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Message Attributed to Top Aide to Bin Laden

Speaker on tape urges Muslims to target 'America, England, Australia and Norway.' Saudis say they may have foiled a hijacking.

May 22, 2003|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — An audiotaped message attributed to Osama bin Laden's top deputy urges Muslims to follow the example of the Sept. 11 hijackers and launch new attacks on U.S. and Western targets.

The latest exhortation from Al Qaeda's leadership came as the Pentagon promised stepped-up air patrols over U.S. cities, and officials in Saudi Arabia said they had arrested suspected terrorist operatives in Jidda who may have been planning to hijack a plane.

Wednesday's developments amplified a sense of alarm among counter-terrorism officials in Washington, who fear attacks may be imminent but are groping for clues as to when and where they might occur.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller said the U.S. has collected information indicating that the suicide bombings this month in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and in Casablanca, Morocco, could be a "prelude to an attack in the United States."

That information prompted Homeland Security Department officials to raise the national threat level from "elevated" to "high risk" Tuesday. But Mueller said on ABC television that the U.S. still had "no specificity as to targets, or specific time."

Some officials expressed concern that the taped message attributed to Ayman Zawahiri, the No. 2 figure in Al Qaeda, could contain coded instructions for new strikes.

"The crusaders and the Jews only understand the language of murder, bloodshed ... and of the burning towers," the tape said in an apparent reference to the World Trade Center towers where nearly 3,000 people were killed Sept. 11, 2001.

The tape, released Wednesday by Arab-language television channel Al Jazeera, urged Muslims to target "the embassies of America, England, Australia and Norway, their interests, their companies and their employees. Turn the earth under their feet into fire."

England and Australia have been staunch allies of America, and both contributed forces to the war in Iraq. U.S. officials said they did not understand why the speaker also included Norway, which opposed the war.

Officials noted that nations mentioned in previous recordings from Al Qaeda leaders have been targeted for attacks. In February, Bin Laden urged Muslims to fight for liberation in "Jordan, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen."

The recent attacks in Morocco, which left 41 dead, have not been directly linked to Al Qaeda, although U.S. officials have said they believe the terrorist network was involved.

The tape appeared to have been made sometime after the start of the war in Iraq. The voice accused Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt and Bahrain of "hypocrisy and trickery" for allowing the U.S. military to use their facilities, air space or canals during the war.

Al Jazeera provided no information on how or when it obtained the tape. The decision to air the message prompted a protest by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the government of Qatar, where Al Jazeera is based.

"We think it was unfortunate that Al Jazeera ran the tape," Powell said. "All it does is heighten tension throughout the region, allowing terrorists to have this kind of access to the airwaves. I spoke to the Qatari foreign minister about it.... I think they are taking some action. But it's too late; the information is already out there on that tape."

CIA analysts were examining the tape to determine whether the voice on it is that of Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon who is one of Bin Laden's longtime associates and who has been considered the operational force behind Al Qaeda. A U.S. official said the voice "sounds like him" and that the content is consistent with Zawahiri's "rhetoric."

The consensus among CIA analysts is that Zawahiri and Bin Laden are alive and probably hiding along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Zawahiri's wife and other members of his family were killed by U.S. airstrikes in the early weeks of the 2001 U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

President Bush spoke of the heightened terrorist threat in remarks at graduation ceremonies at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut.

"America will not relent in the war against global terror," he said. "We will hunt the terrorists in every dark corner of the Earth, and we're making good progress. Nearly one-half of Al Qaeda senior operatives have been captured or killed."

Amid a wave of intelligence reports, the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency said it had put military installations in the U.S. on the highest level of alert. A defense intelligence official said the move reflected concern that military facilities are vulnerable to attacks, although there was no evidence of terrorist plots targeting specific bases.

The warning does not trigger automatic changes in defense at U.S. bases. Those decisions are left to base commanders.

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