BAGHDAD The U.S. military said on Saturday it had hampered al Qaeda's ability to recruit new members in Iraq by capturing or killing many of the people who make slick videos used to attract disaffected young Muslims.
U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Greg Smith said that in the past year, 39 al Qaeda members in Iraq responsible for producing and disseminating videos and other material to thousands of Internet Web sites had been captured or killed.
"The power of this information is obvious. These guys are using material that is used on Web sites to recruit and raise money," Smith told Reuters in an interview.
"We think the vast majority of this media network has been degraded at this point," he said, adding that the arrests had led to fewer Internet postings of al Qaeda beheadings, kidnappings and other attacks in Iraq.
U.S. defence officials have in the past complained the military was losing the propaganda battle against militants who skilfully exploited communication tools like the Internet.
Smith said there has been a steady decline in videos broadcast on 5,000 pro-al Qaeda Web sites since June 2007, roughly coinciding with falling levels of violence across Iraq.
In February, U.S. intelligence monitoring of those Web sites showed 34 new postings of videos and audio material from Iraqi networks, down from 144 postings in June 2007, Smith said.
"Those responsible for the more finished product, the stuff that really grabs the attention in mosques and elsewhere, we have those people on the run," he said.
It was not possible to verify the comparative numbers of postings, some of which show attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces claimed by al Qaeda and others apparent maltreatment of civilians, women and children by those forces.
The U.S. military says while attacks across Iraq are down 60 percent since last June, al Qaeda remains the greatest single threat to security in the country.
The improved security has been attributed to the build-up of 30,000 extra U.S. troops, completed last June, and the growth of neighbourhood security units after mainly Sunni Arab tribal sheikhs turned against Sunni Islamist al Qaeda.
Smith said militant groups had become increasingly sophisticated in their distribution of information, publishing professional-looking videos with narration, music and special effects of attacks on U.S. soldiers and Iraqis.
"Most of al Qaeda's coordinated attacks tend to be so well-planned that they allow for camera crews to be on location filming just before it happens," he said.
These media networks, found mainly in northern Baghdad, then take the crude videos and re-package them into a more polished product for distribution to Web sites, he said. The networks also put out other material to educate and recruit new members.
Last December, U.S. soldiers seized videos showing Iraqi children younger than 11 carrying out mock kidnappings and attacks. The U.S. military described the content of the confiscated material, which they said came from al Qaeda as the most disturbing to date.
"Now the question is are they regenerating, and the one way we will find this out is if there is an increase in output on these Web sites," Smith said.