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.

It was on a television screen that the world met 26-year-old Nick Berg, who was working as a civilian contractor in Iraq when he disappeared last spring. After several weeks of worrying and waiting, the Berg family got a call from the U.S. State Department telling them that their son had been killed.

"They told me that Nick was dead and they told me the gruesome nature of his death, exactly what had happened to him," said Nick's father, Michael Berg.

Berg said he asked the State Department official not to share the nature of the killing with the public. He said he wanted time to tell his wife and other children, "because it was so gruesome, because it was so barbaric, because it was so unthinkable."

What Michael Berg didn't yet know was that video of his son's barbaric death had been released by his killers. Media in both the Middle East and the West refused to air it. But on the Internet it's a different story.

Kohlman monitors Web sites that display links to numerous videos made by terror groups. "This is just a one-stop shopping place for jihad videos," he said of one site.

And the sites show that millions of people have logged onto them to look at the images and to discuss them in chat rooms. Some are morbidly curious, but others are sympathizers -- the very people these tapes hope to empower if not recruit.

Kohlman says there are probably no more than 10 or 15 sites that are actually legitimate terrorist site. But as far as sympathizing Web sites? Kohlman says there are hundreds. "And if you're talking about the Web sites that post the links as in the bulletin boards that post the links to the video, thousands," he said.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the number of these sites has "completely exploded," according to Kohlman.

Some of the terrorist videos are even for sale -- on the Internet or on city streets. A shop in Baghdad was openly selling DVDs of terrorist tapes alongside video games and Spiderman movies.

"They say you have your shock and awe. You bomb targets in Iraq. You kill Iraqi children. We have our shock and awe. We cut off people's heads. … They want to bring that sense of violence to every American home. There's no doubt that's the essential purpose of distributing these videos," Kohlman said.

When Michael Berg learned that a terrorist video of his son's death was being distributed, he collapsed to the ground.

"I think it's a pretty good test of the kind of person that you are, how you react when you see that tape. I know that some people wanted to say, let's go over there and kill every one of those barbarians. And I know that there are plenty of other people like myself who view that videotape and says, 'Enough, this has to stop.'"

But there are few signs that it will. Last week on its Web site, the Islamic Army of Iraq called for intensified attacks against Americans. It called for terrorists "to film their operations" because it "horrifies the nearby and far-away enemies."