One of these days, some savvy reporter is going to ask an actual video producer — not necessarily this one, since most producers would give the same answer — and ask a pro’s opinion of al Qaeda’s media arm, as-Sahab. A video producer would note that as-Sahab has gotten a bit slicker since it went with the virtual set look, but that overall al Qaeda’s videos suffer from lacking that certain storytelling snap. Al Qaeda’s boys tend to be a bit long winded, not to mention highly unattractive. They could benefit from some editing and stage direction. And beard trimming.
Today, however, isn’t the day that some savvy reporter asks a video producer to opine on al Qaeda’s video producing prowess. UPI’s Shaun Waterman asks the usual suspects, who deliver the usual answers.
A central plank of the al-Qaida resurgence noted by U.S. analysts is its sophisticated messaging and propaganda strategy, spearheaded by a state-of-the-art in-house multimedia production facility producing high-quality videos every three days or so.
The as-Sahab Institute, as the terror network’s media arm calls itself, is often in the global spotlight — as it was last week after releasing Osama bin Laden’s message to Americans and two other videos to mark the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But little is known about the institute or how it operates, and its existence presents a knotty conundrum for U.S. intelligence: It would be hard to close down, and besides, allowing it to operate might be the best chance of finding bin Laden.
Technology and the globalized 21st century “make it possible for a relatively small group of people to exercise tremendously disproportionate power” in a “tremendously asymmetric struggle,” CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden said of as-Sahab Tuesday.
“Relatively small group” is right, though most probably wouldn’t guess just how small. I’d say that there are less than 5 people producing as-Sahab’s videos, and probably only one or two. So there probably is no actual “as-Sahab Institute.” It’s probably just a couple of guys. One of them may be Adam Gadahn, the treasonous weasel who licks his lips as he lectures us on the finer points of Islamic law and justice. He’s a toad, but he’s an American toad and may have some understanding of the power of image and mass media and how it might be useful to the jihad.
You don’t need a huge staff to crank out videos. You need one or two people who know nonlinear editing, you need robust, dependable software and you need fast hardware–Mac or PC, doesn’t matter. At Hot Air we do it with, essentially, me, and for a year we produced a video every day, five days a week. Michelle would write most of the scripts, we’d shoot her part of it, and I’d go off and put it together, compress and post it, etc. Al Qaeda can only manage one every three days or so. Amateurs.
The videos are messages from and interviews with al-Qaida’s leaders, and propaganda films made by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. And they are released more or less simultaneously in a bewildering variety of formats and quality standards.
“The scale of the operation implies a large stable of technically skilled people,” al-Qaida analyst and author Peter Bergen told UPI.
Actually, the “bewildering variety of formats and standards” doesn’t imply a huge staff of people. It implies that you have at the core one or two solid producers who edit the videos and then use a bank of maybe three or four computers, all of which could be laptops, to crank out all those standards and formats. Doing that part doesn’t take manpower. It takes machine power — processors — and the right software to make the conversions. The computers would have to be networked, but that’s not hard to do. Releasing the videos in different formats all simultaneously amounts to hitting publish across a few or a few dozen sites at the same time. A script can probably handle that. I know our web guys could pull it off. The point is, with today’s technology I have a full-up production studio with animation capabilities on my Dell. I have that same studio replicated on a Gateway and on my laptop. Al Qaeda could be and probably is doing something similar. It doesn’t take an army, just a couple of guys with skills to do this stuff. And their skills don’t have to be that good. Check out the lame animation and bad chroma key in this one. You can see the background bleeding through Zawahiri’s shoulder:
He cautioned that he doubted there was a central base for the group, saying they seemed to have “no fixed studio or other location you could find with overhead (satellite) imagery or bomb.”
Ben Venzke, CEO of IntelCenter, added that the amount of computing power required for the fast turnaround is considerable and that the group appears to be using the latest widely available off-the-shelf hardware and software.
“They are right on the cutting edge of the adoption of new technologies,” he said. “They grab ahold of the new stuff as soon as it becomes available and start using it.”
The first part, about portability, is right on. I can fit my entire studio in a van with room to spare, and I can set it up to do greenscreen work in about an hour or two as long as I have a space large enough to accommodate the lights. The last part, about quick adapation of new software, seems right to me too. But it’s no mystery how they do that. They’re criminals. They’re probably getting hacked software as soon as it’s available, and hacked software is usually available online before the legitimate title hits the stores.
The story goes on to talk about how al Qaeda uses subtitles in many different languages, and that is interesting, but it’s not as amazing as one might think. Generally, to put a subtitle on a DVD or video requires just a text file in the language of your choice. The text file needs timecode references to get the text lines to stay in line with the speech in the video. There are free programs available that will do the same thing for video that’s not being burned to playable DVD. If you’re looking for an army of workers, you’ll probably find it in the translators, not in the producers, but they need not be co-located with al Qaeda’s central players. You generally do need people who are proficient in a language to handle accurate translations — Google and Babelfish won’t cut it for Osama’s official latest rant from the grave or Zawahiri’s latest saber-rattling sermon. But al Qaeda has attracted members who have lived in just about every country on earth, so it’s no mystery how they can have so many translators around. It’s also no mystery how they can get things translated so fast. If you’re Adam Gadahn, Director, you take Zawahiri’s script and you email it to your Dutch and your French and your Spanish etc go-to guys, and they turn it around in an hour or two and email it back. While they’re doing that, you’re fidding with background animations and spooky music in Final Cut (they’re Mac users in my world. It just seems to fit with the whole revolutionary schtick these twits revel in). You finish the cut, the translations come back, you add the timecode hacks to your subtitles and then crank out master files in the languages you’re distributing in. Use the master files to make your 3GP or m4v or mpeg files with your little laptop network, and in a couple of hours you have your files. Getting all those files uploaded is a bear, but it’s mostly a waiting game of watching progress bars on ftp software.
So with all this, am I saying that as-Sahab is unsophisticated? On the contrary, they strike me as both agile and savvy. But looking for an army of producers, living in some lair decked out with plasmas on the walls and banks of rack-mounted servers in the back, who are cranking Osama’s vlogs and podcasts out is the wrong way to go about it. You won’t find a gaggle of people working on these things, and you won’t find a studio with a large footprint. You’ll find a pair or trio of people who know the web, know where to get pirated software, know how to use computer-based editing and animation tools, and who have a video kit consisting of a couple of camcorders, portable lights, portable backdrops and, probably, laptops for the editing and processing (and for mobility). You’d be able fit all of their gear in one mid-size van or truck. Wherever these guys go when they run, they have to have reliable and fast networking and at least frequent fast hookups to the web. When they log on, they’re not on DSL.
And wherever you find them, al Qaeda’s capos will be right around the corner. That’s another key to how they crank out their videos so frequently: They’re not living on opposite sides of Waziristan from one another. The as-Sahab producers and the heavies are probably traveling together, hiding together, and conspiring for world domination together.