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Bin Laden 'Could Be' on Tape

U.S. authorities say voice praising recent terrorist attacks seems to be that of Al Qaeda leader, but further analysis is needed to be certain.

November 13, 2002|Josh Meyer and Greg Miller | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — After more than a year of suspense over whether Osama bin Laden is dead or alive, U.S. officials said they believe the man heard on an audiotape Tuesday praising recent attacks against civilians in Indonesia and Russia and urging new strikes on the United States and its allies is the terrorist mastermind.

Several U.S. officials cautioned that the National Security Agency, CIA and other authorities would continue to analyze the high-quality audiotape throughout the night for conclusive confirmation that the voice is that of Bin Laden. But they said they believe that the founder and leader of the Al Qaeda network -- silent, hunted and unseen since last year -- is the man heard issuing a series of threats and calls to arms to Muslims around the world.

The 4 1/2-minute tape was provided to the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television network and broadcast globally beginning Tuesday afternoon under the heading, "New audio statement by Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden ... to the peoples of the countries allied with the tyrannical U.S. government," according to a transcript released by U.S. officials Tuesday evening.

On the tape, the man believed to be Bin Laden refers to recent terrorist attacks in Bali, Tunisia, Yemen, Pakistan and Moscow and says they were in response to those countries' support of the United States in its military strikes on Afghanistan and in other alleged acts of aggression against Muslims, including in Iraq.

The comments come at a troubling time as the U.S. spearheads a coalition gearing up for war with Iraq and amid growing indications that Al Qaeda is regrouping and planning more attacks in far-flung corners of the world.

The tape rang alarm bells at the White House, CIA, Pentagon and elsewhere in Washington, officials said, because Bin Laden has been known to make such public pronouncements just before a terrorist strike, as was the case before Al Qaeda truck bombs killed 224 people at two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.

Several U.S. officials said an initial analysis of the tape, based on comparison with existing "voiceprints" of Bin Laden, indicates that it is authentic and was made in recent weeks -- the first concrete evidence that the Saudi-born fugitive survived both the punishing military attacks in Afghanistan and perhaps the most aggressive global manhunt in history. Many U.S. officials, including the FBI's top counter-terrorism authority, had said publicly that they believed Bin Laden was probably dead.

"I don't doubt that it's Bin Laden, but there is no reason to rush to judgment on this," said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We are waiting for our analysts to check all possibilities. Significant portions of it could be Bin Laden, with other parts spliced in.

"Initial reports can be wrong," the official added. "But we're hearing that [technical] people are saying, yes, it sounds like him."

Several counter-terrorism experts said Bin Laden's apparent resurfacing might have been triggered by the increasing drumbeat of war with Iraq.

"The confrontation with Iraq is perfect grist for the jihadist mill," said Daniel Benjamin, a former counter-terrorism expert at the National Security Council and co-author of a recent book on Al Qaeda and its conflicts with the West. "Even though he has no sympathy for [Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein or the regime there, Bin Laden has always cast the confrontation with Iraq as another example of the struggle between the infidels and the crusaders" and the followers of Islam.

Moreover, Bin Laden's emergence would underscore what critics of an Iraq invasion have argued -- that the war on terrorism is unfinished and that an assault on Baghdad would stretch U.S. resources too thin. Senior military officials seem increasingly impatient with the progress of the war on terrorism, particularly the often fruitless sweeps of territory along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Last week, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he thought that the United States had "lost a little momentum" in the hunt for Al Qaeda and argued for putting greater emphasis on shoring up the Afghan government.

U.S. counter-terrorism authorities -- and British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- have cautioned in recent days that there has been an alarming increase in the kind of intelligence "chatter" that normally precedes a major terrorist attack, at a level unseen since the assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"Whoever made the tape is threatening the entire world and throws their barbs at everybody," said one senior U.S. official. "Does this significantly change anything? Probably not, except that it is a good reminder that we are dealing with an international terrorist threat that is still out there and that we have to band together and fight it together."

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