Osama bin Laden's chief deputy has accused Shiite Iran of trying to discredit the Sunni al-Qaida terror network by spreading the conspiracy theory that Israel was behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
The comments in an audiotape released Tuesday reflected al-Qaida's No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri's increasing criticism of Iran. Al-Zawahri has accused Iran in recent messages of seeking to extend its power in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and through its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.
The authenticity of the two-hour audio recording posted on an Islamic Web site could not be independently confirmed. But the voice sounded like past audiotapes from the terror leader, and the posting where it was found bore the logo of Al-Sahab, al-Qaida's official media arm.
It was the second of two messages answering questions that were posted to Islamic militant Web sites earlier this year.
One of the questioners asked about the theory that has circulated in the Middle East and elsewhere that Israel was behind the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Al-Zawahri accused Hezbollah's Al-Manar television of starting the rumor.
"The purpose of this lie is clear — (to suggest) that there are no heroes among the Sunnis who can hurt America as no else did in history. Iranian media snapped up this lie and repeated it," he said.
"Iran's aim here is also clear — to cover up its involvement with America in invading the homes of Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq," he said.
Iran cooperated with the United States in the 2001 U.S. assault on Afghanistan that toppled al-Qaida's allies, the Taliban.
Answering questions about Iraq in Tuesday's tape, al-Zawahri said the insurgent umbrella group led by al-Qaida, called the Islamic State of Iraq, is "the primary force opposing the Crusaders and challenging Iranian ambitions" in Iraq, he said, referring to the Americans.
As he often does in his messages, al-Zawahri denounced the "Crusader invasion" of Iraq, but in Tuesday's tape he paired it with a mention of "Iranian complicity" or "Iranian agents."
In the latest tape, al-Zawahri was also asked if the terror group had further plans to attack Western countries that participated in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and subsequent war.
"My answer is: Yes! We think that any country that has joined aggression on Muslims must be deterred," he replied.
In response to a question signed by the Japanese news agency Kyodo asking if Japan remains a target because it once had troops in Iraq, al-Zawahri said "Japan provided help under the banner of the crusader coalition ... therefore it participated in the Crusader campaign against the lands of Islam."
Japan deployed non-combat troops to southern Iraq in 2003 to carry out reconstruction work. It withdrew its troops from Iraq in 2006 and now conducts airlifts to help supply U.S.-led forces in that country.
Al-Zawahri spoke on a wide range of issues, even global warming, which he said reflected "how criminal, brutal and greedy the Western Crusader world is, with America at the top."
He predicted that global warming would "make the world more sympathetic to and understanding of the Muslims' jihad against the aggressor America."
Al-Qaida for men only
Asked if there are any women in al-Qaida, the terror leader answered simply: "No." In a follow-up answer, he said: "There are no women in al-Qaida jihadi group, but the women of the mujahedeen are playing a heroic role in taking care of their houses and sons."
In another answer Tuesday, al-Zawahri said it was against Islamic religious law for any Muslim to live permanently in a Western country because in doing so they would "have permanent stay there under the laws of the infidels."
Al-Qaida's media arm, 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.
In his first response to questions earlier this month, al-Zawahri rejected the criticism of attacks by the terror network's followers, which have killed thousands, and maintained that the group does not kill innocent people.
Al-Qaida 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.