LONDON – Anyone with an Internet connection can watch videos of bombings and sniper attacks against U.S. forces — shot and edited by Islamic militants and broadcast on YouTube, the world's largest video-sharing Web site.
With the global spread of high-speed Internet connections and the relative anonymity afforded by the world's biggest and busiest sites, extremists have found a new theater to display violence and anti-American propaganda.
On Friday, prosecutors in Britain charged six suspects in an alleged plot to kidnap and kill a British soldier — an act that police allege was intended to be recorded and posted on the Internet.
Parviz Khan, 36, is accused of plotting to carry out the alleged abduction while four other men are accused of acting as his accomplices, prosecutor Patrick Stevens told the court hearing. A sixth man is set to appear in court on Saturday.
Until recently, videos shot by terrorist groups were posted predominantly on specialist Internet forums, which often only those knowing what to look for could find. But more are turning to mainstream sites like YouTube, which draw millions of visitors around the world each day.
"They can always bring down a video, but it's very easy to create a new one. It's like an uphill treadmill for YouTube," said Sajjan Gohel, director of international security at the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation, a counterterrorism think tank.
Jeremy Curtin, a U.S. State Department official responsible for monitoring Internet propaganda, said authorities were aware of the footage on sites like YouTube but had not made any real headway in tackling the problem.
"It's new to everybody, we are trying to find out how best to engage with Internet companies," he said.
European intelligence agencies, while acknowledging existence of the videos, also say there is little they can do to stop them from popping up.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff, Thomas de Maiziere, who oversees intelligence agencies, said authorities are struggling to glean information from cyberspace.
"Trying to uncover Internet meetings of terrorists is like searching for a needle in a haystack," he told the online magazine Netzeitung. "The security agencies have their hands full trying to keep pace and get into these chat rooms."
That poses problems for companies like YouTube, which features a range of weird and wonderful videos directly uploaded onto the Web site by users around the world. The most popular videos now include a panda sneezing, a song by an "American Idol" entrant and a music video by hip hop star Nas.
Although scores of Web sites let anyone post and share video clips for free, YouTube is the most popular, receiving some 65,000 new clips a day. Users collectively watch more than 100 million videos on YouTube daily.
YouTube — owned by Mountain View, Calif.-based Google Inc. (GOOG) — says it reserves the right to remove videos that users flag as unsuitable.
"YouTube has clear terms and conditions which prohibit, amongst other things, hateful content," the company said in a statement. "Our community has been highly effective in policing the site, and YouTube removes videos if our community flags them as inappropriate."
But like other video-sharing sites, YouTube generally takes down video only after receiving a complaint. Someone else can easily repost the video under a different account, and it would remain available until YouTube receives a complaint on that as well.
It's similar to the challenges YouTube and other sites face trying to keep copyrighted clips from appearing as technology makes sharing video among everyday users increasingly easy.
A recent search brings YouTube users to a video carrying the logo of the Mujahedeen Shura Council, an umbrella organization of Sunni insurgent groups including Al Qaeda in Iraq.
In the video, a man stands in a deserted field beside a blue car. Speaking in Arabic, he gives what he describes as his final testament before a suicide car bombing that he claims will target a U.S. convoy in Tal Afar, 260 miles northwest of Baghdad.
"I ask God this day to enable us to kill the infidels and to grant us the highest martyrdom," he says. "I dedicate a special greeting to sheik Abu Abdulla (Osama bin Laden), Sheik Ayman (al-Zawahri) and our Sheik Abu Musab al-Zarqawi."
Moments later, the footage shows what appears to be a checkpoint, followed by an explosion. The man shooting the film screams, "Allahu akbar. (God is great.)"
In another video entitled "Qanaas Baghdad Episode II," a man purporting to be an Iraqi sniper offers tips on attacking U.S. soldiers. As music plays, a group of soldiers stand at the side of a bustling, dusty street. The sniper locks on to one of them. A second later, the soldier falls to the ground.
The site had recorded 30,000 hits for the video since it was posted in November, according to YouTube's view counter on the site. The video was removed from the site Thursday, but other videos showing sniper shootings of American troops were still available.
Such videos often touch off heated exchanges by viewers, such as one between users Sameerah and Helmycito.
"I follow Islam and what the Koran (sic) says. I dont (sic) follow these stupid idiots who think they are Muslim and kill innocent people which is against Islam," user Sameerah wrote.
"Do u call US soldires (sic) innocent people? why r they there? Kill them as they kill our bros and sisters out there," Helmycito replied.
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the United States accused the Arabic television network Al-Jazeera of giving a propaganda platform to Al Qaeda for broadcasting videos in which bin Laden justified the attacks. The failure of American counterterrorism officials to now move against U.S. companies also displaying martyrdom videos shows a lack of fairness, said Ahmed Sheikh, Al-Jazeera's editor in chief.
"It's really hypocritical and unbelievable," Sheikh said.
Experts believe advances in Internet technology will lead to a surge in well produced, homemade extremist videos.
"It's practically impossible to stop these videos," said the State Department's Curtin. "You can close one channel and another one will open up."
Mark Rasch, a former Justice Department computer crimes prosecutor, said the videos at YouTube and other sites are evidence of "a new front in the propaganda battle."
"It's here to stay," Rasch said. "It's going to get worse — we are going to see real-time executions with higher production values."