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New alqaeda tape reveals video process { January 31 2006 }

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Al-Zawahiri Tape: Key Insights into Al Qaeda Prime
January 31, 2006 20 31 GMT

The latest videotaped message from al Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, which aired Jan. 30 on Al Jazeera television, offers key insights into the leadership's probable location, its media-relations capabilities and its influence on society.

The tape stands out for two reasons. First, unlike previous al Qaeda videotapes, its quality is sharp and crisp, suggesting it was produced in a studio on DVD format. This would come as no surprise, considering that the jihadist organization has a thriving media arm, al-Sahab Productions, that has long produced jihadist training material on DVD and has extensively used computer technology for its day-to-day operations. Moreover, the lighting on the tape is excellent. Also, unlike previous videos that display a brown background, this one has al-Zawahiri sitting in front of a pitch-black background, almost as if the video were produced in a studio using a sophisticated camera and later enhanced with software. Also, it seems al-Zawahiri had a studio make-up artist touch up his face for this video, as he looks quite healthy, and his prayer callus -- the dark mark on the forehead from repetitive bows to the ground in prayer -- is less pronounced than in previous video appearances.

Second, this time the entire process -- production, delivery, editing and airing -- was carried out in the short span of 10 days. The tape obviously was made sometime after Jan. 19 -- when U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney reacted to the offer of truce from Osama bin Laden by saying the United States does not negotiate with terrorists -- because al-Zawahiri mentions both in his remarks. It would appear, then, that al Qaeda not only has improved its ability to produce videos, but also is cutting down on the time it takes to get a tape to Al Jazeera.

Stratfor's assumption that al Qaeda's global headquarters are in western Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) has gone against the popular belief that the leadership is hiding out in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the badlands straddling the mountainous Afghan-Pakistani border. In fact, we believe the NWFP's Dir and Swat districts, and possibly Malakand, are two possible hideouts for al Qaeda's top leaders, given the confluence of certain unique ground conditions in those locations.

For al Qaeda's leaders to be in touch with global news and events, and to be capable of relaying sophisticated communiqués, however, they need to be in an area that offers satellite television, Internet access, an electricity supply, basic equipment, mail service and good roads. The NWFP meets these criteria; the FATA, where Islamabad's control was minimal until recently, does not. Given that the FATA is a backwater in terms of infrastructure, it is highly unlikely that improvements in production and delivery could have emerged from this region.

Furthermore, neither bin Laden nor al-Zawahiri would risk staying close to the Afghan border in the FATA, as it would leave them vulnerable to a U.S. airstrike staged from Afghan territory. On the contrary, they would want to remain as deep within Pakistani territory as possible. The United States might be willing to risk violating Pakistani airspace to fire missiles into the FATA -- as it did in the Jan. 13 strike against Bajaur Agency's Damadola village -- but it unlikely would go as deep as the NWFP.

U.S. intelligence has disclosed that al-Zawahiri is known to have visited Damadola on several occasions -- suggesting he is able to make the journey fairly easily. Interestingly, Dir borders Bajaur Agency to the north-northwest, while Malakand borders Bajaur to the southwest. Global attention, however, has focused on two specific FATA agencies: North Waziristan and South Waziristan, both of which are far from Bajaur, separated by Khurram, Khyber, Orakzai and Mohmand agencies.

Bajaur Agency also borders Afghanistan's Kunar province, which is a hotbed of Taliban and al Qaeda activity. In June, Kunar was the scene of fierce battles between U.S. Special Forces and militants, which saw U.S. helicopters ambushed and shot down near Asadabad. Al-Zawahiri's reference to "four brothers" present in Damadola village during the Jan. 13 U.S. airstrike includes Abu Obaidah al-Masri, an Egyptian al Qaeda operative believed to have planned attacks against U.S. and Afghan forces in eastern Afghanistan. Al-Masri's presence in Bajaur underscores the region's importance as an al Qaeda staging base for operations in Afghanistan.

This lends credence to Stratfor's position that, although al Qaeda might maintain facilities all over the FATA, its leadership is unlikely in the remote tribal areas. Al-Zawahiri's appearance most often in the stream of videos that began after the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks suggests that bin Laden is being protected at a separate location, one that is not easily accessible to the al Qaeda "studio," while al-Zawahiri is in close proximity to the facility.

Both al-Zawahiri and bin Laden are in the rural western areas of the NWFP and frequently attend tribal gatherings there, indicating that they feel secure with -- and have influence over -- the local Pashtuns, whose support they need if they are to remain secure. That this is the best hiding place they can find in all of Pakistan, however, demonstrates that al Qaeda's constituency comprises peripheral members of society.

Al Qaeda apparently remains confident of its ability to maintain organizational security or it would not have issued another tape so soon after the Jan. 13 Hellfire attack. At the very least, it would not have run the risk of producing a high-quality videotape. A rough audiotape -- like bin Laden's Jan. 19 tape -- would have required fewer hands to produce.

Two things, therefore, seem obvious: al-Zawahiri clearly is not running scared, and he is not in the same location as bin Laden. Damadola, which apparently was a meeting place, is now on the radar of U.S. and Pakistani intelligence, which will try to use it as a reference point to triangulate the two leaders' positions. Given that al-Zawahiri issued the latest tape following the Damadola incident, the two seem fairly confident they cannot be tracked -- likely because they are far enough from Damadola to remain hidden.

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