Osama bin Laden's top deputy, former Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, is taking questions from his friends and enemies alike on four al-Qaida-sanctioned jihadist Web sites. Providing a one-off advice column is just one way in which the international terrorist organization has adopted Web 2.0
Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's No. 2, is planning an "open interview" on a handful of Islamic Web sites. The international terror network's propaganda arm announced the unusual event in mid-December and questions are apparently going to be passed on to the terrorist leader on Jan. 16.
Anyone interested -- regardless of whether one is like-minded, a brother in arms, a member of the media or an organization -- can pitch questions to the Egyptian terrorist mastermind. The administrators of four known jihadist Web sites have been authorized to collect and forward the questions, "unedited," they pledge, and "regardless of whether they are in support of or are against" the terrorist organization. Though it gave no details of how al-Zawahiri will respond to the Q&A, al-Qaida's al-Sahab propaganda division did say that the doctor-turned-terrorist would respond "as quickly as possible."
Since the announcement, no other issue has been as hotly debated on the al-Qaida-sanctioned jihadist sites. Of course, it doesn't happen every day, either, that one is granted more or less direct access to an al-Qaida leader.
There's no doubt that this is a propagandistic act. And terror experts and analysts around the world agree that al-Zawahiri is probably seeking two things: to attract attention, especially in the international media, and to create the impression that his network is wired and uses the latest in communication technologies. As it builds its Web community, al-Qaida is apparently also looking for user-generated content.
Despite reports to the contrary, it's not the first time al-Qaida leaders have engaged in Web 2.0 activities. Three years ago, al-Qaida's Saudi Arabian wing called on supporters to send e-mails with proposals for terrorist attacks, which would later be reviewed by terror leaders and matched up with the people best suited to carry them out. The anonymous questions and suggestions were then openly answered by Saudi al-Qaida in ways that often sounded as mysterious as they did dangerous. "Yes, Abu so and so, continue with your project," one response read, "but avoid the place where the X has been marked." It's possible al-Zawahiri will provide similar answers, leaving people around the world scratching their heads wondering if he's just given a mandate to volunteer suicide bombers.
It's more likely, though, that the Q&A will reveal little about the Egyptian. Indeed, few will be holding their breath for any deep insights. "OK, it's true, we really are having money problems." An unlikely confession. Or: "No, we probably won't succeed in annihilating Tel Aviv." Ain't gonna see it. "Where am I now? The search for fissile material has been harder than expected." Doubt it. "Hm, Osama? Hm, I have no idea where he's hiding. The last time I talked to him he sounded seriously ill." Get real.
More interesting, perhaps, are the questions that have already been submitted to the sites. There are tons: On just one of the four authorized sites, the related postings fill up 53 printed pages with hundreds of questions that touch on myriad topics. This sampling of questions provides a fascinating insight into the community of al-Qaida fans: what drives them, what they don't know and what they are hearing. In order to ensure an accurate portrayal of the questions, we have selected them at random:
Will Islamic armies join in Palestine? Why aren't the mujahedeen in Saudi Arabia making any more statements? Is there a branch of al-Qaida in Kashmir? Have you ordered them to suspend operations? Are there plans for an action to liberate the prisoners in Cuba (editor's note: a reference to Guantánamo) and Saudi Arabia? Is Yemen suited for jihadist operations? And, if yes, why are we hearing that an order has been given that action should not be taken there? Why is it that you never mention the Muslims living in Syria? How is the morale of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan these days, especially the Arabs among them? Should women be allowed to carry out suicide missions? Is there a branch of al-Qaida in Palestine? What is your opinion of Tablighi Jamaat? (A Muslim missionary group that some experts consider to be a conduit to al-Qaida) How do you feel about the killing of innocents and wards (meaning Christians and Jews in Arab countries) in the context of attacks? Who is responsible for their deaths? Why don't you attack the Jews in Tel Aviv directly? What will the movement's priorities be in the next phase? Why is Saif al-Adel (al-Qaida's No. 3) currently in Iran, when Iran is killing our brothers? Has al-Qaida or the Taliban in Afghanistan taken any Western prisoners of war? If yes, then why haven't they been swapped for al-Qaida detainees who have been arrested? Why haven't we been seeing any attacks against Iran? Iran is, after all, fighting against the Sunnis. Who is the actual leader of the "Islamic State of Iraq"? (Al-Qaida in Iraq announced the creation of this "state" just over a year ago.)
Without trying to overanalyze these questions, three trends seem to prevail. For one thing, many jihad fans want to know what the terrorist situation in certain regions is. After all, the jihad project isn't as undifferentiated and global as some might think.
Second, there appears to be a need for the clarification of theological-moral questions. In other words, there appears to be a small clientele that takes al-Zawahiri seriously as a religious scholar. And lastly, it appears that within the cyber-jihadist community, there is a certain expectation that spectacular or at least symbolic terrorist attacks should take place.
Some critical questions have also been asked -- in most cases, ones about the legitimacy of killing innocent people. It's just another indication of the theory that al-Qaida risks losing supporters if it becomes too brutal or bloodthirsty.
What you won't find in a quick scan of the questions are any from Arab, Western or any other journalists. Apparently they don't hold much faith in al-Zawahari giving any honest answers. Still, it will be interesting to see how supporters respond to his Q&A.
This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon.