PARIS, Feb. 29, 2008 — It’s been well over a month since al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, solicited online questions from his vast network of cyber jihadists across the world, and if the faithful are getting itchy awaiting a response, they aren’t complaining.
On Dec. 16, 2007, for the first time in al Qaeda’s history, a message appeared on militant Islamist sites, inviting “individuals, institutions and media organizations? to submit queries to Zawahiri via the Web. The deadline for submissions was within the next 30 days, the message said, after which, al Qaeda’s top strategist himself would reply “as soon as possible.?
The message was posted as a graphic featuring an image of the Egyptian doctor in a gilt frame complete with the distinctive insignia of as-Sahab (The Cloud – al Qaeda’s principal media production group). It also had links to four password-protected jihadist sites, where readers could post their questions. (Read more about as-Sahab and al-Qaeda’s online media strategy.)
Shortly after the announcement, cyber security experts speculated the response would arrive in a video format, possibly two weeks after the Jan. 16 cutoff deadline.
On Feb. 27, Zawahiri released a video message, his first in 2008. But for the faithful hoping for responses to their questions, the video was a disappointment. It featured instead a eulogy to Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior al Qaeda figure killed in a Jan. 28 missile strike in the Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan.
Cyber security experts say there has been some chatter on militant Islamist sites about the much-awaited response. “There have been some questions in recent days about when will the response come,? said Adam Raisman, of SITE, a US-based institute that monitors jihadist sites. “But there were quick responses saying the mujahideen cannot be rushed, that the answers will come when they are ready.?
Clearing the fog on vexing jihadist issues
Zawahiri’s open online invitation created a stir in jihadist circles. Within days, questions appeared on the four sites from jihadists around the world, on a wide variety of topics. By the end of the 30-day submission period, Raisman estimates there were more than 2,000 questions posted on the four sites.
Typical questions included inquiries about al Qaeda’s official links to various local Islamist organizations, especially Fatah al-Islam, a militant group that seized control of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon for three months until they were flushed out by the Lebanese Army in September 2007.
We have not heard from you, our Sheikh. Your reaction to what happened to our brothers in Fatah Al-Islam?? asked a respondent in Arabic in a query tracked by SITE. “And is there any communication and coordination between you and them??
While most of the questions tracked by SITE were in Arabic, there were some in English, apparently from Muslims in Europe. “Can you advise the Muslims in the West on how to implement and show their al-Walaa’ wal Baraa’ah [literally, devotion to the great figures of Islam] and give some practical examples?? asked a respondent.
Using often innovative pseudonyms, many respondents wanted Zawahiri to clear the fog on topics vexing jihadist circles such as the controversy surrounding Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, purported head of the Islamic State of Iraq, one of the al Qaeda groups operating in Iraq. While the Iraqi Interior Ministry has, in the past, claimed to have captured and killed al-Baghdadi, US military commanders have cast doubt on his existence, suggesting that al-Baghdadi is a fictional character created to lend an Iraqi face to an insurgency in fact run by jihadists from outside Iraq.
Questions have ranged from the relatively malevolent “Don’t you think that killing one Crusader in his country is much more effective than killing 100 Crusaders in the Muslim countries?” to the relatively benign, “Do you meet Sheikh Osama bin Laden and how is his health?”