CAIRO, Egypt – Al Qaeda has invited journalists to send questions to its No. 2 figure, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in the first such offer by the increasingly media-savvy terror network to "interview" one of its leaders since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The invitation is a new twist in Al Qaeda's campaign to reach a broader audience, and represents an attempt by al-Zawahiri to present himself as a sophisticated leader rather than a mass murderer.
"I think their media capability is sophisticated as ever," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "It shows how this group with 7th century ideology is exploiting 21st century media capabilities."
The advertisement, issued by the group's media arm Al-Sahab on an Islamic militant Web site, invites "individuals, agencies and all media" to submit written questions for al-Zawahiri by sending them to the Web forums where Al-Sahab traditionally posts its messages.
Al-Sahab asked the forums to send it the questions "with no changes or substitutions, no matter whether they agree or disagree (with the question)."
It said it would take questions until Jan. 16, after which al-Zawahiri would answer them "as much as he is able and at the soonest possible occasion." It did not say whether his answers would come in writing, video or audiotape.
The authenticity of the invitation, first posted Sunday, could not be independently confirmed. But it was posted with the logo of Al-Sahab and the style of graphics and calligraphy it traditionally uses, along with a photo of al-Zawahiri. The advertisement appeared on several Web sites that Al-Sahab officially uses for issuing messages.
Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have given a few interviews to Western and Arabic press since they first rose to prominence in the 1990s. But neither has been interviewed since the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, which toppled Al Qaeda's patrons the Taliban and sent Al Qaeda's leaders into hiding.
They are believed to be in the lawless regions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Experts said the invitation was the first time that such a high-ranking Al Qaeda leader had made such an appeal. Other smaller militant groups have solicited questions before, including an arm of Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, which answered a variety of questions a few years ago, said Ben Venzke, the head of IntelCenter, a U.S. counterterrorism center that monitors militant message traffic.
"We've never seen Al-Sahab do this so this would be a very new development in terms of their messaging. They're choosing to do this with Al-Zawahiri. It puts even greater prominence to it," he said.
In recent year, al-Zawahiri has emerged as Al Qaeda's most prominent spokesman. He has appeared in at least 16 videos and audiotapes this year, compared to four for bin Laden.
As a whole, the terror network's messaging has dramatically increased this year, with Al-Sahab issuing more than 90 videos in 2007, more than the total number for all three previous years, according to IntelCenter.
In the most recent, issued Tuesday, Abu Laith al-Libi, a Libyan Al Qaeda commander in Afghanistan who also releases frequent messages, lectured on the duty of Muslims to join the battle against the "devil."
The videos have grown more sophisticated in targeting their international audience. Videos are always subtitled in English, and messages this year from bin Laden and al-Zawahiri focusing on Pakistan and Afghanistan have been dubbed in the local languages, Urdu and Pashtu.
Videos and audiotapes have also had a faster turnaround, referring sometimes to events that occurred only days earlier. The Al Qaeda leaders' messages are often interwoven with footage of past attacks, militants training and TV news clips of world events and leaders including President Bush — evidence that their producers have easy access to media.
"The translation of their statements and their release on the Internet shows that Al Qaeda puts a lot of attention on making their messages as widely heard as possible," said Rita Katz, who runs the Washington-based terrorist monitoring SITE Institute.
"You have to keep in mind that Al Qaeda is an operational organization, but at the same time they pay a lot of attention to the media warfare. You can't win one without the other," Katz said.
Ben Venzke, the head of IntelCenter, cited an open solicitation for questions from an arm of Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia a few years ago as a precedent for Sunday's message. He said the group answered a variety of questions "ranging from big picture things to small practical things."
"I would expect to see a similar thing with al-Zawahiri," Venzke said.
In his messages, al-Zawahiri has taken on the role of the ideological policeman of the jihadi movement, warning against lapses in dedication to "holy war" against the U.S. "crusaders." He often lashes out at Muslim clerics who don't advocate jihad and Arab regimes allied to the West, while telling the Muslim world that the U.S. is failing in its policies.
His overarching theme has been to present Al Qaeda as the leader of militant movements and to keep them unified. Although the extent of Al Qaeda's control over allied groups is never clear, many analysts believe al-Zawahiri likely holds the network's operational reins, leading the rebuilding of its command and heading meetings of its top leadership.
Hoffman said al-Zawahiri is also trying to boost his own image to look more like a true leader as opposed to a "homicidal thug." Opening himself up to questioning — in a similar fashion done in U.S. political campaigns — makes him look more sophisticated, he said.
"Al Qaeda wants to look more cutting edge and give the perception of greater legitimacy," Hoffman said.
It also shows that Al Qaeda understands the importance of "gaining momentum in the media — including Western media" despite its love-hate relationship with it, said Evan Kohlmann, a U.S.-based terrorism consultant.
Al-Zawahiri's latest videotape, on Monday, was in the form of an interview with Al-Sahab, in which an unseen interviewer could be heard asking questions to the Egyptian-born militant, who answered while sitting in front of shelves of stacked Islamic law and theology books.
Al-Zawahiri warned of "traitors" among insurgents in Iraq — an attempt to undermine groups of Iraqi Sunni tribesmen that the U.S. military has backed to help fight Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Jeremy Binnie, a terrorism analyst with the Jane's military affairs consultancy in London, said the invitation to journalists is an extension of that message. Al Qaeda is scrambling to rein in any doubt that it is in control in Iraq, he said.
"It suggests that they are pretty desperate to get their views out there," he said.