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Release of Bin Laden Tape Is Seen as Part of a Careful Comeback Strategy

Timing and form may aim at boosting impact of message and lessening his exposure, experts say.

November 14, 2002|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After melting into the mountains of Afghanistan more than a year ago, Osama bin Laden made a careful and calculated comeback by resurfacing this week, U.S. intelligence officials said Wednesday.

U.S. officials said intelligence analysts are convinced the voice on the 4 1/2-minute tape played on the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television network Tuesday is Bin Laden's. And the manner in which the recording was released appears to have been calibrated to maximize the impact of the terror mastermind's message -- to followers and foes alike -- and minimize his exposure to those hunting him.

The appearance of the tape was well timed, experts said, coming at a moment when a possible war between the United States and Iraq is roiling the Arab world and fueling sympathy for a figure who dares to taunt the West.

The thrust of the message was familiar, but this time the Al Qaeda leader aimed his chilling threats not only at the U.S. but more directly at its allies, including Australia and Germany.

And having shown a prior fondness for appearing on camera, this time Bin Laden offered only a disembodied voice, making the communication more difficult to trace -- and leaving scant clues about his whereabouts, health or appearance.

"I think he does a costs-benefit analysis: the risk of exposure versus the risk of [being assumed] dead," said Danielle Pletka, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "For him, this is a game of politics and he balances the need for discretion in his appearances with the need to rally his base."

U.S. intelligence continued to examine the recording, saying that Bin Laden voice experts are firmly convinced it is his voice on the tape but that technical analysis has been inconclusive.

Computerized analysis has been hampered by the poor quality of the recording, a U.S. official said. The message appears to have been recorded many times as it traveled from Bin Laden's hide-out to Al Jazeera's studios, and at one point was transmitted by phone.

President Bush declined to say whether he believes that Bin Laden made the tape but said the recording is being treated as a serious threat.

"Whoever put this tape out has put the world on notice yet again that we're at war," Bush said. "It should remind all of America, and remind our friends and allies, that there is an active enemy that continues to hate, is willing to use murder as a way to achieve their goals."

Asked whether Bin Laden's reappearance points to failures by U.S. forces in Afghanistan last year, Bush bristled.

"We're making great progress in the war on terror," he said. "I warned the American people that this is going to take time.... We're on a manhunt and we're not quitting. Slowly but surely, we're achieving our objective."

The tape provided the first reliable piece of evidence in nearly a year that Bin Laden is alive, because he praised last month's attacks in Indonesia, Russia, Kuwait and Yemen.

Bin Laden made no mention, however, of more recent events that would ordinarily earn his condemnation, including Syria's vote in the United Nations last week in support of new weapons inspections in Iraq, or a CIA missile strike that killed a carful of Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen. For that reason, U.S. officials said the tape was probably made in late October or early November.

U.S. authorities were said to be working with officials in Qatar to retrace the path by which the tape was delivered to the offices of Al Jazeera. But experts said clues are likely to be scarce.

"They did this tape and transmitted it in a way that you can't follow the crumbs," said Vince Cannistraro, a former counter-terrorism official at the CIA.

Absent any signs of life from the Al Qaeda leader, some top U.S. officials had concluded that Bin Laden was dead. Experts said one reason he resurfaced is that many followers were undoubtedly reaching the same conclusion.

A former CIA official with extensive experience in the Arab world said many experts think that Al Qaeda has devolved into more autonomous, loosely connected cells over the past year and that Bin Laden may have felt the need to reassert himself.

"This whole thing has metastasized away from him," said the former CIA officer, who requested anonymity. "He's trying to get back in the game."

Many experts said Bin Laden appears to have waited as anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and elsewhere grew, fueled by resentment of U.S. support for Israel and intensified recently by the escalation of Washington's pressure on Iraq.

Bin Laden has not been seen as devoted to the Palestinian cause, or shown any fondness for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But his taped message focused on these issues as part of what experts say is a shrewd attempt to expand Al Qaeda's support.

"There is a high level of humiliation in the Arab world related to Palestine and Iraq," said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution. "These are not Bin Laden's issues, but he comes to cash in on this."

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