In December, Ayman al-Zawahiri, considered second only to Osama bin Laden in al-Qaida's ranks, invited fellow jihadists to pose questions to him on the Internet. Last month, Zawahiri started answering.
There is no way of really knowing who Zawahiri's questioners are — fellow jihadists, journalists, intelligence agents? But some of their questions reflect attitudes as brutal as Zawahiri's.
The exchanges provided West Point analyst Brian Fishman with some clues about al-Qaida's concerns.
"This was Zawahiri's way of reaching out and sort of trying to demonstrate that he's a man of the people, by taking direct questions. ... This is the first time one of al-Qaida's senior leaders has done something to reach out to what you might refer to as the jihadist grassroots," Fishman says.
West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, which has been examining Zawahiri's answers, has published part of its analysis and will release another report in the next couple of weeks.
The questions Zawahiri chose to address include this one:
Excuse me, Mr. Zawahiri, but who is it who is killing — with your excellency's blessing — the innocents in Baghdad, Morocco and Algeria? Do you consider the killing of women and children to be jihad? ... Why have you — to this day — not carried out any strike in Israel? Or is it easier to kill Muslims in the markets?
The question of jihadists murdering fellow Muslims is critical for al-Qaida because that technique has wound up undermining or destroying jihadist movements many times in the past, Fishman says. "The senior leadership of al-Qaida has generally been more careful about the killing of Muslim innocents than some of its agents on the ground, whether in Algeria or in Iraq," he says.
In his answer to the question, Zawahiri is trying to define what is acceptable behavior for the operational leaders, Fishman says:
We have not killed innocents. In fact, we fight those who kill innocents: Those who kill innocents are the Americans, the Jews, the Russians, the French and their agents. Were we insane killers of innocents, it would be possible for us to kill thousands of them in the crowded markets, but we are confronting the enemies of the Muslims and targeting them, and during this, an innocent might fall.
A major theme of the questions was a push for Zawahiri and al-Qaida to confront Israel — and Iran — more directly.
Fishman says the exchange of ideas is a mistake for Zawahiri, not necessarily a threat to the West.
Al-Qaida is run from the top down, with people who don't want to share power, and it's dangerous for a leader in that environment to expose himself to too many questions, Fishman says. "It reveals the amount of discontent within the movement."
Al-Qaida tries to funnel people into a specific set of beliefs, especially from a religious perspective, he says.
"And the more debate that clouds that picture, the weaker al-Qaida is going to be."