CAIRO, Egypt – Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri, rejecting criticism of attacks by the terror network's followers that have killed thousands, maintained Wednesday that it does not kill innocent people.
His comment came during a 90-minute audio response that was billed as the first installment of answers to the more than 900 questions submitted on extremist Internet sites by Al Qaeda supporters, critics and journalists in December.
"We haven't killed the innocents, not in Baghdad, nor in Morocco, nor in Algeria, nor anywhere else," al-Zawahri said, according to a 46-page English transcript that accompanied the audio message posted on Web sites linked to Al Qaeda.
The answer was in response to the question: "Excuse me, Mr. Zawahri, but who is it who is killing with Your Excellency's blessing the innocents in Baghdad, Morocco and Algeria?"
Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York and Washington in 2001, while its affiliates in Iraq, Afghanistan and Algeria regularly set off bombs in crowded urban areas that have taken thousands of lives.
"If there is any innocent who was killed in the mujahedeen's operations, then it was either an unintentional error or out of necessity," al-Zawahri said.
He went on to accuse Al Qaeda's opponents of being the ones who kill innocent people. He also charged that "the enemy intentionally takes up positions in the midst of the Muslims for them to be human shields for him."
A banner bearing the logo of Al Qaeda's media arm, al-Sahab, appeared earlier in the day on Web sites linked to the network to announce that al-Zawahri's first round of answers.
Al-Zawahri, the chief deputy to Usama bin Laden, said in the audio that he had chosen approximately 100 questions to answer.
Al-Sahab announced in December that al-Zawahri would take questions from the public posted on Islamic militant Web sites and would respond "as soon as possible."
Queries were submitted on the main Islamist Web site until the cutoff date of Jan. 16. After the deadline, the questions disappeared from the site.
Self-proclaimed Al Qaeda supporters appeared to be as much in the dark about the terror network's operations and intentions as Western analysts and intelligence agencies.
The questioners appeared uncertain whether Al Qaeda's central leadership directly controls the multiple, small militant groups around the Middle East that work in its name, or whether those groups operate on their own.
Some asked if Al Qaeda had a long-term strategy, while others wanted advice about conducting Islamic holy war.