Al-Qaida's No. 2 leader holds online 'interview'
More than 900 entries were posted on a Web site for Ayman al -Zawahri
CAIRO, Egypt -- Judging by hundreds of questions submitted online to al-Qaida's No. 2 leader, it is clear the terror network's self-proclaimed supporters are as much in the dark about its operations and plans as Western analysts and intelligence agencies.
Among their concerns: Where will it strike next? Does it control small militant groups in the Mideast and Europe? Why hasn't it hit America again?
Al-Qaida's media arm, Al-Sahab, announced last month that Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, would take questions from the public in an "online interview." More than 900 entries, some with multiple questions, were posted on a militant Web site before the Jan. 16 deadline.
So far, al-Qaida hasn't given any answers. Al-Qaida said only that al-Zawahri would respond "as soon as possible," and the questions disappeared from the site after the cutoff date without any response.
Like many in the West, the questioners appear uncertain whether al-Qaida's central leadership directly controls the multiple, small militant groups around the Mideast and Europe that work in its name, or whether those groups operate on their own.
Others queries sought advice: Should followers be focusing their jihad, or holy war, against Arab regimes, or against Americans?
Some wanted to know when al-Qaida will be more active in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
One, allegedly a former Arab al-Qaida fighter in Iraq, complained about Iraqi fighters discriminating against non-Iraqi mujahedeen.
Journalists also were invited to send questions and a few of the entries were labeled with the names of European and Asian newspapers.
Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian security expert in Cairo, suggested some questions were probably submitted by intelligence agents looking for clues to al-Qaida's thinking, but there was no way to verify that.
The vast majority of questioners, identified only by their computer usernames, appeared to be supporters of al-Qaida or the jihadi cause, often expressing praise for "our beloved sheik" and "the lion of jihad, Sheik Osama."
Many appeared frustrated that al-Qaida is not doing more.
"When we will see the men of al-Qaida waging holy war in Palestine? Because frankly our situation has become very bad," wrote one, with the username "Seeking the Path." "As for al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia," he asked, "are there efforts to revive jihadi action there after the blows that hurt us?"
Another, signed "Osama the Lion," asked: "Why doesn't al-Qaida open a front in Egypt, where there are wide opportunities and fertile ground for drawing in mujahedeen?"
Another, called "Knight of Islam," asked, "We are awaiting a strike against American soil. Why has that not been done? Why are the Jews in the world not struck?"
In videos over the past years, al-Zawahri has repeatedly spoken of opening new fronts against all those lands -- but little has occurred. Saudi Arabia has waged a fierce crackdown that has killed or captured many in al-Qaida's branch there. In 2005, al-Zawahri announced the formation of a branch in his homeland, Egypt, but nothing has been heard of it, although Egypt has suffered terror attacks.
In his videos, al-Zawahri always depicts al-Qaida as moving steadily toward victory -- something none of the questioners directly challenged. But they seemed in need of reassurance, pressing for more specifics about al-Qaida's plans than al-Zawahri normally gives.
"I think [al-Qaida[']s leaders] were aware [that] ... everyone was no longer buying into the propaganda about how great they are," said Jeremy Binnie at Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center. "This was put forward as a propaganda exercise and to make it look like they are responding to these concerns."
It is impossible to confirm independently whether any of questioners are really active fighters. Nor is it possible to verify that the interview offer really came from al-Zawahri, although it was posted with the logo of Al-Sahab, which issues his videotapes.
One hot topic was Iran. Several asked why al-Qaida did not attack that mainly Shiite nation. They expressed concern over rumors of an understanding between al-Qaida and Iran. "One of the lies spread to fight al-Qaida is that al-Qaida is linked to Iran," one wrote. "They point to your failure to attack the Iranian regime."
Many others simply asked for advice on how and where to join jihad. One man said he is a 23-year-old living with his divorced mother.
"I want to travel to join jihad and I sought my mother's permission, but she would not give it to me," he said. "Can I go without her permission?"