Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Tape Zawahiri Had to Release

For a brief moment yesterday, there was a flurry of debate and analysis over the latest videotaped message from Al Qaida's #2 man, Ayman al Zawahiri.

Dr. Walid Phares has an expansive analysis at The Counterterrorism Blog. He believes the tape reflects an increased sophistication within Al Qaida's propaganda efforts, as Zawahiri tries to rally the jihadists, while sowing doubt among western audiences that are uneasy over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I will agree with Dr. Pharres on one point: by appearing on tape only days after a U.S. attempt on his life, Zawahiri scores minor propaganda points by proving that he is alive and well. But Phares ignores a larger issue: this was a message that Zawahiri had to tape and disseminate quickly, to remove any doubts about his fate. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the message is that Al Qaida was able to get it out so quickly. Some have speculated that Zawahiri has better access to communications than bin Laden; suggesting that his location is not as remote as the Al Qaida leader. If that assessment is correct, it may be easier for Zawahiri to interact with operatives and direct Al Qaida operations. That would be an ominous development, indeed.

The downside of that access--as demonstrated by the recent Predator strike--is that Zawahiri may be easier to locate and target. Zawahiri tries to downplay the near-success of that operation, noting that only Allah can determine the time and place of his demise. That may be true, but it also ignores an equally salient fact: if Zawahiri had kept his dinner engagement a couple of weeks ago, he now would be with his quota of virgins in paradise, courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency. That near-miss has clearly rattled Zawahiri, and he tries to deflect that reality by emphasizing collateral damage from the attack, labeling Bush the "Butcher of Washington."

I'm not an Arabic speaker, nor an expert in radical Islamic culture, so perhaps I'm missing some of the nuances in Zawahiri's message. But it's hard to see how calling Bush a "butcher" is going to advance the cause, among western or Islamic audiences. At this juncture, the jihadist and anti-war camps are well-formed. President Bush's approval ratings have actually risen in recent months (Rasmussen now has him at 50%), and recent public opinion surveys find a wide majority of Iraqis and Afghans are strongly optimistic about the future of their countries. Those numbers suggest that the Al-Qaida message is not resonating as Zawahiri would hope. Hence, the need to depict the U.S. as a murderer of innocent Muslims, warn of new attacks on American soil, and reiterate claims that Al Qaida is winning the war. It's standard terrorist boilerplate, and there's nothing particularly sophisticated about that

Other analysts have observed that Al Qaida's video production values have improved, suggesting (again) that Zawahiri may have access to better communications facilities. In the tape released yesterday, Zawahiri is seen in front of a black backdrop, making it easier to distinguish his features--and demonstrate that he was not wounded by the recent U.S. attack.

But that choice of backdrop is also revealing--and may reflect concerns over Zawahiri's safety (more on that in a moment). Looking at the tape, it looks like Al Qaida (or perhaps Al Jazerra, which aired the tape) used a process call chroma-key, to electronically insert Zawahiri in front of the black background. It's the same technique used by local TV stations for weather segments, allowing the meterologist to appear in front of satellite or radar graphics. In reality, the presenter is standing in front of a blank wall (usually light green in color); the desired graphic or background is inserted in place of that particular color. In the past, chroma-key typically required a TV studio; however, the technique can now be accomplished with a high-end video camera, a backdrop painted the appropriate color, and the right editing software.

So why go to all that trouble? A black chroma key backdrop makes it more difficult to determine where the videotape was produced, and doesn't provide hints about Zawahiri's location. You may recall that some of Al Qaida's earliest tapes depicted bin Laden and his deputy in outdoor settings (the nature hike, as some intel wags called it). The pastoral scenes ended when it was revealed that the CIA had hired geologists familar with the rock formations of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Examining the rocks provided potential clues to the whereabouts of bin Laden and Zawahiri. More recent videos showed Zawahiri in front of a cloth or canvas backdrop. But even that "neutral" backdrop can reveal information that may lead analysts to a particular region where that material is commonly used. The sudden switch to a black backdrop indicates that Zawahiri is leaving nothing to chance, and despite the bravado, he may be worried that past tapes provided clues to his whereabouts, and put the Predators back on his trail.

The "new look" of Zawahiri's tape also raises another question: if chroma-key was used, where was it added to the tape--at the Al Qaida source, or by the folks at Al-Jazerra? The answer to that question would reveal a great deal about the "relationship" between the TV network and the terrorist organization.

I welcome comments from anyone currently working in video production regarding the possible use of chroma-key in the Zawahiri tape, and how it might have been accomplished--in a terrorist hideout, or in an Avid suite at Al Jazerra.

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