Behold the latest phase in Al Qaeda's media strategy. The shadowy terror network is offering up Ayman al-Zawahiri, to any journalists with questions for its No. 2 man. The invitation, issued by the group's media arm, As-Sahaab (The Cloud), came at the end of a 90-minute video message from Zawahiri, posted on one of the group's various militant Web pages.
In the statement, released Dec. 16, Zawahiri invites "individuals, agencies and all media" to submit written questions via one of As-Sahaab's Web forums. He calls upon the "brothers" who supervise the site "to collect the questions and transmit them without alteration, whether it is coming from someone who agrees or disagrees."
This is the first time Al Qaeda has made a formal call to journalists, although it will not be the first time the radical Islamic group has granted interviews to Western media. Counterterrorism experts believe that the posting is genuine and that it is part of Al Qaeda's evolving tactics to use the Web as part of its propaganda arsenal. "This is a continuation of the efforts by Al Qaeda's senior leadership to push themselves forward in the public viewpoint," says Maj. Reid Sawyer, editor of "Terrorism and Counterterrorism" and a lecturer of terrorism studies at Columbia University.
Recent messages from both Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri have specifically called on Americans to embrace Islam and turn against the governments they deem to be enemies of Islam. Counterterrorism analysts say the offer of an online exchange with Zawahiri is part of its broader emphasis on connecting with new audiences. "While Al Qaeda has its own media institutions, it well understands that Western audiences don't necessarily tune into those sources of information," says Sawyer. "Because of that, this allows them to reach Western audiences and it gives them some degree of legitimacy in terms of who the interviews are conducted with."
From Hizbullah to Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorist groups have commonly embraced the newest forms of communications technology to boost their access to potential recruits and spread their message to the largest possible constituency. In October 2005, Al Qaeda even used one of its Web sites to post a help-wanted ad for a job as a communications specialist. The job vacancy called for someone with exceptional English and Arabic skills able to collect and disseminate news on Iraq, including audio and video clips.
The strategy guiding jihadist Internet use was demonstrated when Al Qaeda's Saudi Arabian network, Muaskar al-Battar (Camp of the Sword), launched its Web site in January 2004. Its introductory message read: "In order to join the greatest training camps, you don't have to travel to other lands. Alone, in your home or with a group of your brothers, you too can begin to execute the training program. You can all join the Al-Battar Training Camps." Jarret Brachman, a former CIA analyst now in the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point describes this as playing to the YouTube generation. "It completely fits Al Qaeda's communications strategy over the past two years, which is how to get people more invested in the movement."
Experts like Brachman say that the group's media blitz has been effective in drawing new recruits to the jihadi cause. Nonetheless, he is somewhat skeptical about whether Zawahiri--one of the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks--will engage in a genuine online exchange or whether he will just answer planted questions from Al Qaeda propagandists. "If they do go with real questions, they'll definitely be very selective about which ones they answer," he says.
Rita Katz, director of the SITE Institute for terrorism analysis, believes, however, that Al Qaeda is making a real effort to reach journalists. "This will be an authentic interview," she says. "If anything, I think there will be such a huge volume of questions [that] I don't think Zawahiri will be able to answer all of them."