Al-Qaeda’s Clandestine Courier Service

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 7

The recent release of audio and videotapes from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri call attention to al-Qaeda’s couriers and how they transport tapes to major media outlets (al-Jazeera, January 21). Audiotapes, videotapes and the internet are the major mass media tools of al-Qaeda and are used to tilt and blur the realities of the locations of al-Qaeda leaders. They are an effective means to threaten the U.S. and the West. Al-Qaeda’s videos are produced by the organization’s in-house production team, al-Sahab, identified by the al-Sahab logo that appears in the videos. It appears that al-Sahab consists of multiple individuals and is not centrally located. While the videos have improved in quality, at its most basic level the videographers require computer images, e-mail transmission, and a production expert who uses a computer to compile it together in broadcast quality.

After the tapes are produced, they make their way to a major media outlet. The previous route of the videotapes was from southern and eastern Afghanistan to South Waziristan, and then to Peshawar. The final destination used to be the al-Jazeera office in Islamabad. It became easy, however, for various intelligence agencies to track this route. In at least two instances—in 2003 and in 2004—the tape messenger was intercepted. In 2003, the carrier was of Central Asian origin and was captured by security agents while traveling through South Waziristan. The second incident occurred in late 2004 and the carrier was arrested near Dera Ismail Khan in southern Pakistan. Nevertheless, little information was gleaned from the messenger because the tape had already passed through more than a dozen different carriers. Through this method, the tapes are handed over in a manner so that the next carrier does not know the other carriers.

The amount of time that each carrier handles the tapes depends on the prevailing security conditions in that particular area. Carriers attempt to pass on the tapes as quickly as possible, which is usually in one or two days. If security is tight then it is passed on in quick succession in order to keep the tapes secure, otherwise each carrier may travel more than 100 kilometers. On a few occasions, the content of the tapes were electronically transmitted to their final destination through e-mail.

The carriers of the tapes are diehard local and Central Asian operatives. The carriers are always young, tough and experienced; the task of a carrier is a specialized job. Simple sympathizers are not usually carriers because if the carrier is arrested, he is tried under anti-terrorism laws, deterring those who are not completely committed to al-Qaeda’s cause.

For the last year, the tape route has been modified due to repeated successful interventions by Pakistani authorities and continuous surveillance of known transfer locations. Currently, tapes are dispatched to Herat, in the western province of Afghanistan, to coastal areas of Iran and then to the final destination. The tapes are generally made inside Afghanistan. Additionally, the Taliban is now also involved in producing tapes in a new campaign of media warfare. Taliban guerrillas are often accompanied by a videographer who films their attacks against Afghan or international security forces. These tapes are later used within the Taliban ranks to boost the morale of Taliban fighters and the participating mujahideen.