiders to dictate the future of the nation.
The "Albasrah" Web site, for example, is sympathetic to insurgents who are former members of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime. They praised as "patriotic" the March 2005 assassination of Azzad Ahmed, one of the judges on the tribunal that will try Saddam for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, beginning this week.
Depending on a Web surfer's point of view, these Web sites could be called the tools of “freedom fighters” or “terrorists.” But, it is safe to say that most Iraqis who log on to the publicly available sites support the insurgency. And some are likely active in the fight.
All of which raises the interesting and secretive prospect that American security experts are monitoring and hacking these Web sites to gather up both information and members of the insurgency and their supporters.
That might explain why one of the top propaganda operatives of "al-Qaida in Iraq" was caught by the Americans and why his Web site was so quiet during the referendum.
Ashraf al-Taie, a translator in the NBC News Baghdad Bureau, regularly monitors insurgent Web sites.