Wired: Al Qaeda gots the mad photoshop skillz

posted at 9:59 am on August 2, 2007 by Allahpundit

It’s not news that as-Sahab does a lot of post-production work on its videos. Click and scroll to see, for instance, the backdrops they chose for the 9/11 hijackers’ “video wills.” The news is how sophisticated they are about it. Using a process called error level analysis, a computer security consultant claims he’s able to identify which parts of an image have been added later digitally. Here’s his take on the Zawahiri video from last September:

zawa9291mbps.jpg

The image shows al-Zawahiri sitting in front of a desk and banner with writing on it. But after conducting his error analysis Krawetz was able to determine that al-Zawahiri’s image was superimposed in front of the background — and was most likely videotaped in front of a black sheet.

Krawetz was also able to determine that the writing on the banner behind al-Zawahiri’s head was added to the image afterward.

In other words, not only did they add the backdrop, they used After Effects or something like it to fake the Islamic inscription on a plain white sheet behind Zawahiri’s head. It ain’t CGI, but for modern cavemen that’s pretty slick. Krawetz is probably right, too, about them filming against an all black background. Here’s a still from an earlier video of Zawahiri where they didn’t bother to add a fake backdrop:

zawa1.jpg

And here’s a still from one where they did:

zawa2.jpg

Compare the more natural skin tone in those last two images to the first one, too. They’re obviously playing with the color to match him up with the color temperature of the backdrop.

Even more impressive is what they did with Gadahn. Spot the fake:

ag.jpg

Error level analysis shows that the books in the lower right-hand corner of the image have a different error level than the items in the rest of the image, suggesting they were added later. In fact the books register the same error level as the subtitles and As-Sahab logo.

Further analysis also shows that the books have a different color range than the rest of the image, indicating that they came from an alternate source. Krawetz wasn’t able to determine what the books were but says if they were religious books, they might have simply been added to lend authority and reverence to the video. It’s also possible, he says, that such details could be added to a picture to send a message in code to al Qaeda operatives.

What’s left out there is that Gadahn and the computer are at the same “error level,” which means wherever he is, it’s probably not a cave.

Follow the link to see what the images look like under analysis.

Update: The more I look at it, the more I just can’t believe those books were added artificially to the Gadahn image. The fact that there’s a glare off the spine must be scrambling his analysis somehow.

Update (Bryan): For what it’s worth, it hardly takes “error level analysis” to conclude that Zawahiri’s background has been added digitally. His producers are using a virtual set, of the type you can buy here for a couple hundred bucks, and supering it behind him using nonlinear video editing software. My guess from looking at how the effect is laid in is that they’re using Final Cut Pro for the editing. That they’re using the black background isn’t surprising either. FCP’s color key effects can pull a decent key out of almost anything, as long as the background color is even (so can Premiere Pro’s, which is what I use in our productions) and isn’t too close to any color that the subject is wearing. Notice that Zawahiri usually wears bright, solid color robes. That makes for an easy key effect.

While we’re on the digital subject, the next time you hear a “terrorism analyst” *cough Mark Ginsberg say that al Qaeda’s videos show a sophistication that demands a roomful of high end gear, don’t believe him. It takes a desktop computer or a punchy laptop with firewire, a decent digital camera, decent portable lights, a mic, good editing software with keying capabilities and electricity. Al Qaeda could pack its entire studio in a single suitcase.


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If the terrorism gig doesn’t work, theres always Reuters.

JayHaw Phrenzie on August 2, 2007 at 10:10 AM

I’m not impressed. Not even for cave men.

congsan on August 2, 2007 at 10:14 AM

In the first photo, what’s the thing on the desk near the lamp? It looks like some sort of toy.

Blake on August 2, 2007 at 10:14 AM

If we lose a war to these third world fanatics, our country will never have the respect necessary to lead on the world level. It is hard for me to comprehend how they are able to out maneuver us in such open terrain as Afghanistan. Its almost like reaading a dime novel. Something does not add up.

volsense on August 2, 2007 at 10:15 AM

What an insult to cavemen. Worse than Geico.

tommuck on August 2, 2007 at 10:18 AM

Fascinating technology. It would be interesting to play with.

High Desert Wanderer on August 2, 2007 at 10:25 AM

So how many Jews, Hindu, Crusaders, dog owners, bacon eaters, kite flyers, cucumber-tomato salad chefs were on the development team for After Effects, Photoshop, etc?

IreneFingIrene on August 2, 2007 at 10:28 AM

Blake….Looks like a model of a little cannon to me.

bridgetown on August 2, 2007 at 10:36 AM

great program this guy Krawetz wrote. This will be most helpful for intelligence use.

shooter on August 2, 2007 at 10:40 AM

So how many Jews, Hindu, Crusaders, dog owners, bacon eaters, kite flyers, cucumber-tomato salad chefs were on the development team for After Effects, Photoshop, etc?

IreneFingIrene on August 2, 2007 at 10:28 AM

Haha yeah, if it weren’t for us infidels, they would have to stick to boring backgrounds. Mmmmm cucumber-tomato salad with bacon bits, that sounds so good for lunch right now

Keli on August 2, 2007 at 10:41 AM

This makes me believe Bin Laden is either taking a dirt nap or is too ill to sit up in his bed. If AQ has the ability to superimpose backgrounds for Zawahiri, why not use the same technology to make OBL appear healthy, alert and in charge?

He’s toast.

fogw on August 2, 2007 at 10:52 AM

Counter-photoshoppers, alert!

I want a colorized Busby Berkely musical clip playing on a loop behind Zawahiri.

A nice overhead shot of a bevvy of beauties doing pro-American mandalas.

Adam G. can have a scene from “Forbidden Planet” (leaping tiger being vaporized?), since he is plasinly suffering from “monsters from the id“.

Play with their rotten heads.

Or what’s left of them.

profitsbeard on August 2, 2007 at 10:56 AM

For a group that never tires of whinning about the decadent West they sure do love to use our toys.

JackStraw on August 2, 2007 at 11:08 AM

It ain’t CGI, but for modern cavemen that’s pretty slick.

Go to any University in the US and peek into a few engineering and ComSci classes. Guess who’s in there…

TheBigOldDog on August 2, 2007 at 11:11 AM

Counter-photoshoppers, alert!

I want a colorized Busby Berkely musical clip playing on a loop behind Zawahiri.

profitsbeard on August 2, 2007 at 10:56 AM

Nah. Put a gay porn sex scene behind him with his head photoshopped on one of the characters. Then send it to Al Jazeera and ask them to forward it to him.

Kowboy on August 2, 2007 at 11:12 AM

Ugh, be sure to take a stroll through the comments at the Wired link, too. BDS, 9/11 Truth, WMDs, Iraq didn’t do 9/11…you’ve got it all.

Hannibal Smith on August 2, 2007 at 11:12 AM

Blake….Looks like a model of a little cannon to me.

bridgetown on August 2, 2007 at 10:36 AM

I dunno. It looks like a little Jeep-like vehicle to me, with something on the top rear.

IrishEi on August 2, 2007 at 11:20 AM

I dunno. It looks like a little Jeep-like vehicle to me, with something on the top rear.

IrishEi on August 2, 2007 at 11:20 AM

Nope, it’s a cannon.

Kowboy on August 2, 2007 at 11:20 AM

fogw on August 2, 2007 at 10:52 AM

Or maybe they just want us to think he’s dead.

IrishEi on August 2, 2007 at 11:22 AM

Gives new meaning to “blue screen of death”

ej_pez on August 2, 2007 at 11:38 AM

That’s some s**t hot image processing!

PRCalDude on August 2, 2007 at 11:38 AM

Kwaretz left us his source code! Who wants a MATLAB version?

PRCalDude on August 2, 2007 at 11:39 AM

The more I look at it, the more I just can’t believe those books were added artificially to the Gadahn image.

OK, so I’ve read the story on Wired, but I still don’t get it entirely. The program is being used to analyze still frames from a video, but interframe video compression would mean that different areas of the frame would be compressed at different qualities; that is, stuff that doesn’t move or change from frame to frame (like books on a shelf) would be compressed differently than stuff that moves. I can understand how the technique would work on a still photo tampered with in Photoshop, but once it goes through the video grinder, I’m not sure how reliable it could be.

That said, I like the idea of, say, footage of pigs looping in the background.

saint kansas on August 2, 2007 at 11:43 AM

Saint Francis-

…pigs looping…

Or mold spreading.

Accuracy rules.

profitsbeard on August 2, 2007 at 12:03 PM

OK, so I’ve read the story on Wired, but I still don’t get it entirely. The program is being used to analyze still frames from a video, but interframe video compression would mean that different areas of the frame would be compressed at different qualities; that is, stuff that doesn’t move or change from frame to frame (like books on a shelf) would be compressed differently than stuff that moves. I can understand how the technique would work on a still photo tampered with in Photoshop, but once it goes through the video grinder, I’m not sure how reliable it could be.

That said, I like the idea of, say, footage of pigs looping in the background.

saint kansas on August 2, 2007 at 11:43 AM

Looks like they’re compressing the entire video into JPEG then photoshopping each individual frame. Like a commenter said on the other site, you could just photoshop then compress and Kwaretz’ technique wouldn’t work. Right?

PRCalDude on August 2, 2007 at 12:09 PM

It’s a cannon. A typical desk ornament.

jihadwatcher on August 2, 2007 at 1:25 PM

I like our photoshopping better.

Connie on August 2, 2007 at 1:52 PM

So will the tasty, ironic end of al Qaeda be that they are brought down by software piracy police?

TexasDan on August 2, 2007 at 6:18 PM

In the first photo, what’s the thing on the desk near the lamp? It looks like some sort of toy.

Blake….Looks like a model of a little cannon to me.

I dunno. It looks like a little Jeep-like vehicle to me, with something on the top rear.

It’s a cannon. A typical desk ornament.

They are cavemen–it’s their modern artillery.

Tennessee Dave on August 2, 2007 at 9:58 PM

Someone needs to light the fuse on that little canon. It’s aim is perfect!

Danilo on August 2, 2007 at 11:10 PM

oops..its.

Danilo on August 2, 2007 at 11:15 PM

Bryan’s right about chromakey operations. With a solid color background, you can make just about anything appear using an NLE system. In fact, you don’t even need a sophisticated backdrop. If you have a flat surface and can get it to lay tight, you can use something as simple as a solid color bed sheet as a backdrop.

Steve L. on September 13, 2007 at 10:35 AM