WASHINGTON, Feb. 14, 2006 -- The U.S. military is aggressively capturing and killing Iraqi insurgents and seizing their territory, yet the insurgency continues to wreak untold havoc. According to one analysis, attacks on U.S. soldiers and Iraqi government forces last year increased 29 percent, and recruitment of new insurgents does not appear to be a problem.
Officials at the International Crisis Group, an independent conflict-resolution organization, think they know why. They say it is the power of the insurgents' message -- and the skill with which they're delivering their propaganda on the Internet.
"In this battle for hearts and minds, they have found a constituency. The insurgency has found a constituency it's able to talk to," said Rob Malley, director of the Crisis Group's Middle East/North Africa Program.
The ICG will release a report on Wednesday called "In Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency." It is, the group believes, the first comprehensive look at the way the insurgency uses the Internet and information the group says we ignore at our own peril.
"What the insurgency is about is not a mystery," said Malley. "It's not a puzzle. They're not hiding it. They're broadcasting it. Let's try to understand it politically, rather than simply have [our] own preconceptions and dismiss it as propaganda."
Propaganda or not, the communications by insurgent groups have advanced far beyond distributing leaflets at mosques.
Early on in the war's aftermath, there were myriad insurgent efforts. Based on Internet communications, there has been much consolidation. The four major groups are, according to ICG: Tandhim al Qaeda fi Bilad al Rafidayn (al Qaeda's Organization in Mesopotamia), led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi; Jaysh Ansar al-Sunna (Partisans of the Sunna Army); Al Jaysh al Islami fil Iraq (the Islamic Army in Iraq); and al Jabha al Islamiya lil Muqawama al Iraqiya (the Islamic Front of the Iraqi Resistance).
ICG says these groups have monthly magazines, professionally designed PDF files that are distributed via e-mail.
They use what we in the United States might call "synergy," providing information and links to relatively sophisticated movies -- like one mythologizing the so-called Baghdad Sniper who claims to have killed more than 140 U.S. troops.
"It gives the impression that the Iraqi insurgency can kill Americans wherever they are," said Peter Harling, an ICG senior analyst.
The ICG says that these productions not only bolster the insurgency's confidence and image, but also help recruit new fighters for the cause with biographies of suicide bombers and movies that document terrorist operations.
Harling described one such movie. "[The insurgents] all embrace," he said. "And then [one] explains the device in the car and how he will set the explosives off. Then you see footage of what is presented as the operation itself."
Harling added: "The whole idea here is to show that although he exploded himself, his body is more or less intact."
The notion of a suicide bomber's body emerging unscathed is an important religious enticement, the group says.
"Not only do you go to paradise," said Harling, "but your body remains intact. It doesn't rot for days."
Intelligence officials say in the early stages of the conflict, many suicide bombers were not Iraqi. But that has changed.
Chasing the Promise of Celebrity
These communications may have helped alter that landscape by enticing would-be insurgents in the Iraqi population with the promise of celebrity. Insurgents provide all sorts of information on the Internet, including the very latest on how to make improvised explosive devices, animated instruction on how to shoot down a helicopter, or real-life examples from the war in Afghanistan.
But beyond evolving in terms of the mechanics of war, the insurgents' communications indicate an evolution in editorial goals.
In 2003, responsibility for an attack on U.S. forces might have been claimed by a number of groups, inflating the numbers of victims. That no longer seems to be the case.
"They never say we killed 60 American soldiers," said Harling. "They'll say two, they will say three."
Harling says it's important for them to not make exaggerated claims.
"They are very cautious, to keep their credibility in regards to their own audience," he said.
In the United States, many tend to think of insurgents as so cruel, they are impervious to criticism. That is not quite right.
Even the most ruthless of the groups, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's organization -- responsible for most of the beheadings -- has stopped broadcasting that barbarism on the Internet.
"There used to be on the Internet a lot of illustrations of beheadings," said Malley. "That caused, from all accounts, revulsion on the part of Iraqis -- even Iraqis who might have been sympathetic with the objectives of the insurgency. You don't see them anymore."
Using Contemporary Political Tactics
The insurgents also deploy what in politics is called rapid response. In one instance, they took a New York Times article about the U.S. military secretly negotiating with some insurgent groups, translated it into Arabic, and rebutted it in a signed letter from those groups.
"They're very quick at this. They come back, show the allegation, deny it -- the group itself denies it, every group denies it," said Malley.
The ICG worries U.S. forces are not doing enough rapid response themselves. Though the United States shuts down many insurgent Web sites, the crisis group worries U.S. officials still allow insurgents to spread allegations of U.S. atrocities by not disputing them until it's too late and they've taken root in the Iraqi consciousness.
"They were reaching Iraqis for a long time before we," said Malley.
ABC News provided this report to Pentagon officials and asked for a response. They declined. But some military experts argue that realities on the ground are the most important factors fueling the Iraqi insurgency.
"Propaganda is certainly having an effect, but the effect is not the dominant one," said Anthony Cordesman, an expert on military affairs and the Middle East, and an ABC News consultant. "The lack so far of any kind of inclusive government, massive unemployment in Sunni areas -- sometimes 40 percent or more -- these are the factors which may be driving the number of sympathizers and participants in the insurgency -- not propaganda."
Ultimately many experts worry the information war -- like the ground war -- is one the United States cannot win on its own.
"The struggle for hearts and minds cannot be won by the United States," said Cordesman. "There is simply no way we will ever have a critical mass of language and area skills. What we can do is create the local forces that can win."
George Griffin, Sara Just and Chris Isham contributed to this report.