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Tapes May Portend Al Qaeda Attacks, Official Says

Terrorism: Bin Laden has foreshadowed strikes before. A top aide's monologue seems recent.

October 10, 2002|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A taped monologue by Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant, Ayman Zawahiri, broadcast this week threatens new attacks against the United States and provides the first evidence Zawahiri may still be alive, officials said Wednesday.

The tape cites the current debate over Iraq and other events of the last three months, suggesting that the Egyptian-born doctor and Islamic militant survived the war in Afghanistan.

A separate tape that surfaced this week is believed to contain the voice of Bin Laden, also threatening new attacks, but provides no clue when it was made. It thus doesn't indicate if the chief of the global Al Qaeda terrorist network is still alive.

"We believe it to be Bin Laden's voice," said a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But it's not time-specific. It could have been done any time in the last year or so."

In the past, Bin Laden often issued a public statement shortly before launching a terrorist attack. But not every broadcast signaled an attack, so it's unclear if the new tapes indicate an impending strike.

"If legitimate, the tapes are both of concern," the U.S. official said. "It's the kind of thing that can foreshadow future attacks."

U.S. officials believe they last heard Bin Laden on a radio broadcast rallying his fighters in December during the Tora Bora battle with American-led coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan. He then disappeared despite an international manhunt.

U.S. intelligence officials say they believe Bin Laden is still alive somewhere along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. Other experts are skeptical, however, saying the Saudi-born terror mastermind would make new videotapes to taunt Washington, rally his forces and recruit new followers if he were alive.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters Monday that the Bin Laden tape, which was broadcast Sunday by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television network, did not prove or disprove anything.

Bin Laden, he said, is "either alive and well, or alive and not too well, or not alive."

The Zawahiri tape, obtained Tuesday by Associated Press Television News, refers to the current U.S. standoff with Iraq and an American aerial bombing attack in Afghanistan on July 1, and accuses Washington of trying to subjugate the Arab world on behalf of Israel.

"I don't think we've established it authoritatively, but the initial take is that it probably is him," the official said.

Officials also identified a senior Al Qaeda figure who President Bush said Monday had received medical care in Baghdad this year. He cited the case as evidence of Iraq's alleged ties to Al Qaeda.

The man was identified as Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born operational commander for Al Qaeda who lost a leg during the Afghan war. U.S. officials consider Zarqawi to be among the 20 most powerful Al Qaeda figures.

Zarqawi reportedly was arrested in Jordan in 2000 as part of the "millennium plot" to blow up tourist sites but was later released. Other reports indicated that he went to Iran after leaving Afghanistan.

A U.S. official said Zarqawi was treated about two months ago in Baghdad but is no longer believed to be in Iraq.

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