By Adam Levine
It appears that al Qaeda's English-language outreach efforts have nearly disappeared.
IntelCenter's Ben Venzke, who keeps stats on jihadi videos, notes that the media arm of al Qaeda central, As-Sahab, has not released an English-language video since 2010.
English-language versions of al Qaeda videos started around 2000 and were either subtitled, voiceovers or transcripts, according to Venzke. The person behind most of these is believed to be American Adam Gadahn.
"It was a key way for al Qaeda to deliver its message to both a Western audience and a larger percentage of its non-Arabic-speaking followers," Venzke observes.
But in 2011 and thus far in 2012, there have been no English-releases, according to Venzke. That is a significant drop off from 11 in 2009 (which represented 12% of the terror group's releases that year) and nine in 2009 (8% of that year's releases), according to Venzke's data.
The drop coincides with a slower pace of releases overall. Al Qaeda's media arm put out 109 videos in 2010, but less than half of that output last year, according to IntelCenter data. The pace does seem to be picking up a bit with 21 so far this year.
Arabic is the most prominent language for al Qaeda releases and Venzke notes that while English versions have disappeared, editions in Urdu, which is spoken in Pakistan, are far more prominent.
CNN's own records note an Adam Gadahn video released in June of 2011 in which Gadahn, who is on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list, called on Muslim Americans to buy weapons from gun shows and carry out lone-wolf attacks.
But Venzke said he didn't count that one because while Gadahn appears in the video and speaks in English, As-Sahab did not release the entire video with English subtitles or voiceovers.
"It's more incidental that Gadahn is speaking English there then a focused decision to make it available in English," Venzke explains.
Still, even with that quasi-English video in 2011, the drop-off is notable and comes at a time when U.S. intelligence officials are describing al Qaeda central as diminished and on the run. Its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has managed to get out some videos, including a recent one urging opposition to Syrian President Basher al-Assad. Still, the absence of Gadahn is significant.
Venzke posits a few possible reasons for the sudden disappearance.
"The reasons for this are likely representative of a shift in messaging focus as well as a resource management decision to allow the proliferation of support groups producing translations to shoulder more of the burden," he wrote. "It also could point to a loss of capability or operational difficulties facing the elements of the organization that had been performing the work from 2000 to 2010."
The drop off is "significant," observed terror analyst Peter Bergen, who has published numerous books on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. The prominence of Urdu videos suggests al Qaeda is narrowing its focus, says Bergen.
"I guess that is a good thing for the West and a bad thing for Pakistan," Bergen said in an interview. But he doubted al Qaeda has completely given up on reaching out to the West.
Another reason for the change could be the focus of Zawahiri on trying to tap into the Arab unrest. Bergen observed that to date Zawahiri's efforts have not resonated.
Zawahiri, said CNN terror analyst Paul Cruickshank, has always been more focused on the Arab world, and the goal of creating an Islamist theocratic order there, than his predecessor Osama bin Laden.
Zawahiri "has spied an opportunity in the political turmoil sweeping several Arab countries, and appears to have made building up al Qaeda's operations and restoring its popularity in the region his central priority," Cruickshank said. "The upshot of this is the large majority of his statements in the last year have responded to the events of the Arab Spring and have targeted at an Arab audience."
Cruickshank said that one video in June 2011 is not insignificant as its message was clearly focused at Westerners.
Al Qaeda's media arm may also not be producing as much English-language content because it doesn't need to, noted Cruickshank.
"The producers of As-Sahab videos have presumably become aware that much of its content is translated or subtitled into English and other Western languages by sympathizers living in the West, so some of the reduction in directly produced English language videos may be a simple question of outsourcing," Cruickshank noted.
The decline coincides with another al Qaeda group's loss of key English-speaking capabilities. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen, which American counterterrorism officials consider the most active terror cell plotting against the United States, lost its two biggest English-speaking assets in one day. American-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whose English videos were popular in jihadi forums and whose outreach allegedly helped inspire, among others, alleged Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, was killed in a 2011 U.S. strike. In a lucky stroke for the U.S., the strike also killed Samir Khan, who published the English-langue Inspire magazine.
But at the end of the last year, a mysterious English speaker emerged in an AQAP video honoring al-Awlaki. In the December video, a man identified as Abu Yazeed, appears twice in the video. He is in shadow, peering off camera, and is wearing glasses and has a full beard. He is wearing what appears to be a black-and-white turban. He is identified as "Brother: Abu Yazeed."
In the video, Abu Yazeed speaks with an accent. He criticizes the U.S. for targeting Muslims as it fights terrorism. But it is unclear if Yazeed will continue to have a role. He has not appeared in a video since then and U.S. intelligence officials dismissed him a not being significant recruiting force.
Also there is the potential, with the recent announced "merger" of al Qaeda with Somalia's Al-Shabaab that more English-speaking videos could be on the horizon. There are a number of Somali-Americans who are believed to be running with the terror group.
Some U.S. officials believe that Alabama native Omar Hamammi, who has risen up the military hierarchy of the militant al-Shabaab, is making a play to fill the shoes of al-Awlaki as the al Qaeda network's most influential English voice, said Paul Cruickshank.
Hamammi appeared in several Al-Shabaab videos in 2011 and it is possible that now that the group is formally part of al Qaeda, he will become an even more prominent spokesman for al Qaeda's cause, said Cruickshank.
While Hammami does not have al-Awlaki's religious credentials, his fighting exploits give him significant credibility with pro-al Qaeda radicals in the Western world, Cruickshank explained.