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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Analyzing the analysts

My old pal Bryan Preston has a good "analysis of the analyis" of the latest al Qaeda videos which can be viewed here (I first spotted it on Internet Haganah).

I take issue with only one point in his analysis, albeit a big one.

Bryan writes:
And wherever you find (al Qaeda's video producers), al Qaeda's capos will be right around the corner. That's another key to how they crank out their videos so frequently: They're not living on opposite sides of Waziristan from one another. The as-Sahab producers and the heavies are probably traveling together, hiding together, and conspiring for world domination together.

That may -- or may not -- be true about Zawahiri, but it's definitely not true about Osama bin Laden. Because Zawahiri and bin Laden are being shot by different cameras.

Zawahiri's videos are crisp, sharp and high resolution. Bin Laden's latest was very much the opposite -- it was clearly done with a low-end camera and done poorly at that -- the video froze about three minutes in and remained frozen for the whole video. Bin Laden's use of audio rather than video in other messages strong indicates that it's neither easy nor convenient for bin Laden to make a video.

So that's an important clue right there -- bin Laden and Zawahiri are not in close proximity and they don't appear to be sharing the same infrastructure resources.

The frequency and quality of Zawahiri's video indicate easy access to equipment and reasonably competent operators. So the two men are not in close proximity to each other. If one of them is close to As-Sahab, Al Qaeda's video production arm, it is almost certainly Zawahiri. But maybe not all that close. Zawahiri's news references are usually a day or two behind.

Production of the videos may account for some of that lag, but I am guessing the videos are couriered on DVD to the production house from at least a few days travel, and I would venture a slightly less confident guess that the production house is in a fixed location.

Zawahiri knows where the producer lives. The producer probably doesn't know where Zawahiri lives -- except that he's within a couple of days travel. Yahya al-Libbi and Adam Gadahn videos feature similar production values to Zawahiri's. While there are no guarantees, this suggests they may be closer to the video operation. Although this is a bit subjective, my read on the Zawahiri videos is that they are generally being filmed at an indoor location. Al-Libbi, however, is almost certainly being filmed outdoors (as revealed by INTELWIRE a few months back). Al-Libbi may be in the same neighborhood as Zawahiri, but likely not in the exact same location.

The video distribution node (while robustly secure thus far) is still very exposed and more vulnerable than other aspects of al Qaeda's infrastructure. It would be beyond foolhardy to allow the video producer to know where Zawahiri or bin Laden is hiding.


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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