CAIRO, Egypt, (AP) – Sympathizers submitted hundreds of questions to al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahri’s “on-line interview” before a recent deadline. Among them: Why hasn’t al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. again, why isn’t it attacking the Israelis and when will it be more active in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria?
So far, there have been no answers.
Al-Qaeda’s media arm, Al-Sahab, announced in December that al-Zawahri would take questions from the public posted on Islamic militant Web sites and would respond “as soon as possible.”
More than 900 entries — many with multiple questions — were posted on the main Islamist Web site until the cutoff date of Jan. 16. After the deadline, the questions disappeared from that site and no answers have yet appeared.
One thing is clear from the questions: Self-proclaimed al-Qaeda supporters are as much in the dark about the terror network’s operations and intentions as Western analysts and intelligence agencies.
Some of those posting questions sound worried: Does al-Qaeda have a long-term strategy?
One, allegedly a former Arab al-Qaeda fighter in Iraq, complained about Iraqi fighters discriminating against non-Iraqi mujahedeen.
Others wanted advice: Should followers be focusing their jihad, or holy war, against Arab regimes, or against Americans?
Like many in the West, the questioners appear uncertain whether al-Qaeda’s central leadership directly controls the multiple, small militant groups around the Mideast that work in its name, or whether those groups operate on their own.
Journalists also were invited to send questions and a few of the entries are labeled with the names of European and Asian newspapers. Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian security expert in Cairo, also suggested some questions were probably submitted by intelligence agents looking for clues to al-Qaeda’s thinking, but there was no way to verify that.
The vast majority of questioners, identified only by their computer usernames, appear to be supporters of al-Qaeda or the jihadi cause, often expressing praise for “our beloved sheik” and “the lion of jihad, Sheik Osama.”
Many appear frustrated that al-Qaeda is not doing more.
“When we will see the men of al-Qaeda waging holy war in Palestine? Because frankly our situation has become very bad,” writes one, with the username “Seeking the Path.” “As for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia,” he asks, “are there efforts to revive jihadi action there after the blows that hurt us?”
Another, signed “Osama the Lion,” asks: “Why doesn’t al-Qaeda open a front in Egypt, where there are wide opportunities and fertile ground for drawing in mujahedeen?”
Another, called “Knight of Islam,” asks, “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-Qaeda’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-Qaeda as moving steadily toward victory — something none of the questioners directly challenges. But they seem in need of reassurance, pressing for more specifics about al-Qaeda’s plans than al-Zawahri normally gives.
“I think they (al-Qaeda’s leaders) were aware (that) … everyone was no longer buying into the propaganda about how great they are,” said Jeremy Binnie of 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.”
A few who write in claim to be active fighters in militant groups. One, with the username “Phenixshadow,” says he is a member of the al-Qaeda branch in North Africa that has been blamed for attacks in Algeria.
“What do you expect from us? Should we follow the instruction of the mother organization to target the ‘far enemy’ — the Zionist-Crusader (America) — or do we focus our efforts on the apostate regime (Algeria)? Or do you advise a middle path of striking both enemies?” he asks.
Another, signed “Alfirati60,” says he is a Syrian who joined al-Qaeda in Iraq before its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006. The writer complains bitterly about al-Qaeda’s decision to form an umbrella group with other Iraqi insurgents known as “The Islamic State of Iraq.”
“Things got worse after the organization joined the Islamic State, when Iraqis took over all the issues,” he writes. The Iraqis care “only about liberating Iraq not about establishing God’s law,” an apparent reference to the al-Qaeda goal of a single Islamic state.
“Indeed, they neglected many of the (non-Iraqi) brothers since they care only about the safety of Iraqis and Iraq.”
“So I ask you, our sheik, is this just?” he writes. “There are many, many violations of Sharia Islamic law that those (Iraqis) who join the Islamic State commit, like failing to kill spies or apostates” — those who work with Americans — “because they are Iraqis.”
He writes that he left Iraq and returned to “Sham,” the old Arabic name for Syria and Lebanon. “I’m sorry to go on and on, our sheik, but you should be informed of what’s going on” in Iraq, he says. “We want to act in the Sham, and we are ready to do so. We lack only the material and moral support from you.”
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.
But the questions focus on the same issues that Western terrorism experts have long debated, including how much direct support and command al-Zahwari and bin Laden give to militants in Arab countries and Europe.
“We hear a lot about the non-centralization of al-Qaeda,” one supporter writes. “Is the loss of direct control by al-Qaeda’s leadership over the jihadi cells harmful to al-Qaeda? … Does al-Qaeda intend to try to reassert its control?”
Others want to make sure al-Qaeda has a long-term strategy.
“Does it just go from event to event as some claim?” asks “Raji al-Quboul.” “Do you have a body that studies events and reviews them to correct mistakes and assess them?”
Many, of course, ask about the health of bin Laden, who rarely appears on video.
Another hot topic is Iran. Several ask why al-Qaeda does not attack the mainly Shiite nation. They express concern over rumors of an understanding between al-Qaeda and Iran. “One of the lies spread to fight al-Qaeda is that al-Qaeda is linked to Iran,” one writes. “They point to your failure to attack the Iranian regime.”
Many others simply ask for advice on how and where to join jihad. One man says 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 says. “Can I go without her permission?”