The latest public message released by No. 2 Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri may signal a change in public-relations moves by the terrorist group in the face of growing doubt about its tactics among Muslim supporters, experts say.
Reuters reports that in an audiotape released Wednesday, Mr. Zawahiri responded to unusually pointed questions submitted earlier by users of Al Qaeda-linked online forums. The fact that Zawahiri answered the forum posts, which challenged Al Qaeda's policies on attacks against innocents, the United Nations, and Iran, suggests that dissent among its supporters may be forcing Al Qaeda to change tactics, according to an anonymous US counterintelligence official.
The US official, interpreting the questions and the answers given by Ayman al-Zawahiri, said: "They've been taken to the online woodshed on a number of things."
"Some of the questioners are raising tough issues, such as the legitimacy of murdering innocent civilians and the effectiveness of Al Qaeda's overall strategy," the US official, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters. "Since Al Qaeda chose what questions to address, it suggests Al Qaeda's tactics have raised serious concerns – even among potential sympathizers – and that the group's leadership recognizes that it has some serious explaining to do," he said.
One terrorism expert who studies jihadist websites says the audio message may signal a shift in Al Qaeda's media operations. The expert cites the fact that both Zawahiri's message and top Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's last address were both released without video. The expert also says the recent files uploaded to jihadist websites have appeared in Arabic, rather than their usual format in English.
"We haven't killed the innocents, not in Baghdad, nor in Morocco, nor in Algeria, nor anywhere else," he said, according to the transcript, in response to the question: "Excuse me, Zawahiri, but who is it who is killing with Your Excellency's blessing the innocents in Baghdad, Morocco, and Algeria?"
"If there is any innocent who was killed in the Mujahideen's operations, then it was either an unintentional error or out of necessity," Zawahiri added, saying that it was Al Qaeda's enemies who killed the innocent, "intentionally [taking] up positions in the midst of the Muslims for them to be human shields for him."
Agence France-Presse reports that Zawahiri said that 18 United Nations staff members who were killed in December suicide attacks in Morocco were not innocents, however, and accused the UN of double standards.
[The UN] "is the one which considers Chechnya an inseparable part of Crusader Russia, and considers Ceuta and Melilla inseparable parts of Crusader Spain," he said, referring to two Spanish enclaves in North Africa claimed by Morocco. The UN had agreed to the presence of outsiders, dubbed "Crusaders" by Zawahiri, in Afghanistan and Iraq and had approved the separation of East Timor from Indonesia. Yet "it doesn't recognize that right for Chechnya, nor for all the Muslim Caucasus, nor for Kashmir, nor for Ceuta and Melilla, nor for Bosnia", he said.
Noah Shachtman, a national security blogger for Wired.com, writes that Zawahiri addressed Al Qaeda's hostile stance toward Iran, saying that a protracted struggle between Iran and the US would be "in the interest" of the terrorist group, and that Al Qaeda would strike against the winning party.
Al Qaeda, a Sunni organization, has long regarded Iran, a Shiite nation, as an enemy. Mr. Shachtman emphasizes a particular passage of the Zawahiri transcript (translated by IntelCenter):
The dispute between America and Iran is a real dispute based on the struggle over areas of influence, and the possibility of America striking Iran is a real possibility. As for what might happen in the region, I can only say that major changes will occur in the region, and the situation will be in the interest of the Mujahideen if the war saps both of them.
If, however, one of them emerges victorious, its influence will intensify and fierce battles will begin between it and the Mujahideen, except that the Jihadi awakening currently under way and the degeneration state of affairs of the invaders in Afghanistan and Iraq will make it impossible for Iran or America to become the sole decision-maker in the region.
AP notes that the questioners "appeared to be as much in the dark about the terror network's operations and intentions as Western analysts and intelligence agencies," and "appeared uncertain whether Al Qaeda's central leadership directly controls the multiple, small militant groups around the Middle East that work in its name, or whether those groups operate on their own."