- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Al Qaeda is planning to target the United States and Western nations that “participated in the crusader campaign against the lands of Islam,” the organization’s deputy chief said in an audiotape posted on the Internet yesterday.

Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s No. 2 man, made the statement as he answered an onslaught of questions asked by followers, reporters and others since his last video was released on April 2. The posting bore the logo of as-Sahab, al Qaeda’s official media arm.

Asked whether al Qaeda plans to attack the U.S. or Western allies, he said, “My answer is, yes. We think that any country that joined aggression on Muslims must be deterred.”

The message, which was posted on an Islamic Web site, is considered part two of al-Zawahri’s attempt to answer the rest of the more than 900 questions submitted to extremist Web sites since as-Sahab announced in December that al-Zawahri would take questions from the public posted on militant Web sites. Queries were submitted on the main Islamist Web site until Jan. 16.

The current audio “appears to be al-Zawahri’s voice,” said a U.S. counterterrorism official.

“They’ve been showing sophistication in media operations, and it’s increased in the last couple of years,” the official added. “It’s clear that they needed to ensure the security of their media operations and a lot of focus has been protecting their media sites in the [Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan] or elsewhere.”

The increase in video and audio propaganda in the past year is an example of al Qaeda’s shift in “directly communicating” to followers through the use of the Internet, although the terrorist organization still uses messengers to move video and other means of communication to media outlets. The technology, however, is sophisticated enough to make al Qaeda’s hub difficult to track.

U.S. officials said there is growing concern that al Qaeda will try to strike the U.S. or its assets overseas, as the terrorist organization continues to show signs that it is gaining strength and recruiting more members along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

“There continues to be strong concern that al Qaeda will try to attack the U.S. at home and abroad,” a U.S. official stated. “That concern stems from the growth of the organization in the FATA region.”

The official added that no evidence suggests an attack is imminent.

The timing of the recent propaganda messages also is being considered by counterterrorism officials, who note that al Qaeda has a pattern of releasing messages prior to important elections, such as the U.S. presidential race.

“They have a strong interest in attempting to disrupt the political campaign and they’ve tried to do it before,” the counterterrorism official added.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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