Cairo: Osama bin Laden's chief deputy on Tuesday denied a theory that Israel carried out the September 11 attacks and blamed Iran and Shiite Hezbollah for spreading the idea to discredit the Sunni al-Qaeda's strike against the US.
The comments in a recording posted on an Islamic Web site reflected the increasing criticism by al-Qaeda's No 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahiri against Iran. Al-Zawahiri 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 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-Qaeda'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 Centre and the Pentagon.
Al-Zawahiri accused Hezbollah's Al-Manar television of starting the rumour.
"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 US assault on Afghanistan that toppled al-Qaeda's allies, the Taliban.
Answering questions about Iraq in Tuesday's tape, al-Zawahiri said the insurgent umbrella group led by al-Qaeda, called the Islamic Nation 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-Zawahiri 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-Zawahiri was also asked if the terror group had further plans to attack Western countries that participated in the US-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-Zawahiri 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 US-led forces in that country.
Al-Zawahiri 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."
Asked if there are any women in al-Qaeda, the terror leader answered simply: "No." In a follow-up answer, he said: "There are no women in al-Qaeda jihadi group, but the women of the mujahedeen are playing a heroic role in taking care of their houses and sons."
In several parts of Tuesday's audio message, Al-Zawahiri claimed that the Taliban took over 95 per cent of Afghanistan and is sweeping Pakistan as well.
"The Crusaders and their agents in Pakistan and Afghanistan are starting to fall," he said.
In another answer on Tuesday, al-Zawahiri 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-Qaeda's media arm, Al-Sahab, announced in December that al-Zawahiri 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 cut off date of January 16.