In an Internet age, al-Qaeda prizes geek jihadis as much as would-be suicide bombers and gunmen. The terror network is recruiting computer-savvy technicians to produce sophisticated Web documentaries and multimedia products aimed at Muslim audiences in the United States, Britain and other Western countries.
Already, the terror movement's al-Sahab production company is turning out high quality material, some of which rivals productions by Western media companies. The documentaries appear regularly on Islamist websites, which al-Qaeda uses to recruit followers and rally its supporters.
That requires people whose skills go beyond planting bombs and ambushing American patrols in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The al-Qaeda men who are coming today are not farmers, illiterate people," said Qari Mohammed Yusuf, an Afghan and self-declared al-Sahab cameraman. "They are Ph.D.s, professors who know about this technology. Day by day they are coming. al-Qaeda has asked them to come."
It was impossible to verify Yusuf's claim, although a former police chief in Yusuf's home province of Kunduz verified his links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Yusuf's information has proven reliable in the past.
Nevertheless, Western experts who monitor Islamist websites say the technical quality of al-Qaeda postings — including those from Iraq and Afghanistan — has dramatically increased from the grainy, amateurish images that were the hallmark of al-Sahab's work only a few years ago.
Now, postings are often in three languages — Arabic, English and Urdu, the language of Pakistan where al-Qaeda hopes to draw fresh recruits. Videos look like professionally edited documentaries or television news broadcasts, with flashy graphics, maps in the background and split screens.
Footage lifted from Arab and Western television is often interlaced into the videos — and al-Sahab appears to have a wide-ranging video library.
A speech by deputy al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri issued to mark last year's 9-11 anniversary included U.S. television interviews with wounded American soldiers, CIA analysts and talking-head journalists and experts, excerpts from a President Bush press conference, audiotape of Malcolm X, even old World War II footage — all edited in to back al-Zawahri's case that the United States is losing the war on terror.
"What has changed dramatically is the quality, with documentaries and messages sometimes in three languages," said Rita Katz, director of SITE Intelligence Group, a U.S. terrorism research center. "They are trying to outreach to as many people as possible."
Use of the Internet enables al-Qaeda to reach a broad global audience within the worldwide Muslim community rather than having to rely on Arabic language satellite stations, whose audiences are limited to the Middle East and who exercise some degree of editorial control.
"What is really amazing to me is watching how would-be terrorists living in the West are drawn in and captivated by al-Sahab videos," said Evan Kohlmann, a terror consultant for Globalterroralert.com.
He said watching al-Sahab videos eventually leads some Muslim youth in the West into "making official contact with the al-Qaeda organization."
Katz said the quality of some recent al-Sahab productions was "good enough to be on the Discovery Channel."