KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait – When an Arabic-language Web site carried a photo this week of a toy soldier with a gun to its head, many people were briefly tricked into believing a U.S. infantryman was in Iraqi rebel hands.
On such insurgency-friendly Web sites, videos of actual beheadings and guerrilla proclamations have shared the limelight with occasional hoaxes and bogus attack claims.
The ansarnet.ws site, the Internet bulletin board that carried the toy soldier hoax (search), also features posts from Iraqi rebels and sympathizers from places like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and even Bosnia.
Such sites have proven crucial as broadcast outlets for Iraqi guerrillas, who otherwise have little contact with journalists and cannot challenge the information dominance of their opponents.
Governments have tried and mostly failed to keep such sites — and the Iraqi guerrillas — offline. When they succeed, it's only temporary.
The Web sites pop up on new computer hosts. Individual postings and entire sites are replicated elsewhere by sympathizers. And forcing a site offline can prompt a backlash of revenge attacks on government Web sites.
"It's like putting your fingers in the dike," said Bruce Hoffman, a counterinsurgency expert at the Rand Corp. (search) in Washington, D.C. "There was a concerted effort to take down the Al Qaeda (search) site a few years ago and it kept popping up. The Israelis tried to do it with the Hezbollah site, and it prompted a war of escalation. The result was a live-and-let-live mentality."
Rebel Web sites also happen to be primary sources of intelligence for the troops pressing the counterinsurgency war: the U.S. military, the CIA and others grappling to understand Iraq's shadowy guerrilla bands.
"They're useful for everybody," said Jeremy Binnie, an analyst specializing in Iraq for the London defense consultancy Jane's. "The insurgents get to publicize their side of the story and make their claims, try to attract support and show their strength. And from the intelligence point of view, it's a good way to find out how these guys are thinking."
But these sites are not always credible, and reporters cite them at their own risk, as they discovered again this week.
On Wednesday, a visitor to ansarnet.ws posted a grainy photograph purporting to show a kidnapped U.S. soldier dressed in desert fatigues, wearing a vest and knee pads. A gun was held to the soldier's head. But the photo turned out to depict "Cody," a U.S.-made toy action figure.
The accompanying statement was posted in the name of a group that has claimed previous kidnappings, the Mujahedeen Brigades. The Arabic text, however, contained several misspellings and repetitions.
Analysts asked about potential perpetrators of the hoax said it was possible the scam was a so-called "black" information operation by the U.S. government or an ally intended to hurt the credibility of ansarnet.ws.
"There might be some motivation to detract credibility from these Web sites," Binnie said. "But there are already so many outlandish claims on them that they already lack credibility to a certain extent."
A U.S. military counterinsurgency expert who monitors the sites said guerrilla claims may be bogus or inflated, but the sites still carry useful nuggets of information.
"Some of their claims are a little outlandish," said the expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If they say an action took place, I can corroborate that with facts. But then they have claims saying 50 coalition soldiers were killed. We know that's not likely. They tend to exaggerate their infliction of casualties."
After reading a U.S. press release about soldiers killed in a guerrilla bombing, Binnie often searches the Internet for rebel video clips or statements about the attack.
"You can download all the videos and see the war from the insurgents' point of view," Binnie said. "Generally you have to try and balance the two sides."
On bases across Iraq, U.S. military intelligence analysts and Arabic linguists pore over Web postings for clues to the guerrillas' morale, their noms-de-guerre and details of "martyred" suicide bombers and other rebels killed in action.
"They don't give information on upcoming operations or on their cell structure, but the Web sites enable you to build a picture of the various groups and what motivates them — nationalism or religion," the U.S. military expert said.
Ansarnet.ws site's operators say on their home page that they do not endorse incitements to violence or terrorism, but that has obviously not stopped postings by Iraqi insurgents and their sympathizers.
And because anyone with a few dollars can create such a Web site — and anyone with Arabic skills can post a message for free on a bulletin board sites line ansarnet.ws — hoaxes occasionally find their way into print.
In September, two Arabic Web sites posted claims that a pair of Italian aid workers taken hostage in Baghdad had been executed. A week later, after various news agencies reported the claims of their deaths, the two women were released unharmed.
In January, two Iraqi insurgent groups went online with competing claims of responsibility for the car bombing of a police station that killed six and injured 12 in the northern city of Tikrit.
The largely Kurdish group Ansar al-Sunna claimed it had placed an explosives-laden car near the police headquarters, then blew it up.
Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search), posted a competing claim saying one of its members had carried out a "martyrdom attack" or suicide bombing.
A reporter in Tikrit learned from police that there was no suicide bomber in the car. Rather, the explosives-laden car had been parked outside the station for hours, and police had asked the U.S. Army to check it before it exploded.