Washington, June 24 : The war against terrorism has evolved into a war of ideas and propaganda, a struggle for hearts and minds fought on television and the Internet.
According to the Washington Post, al-Qaeda's voice has grown much more powerful in recent years on all of these mediums.
Taking advantage of new technology and mistakes by its adversaries, the al-Qaeda's core leadership has built an increasingly prolific propaganda operation, enabling it to communicate constantly, securely and in numerous languages with loyalists and potential recruits worldwide.
Every three or four days, on average, a new video or audio from one of al-Qaeda's commanders is released online by as-Sahab, the terrorist network's in-house propaganda studio.
Even as its masters dodge a global manhunt, as-Sahab produces documentary-quality films, iPod files and cell phone videos.
Last year it released 97 original videos, a six-fold increase from 2005.
(As-Sahab means "the clouds" in Arabic, a reference to the sky-scraping mountain peaks of Afghanistan.)
U.S. and European intelligence officials attribute the al-Qaeda propaganda boom in part to the network's ability to establish a secure base in the ungoverned tribal areas of western Pakistan.
Some U.S. officials acknowledge that they missed early opportunities to disrupt al-Qaeda's communications operations, whose internal security has since been upgraded to the point where analysts say it is nearly bullet proof.
"In many, many ways, the damage has already been done," the paper quoted Evan F. Kohlmann, an expert on al-Qaeda's online operations who serves as a consultant to the FBI, Scotland Yard and other agencies, as saying.
"It certainly would have been a lot easier if the U.S. government had taken this seriously back in 2004. Back then, these guys were looked upon as miscreants and cretins, like they were just Internet terrorists and not for real," he adds.
U.S. officials have also acknowledged their inability to counter al-Qaeda's ideological arguments, despite a multibillion-dollar investment in public diplomacy and covert propaganda efforts aimed at Muslims.
Analysts claim that the as-Sahab is outfitted with some of the best technology available. Editors and producers use ultra-light Sony Vaio laptops and top-end video cameras.
Files are protected using PGP, or Pretty Good Privacy, a virtually unbreakable form of encryption software that is also used by intelligence agencies around the world.
A senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said it was wrong to belief that these guys were illiterate and non-tech savvy.
"They are all communicating on laptops, just like I do from one of the most wired buildings in Washington," he said.
Speeches by bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders can appear online less than a week after being recorded, although it usually takes two to three weeks before they are released, officials and analysts said.
Despite years of trying, U.S. intelligence agencies have been unable to trace the videos of bin Laden and his lieutenants back to their origins. But officials said the network's leaders expose themselves to risk every time they make a new recording.
U.S. intelligence officials and analysts still know very little about the network's inner workings.
Some U.S. lawmakers are trying to attack the distribution system anyway. Other officials said such an approach was unlikely to be effective because the videos are so widespread and can resurface almost immediately on other sites.