STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Think of what you're about to hear as an interview with the second in command of al-Qaida. His name is Ayman al-Zawahiri. And while he didn't really sit down to chat with reporters, he did invite fellow jihadists to post questions on the Internet. Several months later, Zawahiri started answering.
Unidentified Man (Actor): Muslim brother everywhere (foreign language spoken) peace be upon you and the mercy of Allah and his blessings. I thank all who took an interest in us...
INSKEEP: Those are some of the words of Ayman al-Zawahiri, considered second only to Osama bin Laden. We have an actor reading them here. And in the next few minutes, we will listen to some of the questions and Zawahiri's answers. Now, there's no way of really knowing who Zawahiri's questioners are - fellow jihadis, journalists, intelligence agents.
Though, as we're going to hear, some of their attitudes are as brutal as Zawahiri's own. The exchange provided West Point analyst Brian Fishman with some clues about al-Qaida's concerns.
Mr. BRIAN FISHMAN (Analyst, West Point): 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. You know, this is a fascinating technique that - it's not the first time it's been used by an insurgent or a militant organization we've seen. But 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.
INSKEEP: And we should mention also, I suppose, this is not a totally free and open debate. He's choosing which questions to take on and which ones to ignore. But the questions that Zawahiri choose to address included this one. It's read here by an actor.
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): 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?
INSKEEP: Tough question for al-Zawahiri. Why is al-Qaida seeming to kill Muslims? And here is his answer, as read by an actor.
Unidentified Man #1: 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.
INSKEEP: Brian Fishman, just in this one exchange, I hear endless things that I want to ask about, starting with why he would choose to take this question in the first place.
Mr. FISHMAN: Yeah, this question of jihadists murdering of fellow Muslims is critical for al-Qaida. Because that technique has wound up undermining or destroying jihadist movements many times in the past. When you look at somebody like Zawahiri, the senior leadership of al-Qaida has generally been more careful about the killing of Muslim innocents than have some of its agents on the ground, whether that's in Algeria or Iraq.
And so Zawahiri here is trying to sort of, I think, set out the parameters that he wants his followers to behave. He's trying to define what is acceptable behavior for the operational leaders, whether it's Iraq or Afghanistan or Algeria.
INSKEEP: That first question gives you an idea of who he's communicating with. This is a person saying, why are you killing innocent Muslims, but also saying, why don't you get out there and kill some Jews?
Mr. FISHMAN: Yeah. And this was a major theme of the questions. Folks pushing Zawahiri, pushing al-Qaida to confront Israel more directly. And this is something that we see also on Iran. A lot of questions were about Iran. People asking Zawahiri, you know, you talk about how much you don't like the Shia, you talk about how much you don't like Iran, but you haven't done anything about it. Why not?
And this is dangerous for Zawahiri because he can't be seen as hypocritical.
INSKEEP: These questions to and answers from Ayman al-Zawahiri were conducted on the Web. We have put them on the radio with the aid of actors. And here's another question and answer.
Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): Don't you agree with me that the frequency of your appearances on the satellite channels confirms that you are no more than a sonic phenomenon who loves to show off and be famous?
Unidentified Man #1: I tell the noble brother, leave my intention alone because only Allah knows it.
Mr. FISHMAN: You know, this is an important question for Zawahiri because appearances in the media become such an affirmation of leadership for al-Qaida. And he - there's long been rumors of sort of distrust and frustration within the jihadist community that Zawahiri has become the face of the organization and bin Laden has been in the background.
Now, frankly, I think that when we talk about these guys, there are tremendous egos involved and Zawahiri is no different. One of the things I would point to is just in the answers to these questions, you know, a very traditional jihadist way of answering a question is to refer to the great Jihadi books written by, you know, thinkers going back 1,500 years. Zawahiri doesn't really do that here, which is notable.
Because he puts a lot of faith in himself. He oftentimes refers people to go read some of his books rather than other people's books.
INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to one more question that maybe gets across a sense of the complexities of trying to be a jihadist leader in the 21st century.
Unidentified Man #2: How do you feel about the issue of global warming and what affect it might leave on the current fighting against Islam?
Unidentified Man #1: The environmental catastrophes which will be caused by the failure of America and the West to take effective measures to stop the release of poisonous gases that cause this high temperature will convince the peoples of the world, God willing, of the extent of the criminality, avarice and barbarism of the Western crusader world led by America.
INSKEEP: What is suggested by a question and answer like that?
Mr. FISHMAN: This is a fascinating question. It gets to this issue where al-Qaida, over the last year, year-and-a-half, especially as its fortunes have started to decline in Iraq, has started to try to broaden its appeal. They have started to make more arguments based on issues like global warming. They have tried to pick up on what they believe is racial discord in the United States.
And I think what we're seeing here is not a softening of al-Qaida but a recognition that their traditional message leads them only to a very, very narrow recruitment base and that they need to broaden that if they are going to be successful.
INSKEEP: If we in the West presume that free and open debate is a good thing, that it gets you better ideas, that it can make you stronger, is there reason for us to be concerned that however demented it is, people in al-Qaida seem to be exchanging ideas and sharp questions?
Mr. FISHMAN: Actually, no. I think that this is a mistake for Zawahiri. Al-Qaida is an organization run top down with people that don't want to share power. And in that kind of an environment, it's dangerous to expose yourself to too many questions. It reveals the amount of discontent within the movement. And one of the things that al-Qaida needs to do, especially from a religious perspective, is that they try to funnel people into a specific set of beliefs.
And the more debate that clouds that picture, the weaker al-Qaida is going to be.
INSKEEP: Brian Fishman is an analyst at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center. Thanks for your time.
Mr. FISHMAN: Thank you, Steve.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.