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In a first, al-Qaida invites journalists to send questions to No. 2 al-Zawahri

    CAIRO, Egypt — Al-Qaida has invited journalists to send questions to its No. 2 figure Ayman al-Zawahri, the first time the terror network has offered an ‘‘interview’’ with one of its top leaders since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
    The invitation — issued by Al-Sahab, the group’s media arm on an Islamic militant Web site — is the latest in al-Qaida’s increasingly sophisticated efforts to get out its message. Al-Sahab has dramatically increased the number of messages it has issued this year, and its videos have shown more complex production.
    The statement, first posted Sunday, invites ‘‘individuals, agencies and all media’’ to submit written questions for al-Zawahri by sending them to the Islamic Web forums where Al-Sahab traditionally posts its messages.
    Al-Sahab asked the forums to send it the questions ‘‘by the letter, with no changes or substitutions, no matter whether they agree or disagree (with the question).’’
    It said it would take questions until Jan. 16, then al-Zawahri 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 a written, video or audio form.
    The authenticity of the invitation could not be independently confirmed. 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-Zawahri. The message appeared on several Web sites that Al-Sahab officially uses for issuing statements.
    Al-Zawahri, the deputy of Osama bin Laden, appeared in a video posted Monday that took the form of an interview with Al-Sahab. An unseen interviewer could be heard asking questions to the Egyptian-born militant, who answered, sitting in front of shelves stacked with books of Islamic law and theology.
    Al-Zawahri and bin Laden gave a few interviews to Western and Arabic press since they first rose to prominence in the 1990s. Neither has been interviewed since the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, which toppled al-Qaida’s patrons the Taliban and sent al-Qaida’s leaders into hiding.
    Bin Laden and al-Zawahri are believed to be in the lawless regions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
    Al-Zawahri is one of the most prominent spokesmen for al-Qaida, appearing in at least 16 video or audio messages this year — far more than the four put out by bin Laden. Al-Qaida’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, a U.S. counterterrorism center that monitors militant message trafficking.
    The videos have also grown more sophisticated in targeting their international audience. Videos by the top leaders are always subtitled in English, and messages this year from bin Laden and al-Zawahri focusing on Pakistan and Afghanistan have been dubbed in the local languages, Urdu and Pashtun.

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