For a wanted terrorist, al Qaeda's powerful deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, maintains an unusually high media profile, regularly releasing lengthy audio statements that are scrutinized carefully by his followers, as well as counterterrorism experts.
Last December, Zawahiri invited supporters of the terrorist group to log on to several password-protected jihadist online forums and send questions to him, and his first set of answers presented another opportunity to analyze his words.
But he also unwittingly provided a glimpse into some of the issues that al Qaeda supporters and sympathizers are thinking about these days. Experts at the U.S. Defense Department managed to acquire 1,868 separate questions posed to Zawahiri on two secure jihadist websites.
One of the prime topics of concern among jihadists is whether al Qaeda has been unwilling or simply unable to attack in places like Iran, Egypt, Palestine, or even Israel, according to a new report by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point titled "The Power of Truth? Questions for Ayman al-Zawahiri."
In particular, the Iran question is a thorny one for Zawahiri, given that al Qaeda, a Sunni group, has been conspicuously quiet about Shiite-dominated Iran. One post from someone using the name Abu Abd Al Razaq reads, "Where is Iran in your media campaign? We did not hear any honest release out of you. Why?"
But Zawahiri largely ignores this question, even though many queries asked specifically about reports that top al Qaeda figures have been in Iranian custody for several years.
"In our opinion, Zawahiri's responses—and failures to respond—to many of these were highly selective, very evasive on most contentious issues and not overly impressive," says Joseph Felter, the director of the Combating Terrorism Center. "In fact, he may have tipped his hand and showed his arrogance and intellectual weakness."
Another hot topic was Zawahiri's mixed message about the Palestinian extremist group Hamas. While he has applauded the group's attacks on Israel, he has over the past year grown very critical of Hamas's decision to participate in elections and govern under a secular constitution.
"The jihadist community's backlash against Zawahiri on the Hamas and the Palestinian issues illustrates how poorly al Qaeda deals with nuanced problems," the CTC report says. "Zawahiri probably helped himself on the matter by clearly explaining his position. Nonetheless, Zawahiri's answer will be unsatisfactory for jihadists on both sides of the issue , those that want to see al Qaeda push Hamas to challenge Israel more violently and those that see Hamas as the best defender of Palestinians."
Several questions concerned al Qaeda's record of killing Muslim civilians. One participant wrote, "Many people in the Islamic world...complain that al Qaeda organization was behind many operations that targeted innocent civilians and Muslims within the Islamic nations and many Muslims and children died as a result of such operations. Do you think not that you are shedding prohibited and innocent's blood?"
Zawahiri did respond to this, asserting that al Qaeda does not target Muslim civilians, adding that if Muslims were killed in any attacks, it was either accidental or because non-Muslims were surrounding themselves with Muslims.
Nearly a fifth of the questions addressed the status and dynamics of al Qaeda's top leadership. But this was another topic that Zawahiri ignored almost completely in his lengthy response, posted online in early April. He did suggest, however, that he would offer additional responses in a future dispatch.
More broadly, the CTC report concludes that Zawahiri seems to fear that discontent is rising among al Qaeda's supporters. "Zawahiri's initial decision to hold a virtual press conference demonstrated that he feels the need to resolve concerns among jihadis about the future of the movement," the report says. "Zawahiri's answers revealed deep-seated worries about the controversies created by al Qaeda's killing of innocents."