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Militant Islam Monitor > Articles > Secrets of bomber death tape and Al Qaeda's media network

Secrets of bomber death tape and Al Qaeda's media network

London bomber video recorded in Pakistan
September 3, 2005

Secrets of bomber death tape


Jason Burke, a leading expert on al-Qaeda, reveals what it tells us about terrorism

Sunday September 4, 2005
The Observer

The image and the words have now become well known. A young Muslim man, his head swathed in a chequered red keffiyeh, utters the mantra of the modern suicide bomber: 'We are at war and I am a soldier.' He threatens a succession of attacks and explains why violence is necessary.

'Our words have no impact,' he says. 'Therefore I am going to talk to you in a language you understand. Our words are dead until we give them life with our blood.'

In the few days since excerpts from a new al-Qaeda video were broadcast first by the Qatar-based Arabic-language satellite channel, al-Jazeera, and then by TV stations all over the world, the message of Mohammad Sidique Khan, who blew himself up at Edgware Road underground station on 7 July, have been heard by hundreds of millions of people.

For many in Britain, the images, and particularly Khan's flat Yorkshire accent, are shocking. The short video testimony is the culmination of the long series of images, from family snaps to CCTV camera images, that have shown us, with growing focus, the 'homegrown' militant bombers who brought death and destruction to their own land. Now we have an adult British citizen explaining why he is prepared to kill and to die.

For some the images and the words are a visceral shock. They should not be. I have just spent three months making an hour-long BBC documentary on how modern Islamic militants use the media. My research, which took me across the Middle East from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean, from meetings with militants to conversations with London TV executives, taught me much that helps explain the manufacture and the meaning of last week's tape.

Though analysis of the Khan tape continues, early indications are that it was made by al-Qaeda's in-house production team, al-Sahab. Al-Sahab, whose logo appears on the video, is a shifting group of individuals, not a single entity, who, over the last three years, have made a series of increasingly professional videos in different locations.

Video editing and copying facilities have been discovered in raids on militant hide-outs in Pakistan, Iraq and several other Middle Eastern countries. Digital technology means an expert can receive images by email that can be used to compile a tape on a laptop computer of broadcast quality. Nobody actually knows where the tape was filmed or made. In its amorphous structure, as much idea as organisation, al-Sahab resembles al-Qaeda itself.

These tapes have been aimed at a variety of audiences and by no means all have been broadcast. But the more notable, such as Osama bin Laden's 'address to the American people', released on the eve of the 2004 American presidential election, secured massive coverage.

That tape, like most others, was sent to al-Jazeera. The channel is not, as described in yesterday's tabloid press, 'Islamic' but an authentic and popular voice of local people. The militants know that getting material to the station means it will be both broadcast and believed. Many previous tapes have been sent to al-Jazeera's Islamabad bureau. Some have been left with gatekeepers or posted. One sat unopened on a secretary's desk for days before being broadcast. Last week's tape is understood to have been dropped off at al-Jazeera's multi-million pound studios in Doha, the capital of Qatar.

Yesterday, al-Jazeera denied reports that there was further footage of a second 7 July suicide bomber, Shehzad Tanweer, which they had not broadcast, and said that they had not yet received any request from British authorities to view tapes.

The question of how, when and where the various elements that form the tape were spliced together is likely to remain a mystery for some time. The footage of Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's close associate and the main strategist in al-Qaeda, was almost certainly filmed in recent months in the high hills of the Afghan-Pakistani border at a location where there was sufficient time and space to rig a video camera and, for the first time in such a video, arrange proper, if basic, lighting.

But it is very unclear where and when the footage of Khan was taken. Friends of the former school care assistant say that, from the young man's appearance, it was at least six months or a year ago. Some analysts point to the lack of a weapon, merely a pen, as indicating that it was filmed in the UK. However it is unlikely that anyone planning an attack in Britain would risk filming himself in the UK. The film may well have been taken in the western Pakistani cities and villages Khan visited between December and January.

Analysts are also looking at the tape to reveal more about the 7 July plot itself. Some say it indicates close direction by some kind of mastermind overseas; others, including most of the investigators and counter-terrorist officials, say there is no evidence of any such link. The truth is probably that the 7 July cell was autonomous but that the plotters at some stage sought logistical help, guidance or legitimisation from people closer to the al-Qaeda hardcore in southwest Asia.

Though recent al-Qaeda attacks, such as those in Madrid and Casablanca, have shown no connection to bin Laden or anyone close to him, others, such as the Istanbul attacks, have shown tangential links. These connections reflect the situation prior to the 2001 war in Afghanistan when young men from all over the world came to bin Laden in Afghanistan asking for aid with their own plans for attacks. Volunteers without ideas of their own were rejected.

If Khan had a relationship with more senior figures it is likely to have been on that basis. Radicalised and mobilised by 'al-Qaeda the idea' or 'al-Qaeda-ism' in Leeds, Khan would set off to find al-Qaeda, the actual organisation, exploiting both his roots in Pakistan and the UK's well-established support network for Pakistani radical groups, many connected to al-Qaeda, to facilitate meeting the right people. We already know that Khan met a militant from one such outfit shortly after his arrival in Pakistan. It is possible that further videos are being held back for future release.

However, though probably not filmed here, Khan's words are directed at Muslims in the West. Khan makes various points, in clear English devoid of religious rhetoric, reference to the Koran or Islamic history. He explains why civilians are targets, saying that in a democracy everyone bears responsibility for the government's actions. These, in this case, involve 'the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture' of Muslims. He rejects national identity in favour of the ummah, the global community of believers, explaining that the violence will continue as long as the government continues to 'perpetuate atrocities' against 'his Muslim brothers and sisters'. He also makes an important theological point often overlooked by Western observers but deeply relevant to activists who might be considering violence. He says bombs are justified because the ummah is under attack, violent resistance is an obligation on all believers and 'collateral damage' in the form of the death of innocents is thus acceptable. Where the tape is in Arabic, there are English subtitles - a first.

Yet most interesting is the clear influence of al-Zawahiri, who himself was heavily influenced by extremist European left wing revolutionary doctrines. Shortly after 9/11, al-Zawahiri cautioned militants of 'the vanguard' against 'getting killed in silence' and railed against 'the false consciousness' created by the media among the masses that ensured extremists remained a minority. In last week's tape Khan spoke of the 'propaganda machine' which aimed to 'scare the masses into conforming to their power and wealth-obsessed objectives'. And in talking about giving his words 'life with blood' Khan hinted at the influence of earlier secular activists, reformulating the concept of 'propaganda by deed' which guided the anarchist terrorists who struck all over Europe at the end of the 19th century.

This idea guided me as I made the BBC film. I found that, though militants of all stripes had been launching suicide attacks and hoping to publicise their deaths for centuries, the world is now facing an unprecedented challenge. Modern technology means that, instead of merely killing a couple of people, terrorists can use tiny charges from a distance to target mass transit systems and kill hundreds. It also means that their acts, and their deaths, are not witnessed merely by bystanders, as would have been the case with the suicidal assassins of the 12th century, or by the few who read the papers, as with the anarchists of the 19th century, but by hundreds of millions. At the same time modern communications technology means that governments can no longer control what people see - even when it is images of one of their own citizens being brutally executed. The result is that all Khan, al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda need are some images, a computer and something of sufficient interest to make their statements newsworthy. The audience will then come to them, ready-made.

Channel Terror will be shown on BBC4 at 10pm on 26 September.

Jason Burke is the author of Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, published by Penguin.

Special reports
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History of al-Qaida

07.09.2002: Inside the mind of Osama Bin Laden

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Jane's International Security News


London bombers 'recorded video in Pakistan' with help of al-Qaeda
By Sean Rayment, Andrew Alderson, Daniel Foggo and Massoud Ansari in Rawalpindi
(Filed: 04/09/2005)

The chilling video message of Mohammad Sidique Khan, the British suicide bomber, was recorded in Pakistan after he was given orders to attack London, MI5 investigators suspect.

According to senior Whitehall officials, the Security Service is probing the theory that Khan, 30, was filmed during a three-month visit to Pakistan with fellow bomber Shehzad Tanweer, which began in November last year.

Mohammad Sidique Khan
Mohammad Sidique Khan in his video, recorded in Pakistan

British investigators are working with security services in Pakistan to try to identify where the video was recorded - possibly Rawalpindi, a hotbed of terrorism close to Islamabad.

The video was broadcast last Thursday by al-Jazeera, the Arabic television station. Khan, in his native Yorkshire accent, said: "We are at war and I am a solider." He blamed Britain's involvement in Iraq for his intended suicide mission.

In part of the video not yet given to al-Jazeera Khan is reported to have been filmed with Tanweer, 22, the second member of the July 7 suicide team that killed 52 other people and injured more than 400. Al-Qaeda often staggers the release of video footage to gain maximum publicity.

In an interview in The Sunday Telegraph today, Tanweer's uncle confirmed that the two men had spent a great deal of time together in Pakistan before returning to Britain in February.

Tahir Pervez, Khan's maternal uncle, said: "They used to be up all the night talking to each other whenever Khan visited Tanweer during this period." He said his nephew travelled away from his home village of Samoodran in Faislabad, with Khan. "Both times Tanweer went out with Khan, he told us that he was going to Rawalpindi to meet Khan's relatives," he said.

Rawalpindi, a bustling city seven miles from Pakistan's federal capital of Islamabad, is notorious as a hotbed of Islamic militancy. Kahlid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Qaeda's suspected third in command and the alleged architect of 9/11 attacks on the United States, was arrested there two years ago.

London bombings

Intelligence experts believe that the 7/7 attacks on London were the handiwork of al-Qaeda. One official said: "Even the picture background used when the interview of Khan is recorded before he carried out his suicide bombing is a typical al-Qaeda signature. They have used a cloth on the wall and this is what al-Qaeda guys do whenever they have to record a statement."

Pakistani intelligence agents believe that Khan was connected to a division known as the Osama Group. The theory came to light after the authorities smashed an arm of the group last month that was using a call centre to channel messages to Britain and other Western countries.

In Britain, MI5 is investigating the possibility that Khan, believed to have been his cell's leader, travelled to Pakistan to get final instructions on what target to attack in the United Kingdom. The Security Service also believes that he may have attended a training camp, possibly in Afghanistan.

A Whitehall official told The Sunday Telegraph: "Khan could have travelled to Pakistan and received instruction on what type of target to attack, was given the go-ahead to launch an attack and then returned to brief the remainder of his team. It is also possible that he was still recruiting at the time the video was made."

He said that MI5 had no evidence to support reports that the video was produced in Leeds on the eve of the July 7 attacks on three Tube trains and a bus. He said the absence of all the members of the terrorist cell lent weight to the theory that it was produced outside Britain. "If this video was made in the UK, in a back room in Leeds, then why are all the bombers not pictured together?

"There are only two real facts on this tape: fact one is that Khan was prepared to commit suicide in an act of terrorism and fact two is that al-Qaeda have got their hands on it."

He said that even if the cell had not had a direct link with al-Qaeda, the video was evidence that the bombers had been inspired by the group.

It also emerged that reports this weekend that the security services had forewarning of the existence of the video were exaggerated. The Sunday Telegraph has learnt that MI5 and Scotland Yard found out about the tape only three hours before its broadcast.

Investigators are studying the footage that was broadcast last week and are also trying to obtain a copy of what sources in Qatar claim is the "full video".

It is understood that al-Jazeera has been told that it contains a further commentary from Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's second in command, in which he allegedly refers to the Queen and to other planned attacks. He claims that Muslim leaders in Britain are taking orders from the Queen in her role as the head of the Church of England, saying they "imitate her and issue fatwas in accordance with her religion".

Evan Kohlmann, a consultant to the US government on terrorism in Europe, said of the broadcast footage: "There is zero per cent doubt that this is al-Qaeda." He suspected that it was shot by an Arabic film company that has produced other al-Qaeda videos.

Patrick Mercer, the Conservative homeland security spokesman, said yesterday he was concerned that al-Jazeera is providing a platform for terrorists. "Al-Jazeera has now specifically named Britain through two tapes, one by al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri and now by Mohammad Sidique Khan," he said. "These messages are definite acts of war by our enemies to encourage suicide bombers."

As investigators study his video, the headless body of Khan, a father of one from Dewsbury, Yorkshire - who killed himself and six other people in the Edgware Road bomb - remains in a London morgue.

Khan lived in Dewsbury, eight miles from the Leeds home of the other three bombers. Police are investigating whether he had any connections with the Tablighi Jamaat mosque in Dewsbury. Extremists have previously tried to infiltrate the mosque, which was built in 1978 and dedicated to spreading Islam around the world.

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