They have coupled terror tactics with a sophisticated use of modern media.
In 2005 Al Qaeda's No. 2 man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wrote a letter to the then top insurgent leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. "[M]ore than half of this battle," he wrote, "is taking place in the battlefield of the media.... [W]e are in a media battle, in a race for the hearts and minds of our [people]."
As the struggle in Iraq between the insurgents on the one hand and US military and Iraqi security forces on the other reaches a climactic phase, it is clear that the insurgents, far from being a band of crude guerilla fighters, have taken the Al Qaeda leader's injunction to heart and have coupled the tactics of terror with a sophisticated knowledge and use of modern media.
Their command of the Internet, their use of television, their release and timing of material calculated to be picked up and used by Arab and Western TV outlets and news agencies, indicates a high degree of planning and professionalism.
When US forces stormed into Iraq bent on toppling Saddam Hussein, the Pentagon adopted a new and enlightened policy toward press coverage. US reporters were embedded into combat units and, with the aid of modern communications techniques, sent dramatic real-time coverage of a brilliant military campaign to millions of spellbound Americans back home. Journalists-turned-military-reporters shared the same hardships and dangers of the troops, some losing their lives in the process of reporting the story. Censorship was minimal, designed to keep sensitive information about troop movements from giving any help to the enemy. By contrast, the propaganda efforts of Mr. Hussein's information ministry were laughable, with "Baghdad Bob" continuing to proclaim victory even as US tanks were entering the Iraqi capital.
In the aftermath of the war, fewer US correspondents were embedded with US military units, and the story took a different direction. The focus was on attempts to build a democratic political system and repair an infrastructure both neglected by Hussein and then damaged even more during the fighting. Then came more negative stories of US mistakes and the Pentagon's unpreparedness for the enormity of problems in the postwar occupation. Finally, Iraq lapsed into violence, with car bombings and assassinations and hostage-taking providing a daily litany of horror. The occupying US soldiers began to take ever more casualties as did US and other foreign civilian workers and journalists, whose fatalities soon numbered more than in any other war.