The makers of combat video games have unwittingly become part of a global propaganda campaign by Islamic militants to exhort Muslim youths to take up arms against the United States, officials said on Thursday.
Tech-savvy militants from Al Qaeda and other groups have modified video war games so that U.S. troops play the role of bad guys in running gunfights against heavily armed Islamic radical heroes, Defense Department official and contractors told Congress.
The games appear on militant Web sites, where youths as young as 7 can play at being troop-killing urban guerrillas after registering with the site's sponsors.
"What we have seen is that any video game that comes out ... they'll modify it and change the game for their needs," said Dan Devlin, a Defense Department public diplomacy specialist.
Devlin spoke before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, at which contractors from San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp., or SAIC, gave lawmakers a presentation that focused on Iraq as an engine for Islamic militant propaganda from Indonesia to Turkey and Chechnya.
SAIC has a $7 million Defense Department contract to monitor 1,500 militant Web sites that provide Al Qaeda and other militant organizations with a main venue for communications, fund-raising, recruitment and training.
The sites use a variety of emotionally charged content, from images of real U.S. soldiers being hit by snipers in Iraq to video-recordings of American televangelists including Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell making disparaging remarks about Islam.
'INFIDELS CAME TO MY VILLAGE'
The underlying propaganda message, officials say, is that the United States is waging a crusade against Islam in order to control Middle Eastern oil, and that Muslims should fight to protect Islam from humiliation.
Jeff Brown, a spokesman for Electronic Arts, said enthusiasts often write software modifications, known as "mods," to video games.
"Millions of people create mods on games around the world," he said. "We have absolutely no control over them. It's like drawing a mustache on a picture."
"Battlefield 2" ordinarily shows U.S. troops engaging forces from China or a united Middle East coalition. But in a modified video trailer posted on Islamic Web sites and shown to lawmakers, the game depicts a man in Arab headdress carrying an automatic weapon into combat with U.S. invaders.
"I was just a boy when the infidels came to my village in Blackhawk helicopters," a narrator's voice said as the screen flashed between images of street-level gunfights, explosions and helicopter assaults.
Then came a recording of President George W. Bush's Sept. 16, 2001, statement: "This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while."
It was edited to repeat the word "crusade," which Muslims often define as an attack on Islam by Christianity.
Two militant videos were also pointed out to lawmakers, including one called "Lion of Falluja," the city in Iraqi's violent Anbar province that has long been seen as a symbol of militant resistance.
Critics of the U.S. video game industry have long blamed the products for violence among American teenagers in civilian society, including high-profile shootings at public schools.
SAIC executive Eric Michael said researchers suspect Islamic militants are using video games to train recruits and condition youth to attack U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq.