WASHINGTON — Al Qaeda increasingly faces sharp criticism from once-loyal sympathizers who openly question its ideology and tactics, including attacks that kill innocent Muslims, according to U.S. intelligence officials, counter-terrorism experts and the group's own communications.
A litany of complaints target Osama bin Laden's network and its affiliates for their actions in Iraq and North Africa, emphasis on suicide bombings instead of political action and tepid support for, or outright antagonism toward, militant groups pressing the Palestinian cause.
The criticism apparently has grown serious enough that Al Qaeda's chief strategist, Ayman Zawahiri, felt compelled to solicit online questions. He responded in an audio message released this month. For more than 90 minutes, Bin Laden's second-in-command tried to defuse the anger.
In March, Zawahiri released a 188-page Internet book to rebut complaints, particularly those of an influential former Islamic militant who said Zawahiri and Bin Laden should be held accountable for violence against Muslims.
Sayyed Imam Sharif, an Egyptian physician who once was a senior theologian for Al Qaeda, was one of Zawahiri's oldest associates. The author of violent manifestoes over the last two decades, Sharif did an about-face while incarcerated in Egypt. Several other prominent Muslim clerics and former militants have similarly condemned Al Qaeda.
Such rifts have been emerging for several years, but they have become increasingly contentious lately, in cyberspace and on the streets of some Arab countries. In addition to Zawahiri, Al Qaeda leaders, including Bin Laden himself, have gone on a public relations offensive. In October, Bin Laden asked followers for forgiveness for the deaths of civilians in Iraq.
Analysts with U.S. and allied intelligence agencies differ over whether the backlash poses significant risks for Al Qaeda, or whether it is simply a public relations problem. The organization is expanding its pool of hard-core recruits, according to one U.S. counter-terrorism official. And Internet communications and other intelligence have shown that its anti-American message continues to resonate with extremists throughout much of the Islamic world.
But Al Qaeda also has sought to use regional groups to become more mainstream and expand its power base. It is in these groups that most of the conflict is occurring.
"We know that all of this matters to Al Qaeda and that its senior leadership is sensitive to the perceived legitimacy of both their actions and their ideology," Juan Carlos Zarate, the White House's deputy national security advisor for combating terrorism, said in a speech Wednesday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "They care about their image because it has real-world effects on recruitment, donations and support in Muslim and religious communities for the Al Qaeda message."
Some counter-terrorism experts say they suspect that some criticism may have been planted on websites by Western intelligence agents, or lodged by imprisoned radicals who have been coerced.
But Zarate and others say the dissent is real and widespread.
"There has been a growing rejection of the Al Qaeda program and message," said Zarate, who added that the U.S. and its allies have encouraged the backlash by exploiting rifts between Al Qaeda and once-supportive Islamic fundamentalists objecting to its tactics.
U.S. officials cite a variety of evidence, including intelligence, Internet traffic, statements from Al Qaeda leaders, polling data and even songs by popular Pakistani and Indonesian musicians.
Prominent Saudi cleric Salman Awdah sent an open letter to Bin Laden in September in which he condemned violence against innocents and said Al Qaeda was hurting Muslim charities by its purported ties to them.
"Brother Osama, how much blood has been spilled?" wrote Awdah, who is believed to be independent of the Saudi government. "How many innocents among children, elderly, the weak and women have been killed and made homeless in the name of Al Qaeda?"
"Who benefits from turning countries like Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon or Saudi Arabia into places where fear spreads and no one can feel safe?"
In London this week, former extremists launched the Quilliam Foundation, an organization dedicated to discrediting Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists.
Zawahiri described his audio message as the first of several "open meetings" and answered complaints, many of them asking why Al Qaeda had killed innocents, including students on a passing bus who died in a bomb attack on the Algerian Constitutional Council in December.
"Excuse me, Mr. Zawahiri, but 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?" asked one questioner whom Zawahiri identified as a geography teacher.