Caught on Tape: Video as a Terrorist's Weapon

The war on terror has been described as an unprecedented type of conflict -- a battle against groups unaffiliated with nations, groups armed with radical ideologies. And the video camera may be one of the most powerful weapons in the terrorists' arsenal.

In a recent Harris poll, six out of 10 people said they favored more surveillance cameras on streets and public places. People are feeling vulnerable, and it's no wonder. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Americans are painfully aware of what terrorists can do. And terrorists have never been more aware of the power of the moving image.

We've seen suicide bombers videotaping farewell messages as they set themselves up for martyrdom. In Iraq and Europe, attacks on U.S. targets are videotaped. Terrorists who held parents and children hostage at a school in Beslan, Russia, took time to videotape themselves in the midst of their murder and mayhem.

"A picture is worth a thousand words and the video is worth 10,000," says Evan Kohlman, an expert who tracks terrorist videos. Kohlman says the terrorists make videos with two goals in mind: to empower their supporters and to frighten their enemies.

And it has a tremendous effect, according to Kohlman. "It shows these men as some kind of holy warriors that are willing to give up their lives that have taken these men and women hostages that are so cruel," he said.

"Terrorism is about fear. It is about amplifying that fear and there's nothing more useful than the media," said Magnus Ranstorp, a professor at Scotland's St. Andrew's University, who studies the effects of terrorism.

Ranstorp says terrorists make their tapes to frighten people and to threaten them. The tapes convey a powerful message. "We can humiliate you. We can take your citizens. We can slaughter you. It is the kidnappers lurking in the shadows, picking off foreigners, individuals at their select moments and they are the ones that are in control of this entire process," he said.

Insurgents in Iraq recently recorded images of themselves planting roadside bombs. They wait and record the explosion from a distance. They then distribute their videos to Arab Web sites and get their message out to the media.

And when the image is played on evening newscasts around the world, the message is clear.

Their message, according to Kohlman, "We have the ability to strike directly at the heart of America and the infidel. As many aircraft as they buy, as many tanks as they have, they can't protect themselves always and we'll be there."

But it has been the videos of beheadings that have most horrified people around the world. A dozen men have been murdered in the last year, up close and brutally, on camera.

And the brutality of these videos may be further alienating radical groups from the Arab public. "Nobody I know of has ever spoken of supporting beheadings. Everybody's against it," said Rami Khouri, an Arab media analyst in Beirut. Khouri says that while a radical minority might embrace these tapes, the Arab majority rejects them.

"It's morally repulsive. It's politically unacceptable. It's humanly, totally rejected, but very few people are surprised. And it's now a war, which everybody is watching on television," Khouri said.

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