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Over the past few weeks, those who track the use of media by terror groups have noted a strong trend among Iraqi insurgents to distribute their propaganda movies and violence footage not through fringe, hard-to-find websites, but by uploading them directly to popular video sharing sites such as YouTube.
Many of the videos have been seen by tens of thousands of viewers, and some by hundreds of thousands, on YouTube, Google Video and LiveLeak.com. Some show footage from terror attacks, including close-ups of badly burned children. Propaganda videos give a slide show of photographs depicting exploded military vehicles and dead American soldiers, while Arabic victory songs play in the background.
"This is a potentially dangerous development for the fight against terrorism in the West," said analyst Tom Gross, since "It makes it far easier for freelance, go-it-alone jihadists and suicide bombers in western Europe and elsewhere to access information, techniques and propaganda without having to know in advance where to find such material, which was previously only available on obscure websites."
The videos are most often the product of Sunni insurgents. One pro-insurgency website, Al Basrah, which links to many videos, extolled "the heroic might of the Iraqi Resistance [which] has grown into a heroic liberation movement on the verge of freeing Iraq from occupation."
"We as Arabs are an inalienable part of the glorious Arab Nation," it reads, and hints at Sunni Iraqi affiliations through its concern over Iranian influence in the country: "No racism from across the border to the east, full of hatred for everything that is Arab, can change Ira'q's Arab identity, the very essence of which protects minorities and guarantees their rights."
Surprisingly, some of the videos of battle scenes in Iraq are taken by US soldiers, who upload the products of their helmet-mounted cameras to the Internet. One such video, showing US soldiers in a humvee speeding through the streets of Baghdad and forcing other cars and pedestrians out of their way in order to avoid becoming the target of a missile or bomb attack, was viewed on YouTube over half a million times in just three weeks. Such videos have found their way into footage distributed by the insurgents themselves.
Many of those uploading the videos are not in Iraq. Most insurgency videos are listed alongside personal videos of Internet users in the West, many of them Arab or Muslim, and were posted by them. These videos usually target Western audiences with political messages. One popular video on Yahoo! Video discusses Jewish control of American foreign policy leading up to the Iraq War, saying it served the interests of Israel, "a hostile, apartheid state."
As Gross notes, the availability of videos posted to sites such as YouTube, which alone sees 100 million video downloads each day, vastly increases the reach of the insurgents' message. "In the past, it was relatively easy for counter-terrorism authorities to locate particular websites and shut them down. With 65,000 new videos posted and 100 million videos viewed on YouTube every day, searching for these inflammatory videos is like looking for a needle in a haystack," he says.
Now, "a small group of disaffected Muslims in, for example, provincial towns in northern England can - without even making contact with more experienced, like-minded individuals in the Middle East - get almost all the material they need from these sites. They can recruit others and even possibly discover how to make bombs without ever having left home."