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Release of Tapes Timed to 9/11, Experts Believe

September 11, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The latest purported message from Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenant comes at a critical juncture for the United States and the Islamic world, as U.S. initiatives in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have yet to succeed.

As in past exhortations by Al Qaeda's chiefs, an audiotape and videotape broadcast Wednesday by Al Jazeera television attempts to exploit Muslim questioning, anxiety, anger and opposition related to the deepening American intervention in the vast Islamic world, say experts on terrorism, Islam and the region.

The timing of the tape's release -- even though some parts of it may be dated -- is conspicuously linked to the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in an attempt to steal a big chunk of the limelight away from the American commemoration, the experts say.

The tape instantly shifted the focus of the second anniversary from the past to the danger of future attacks. Its constant refrain was that America has seen nothing yet.

"It's sending the message that, 'hey, we're still here, still functioning, still communicating, still able to launch attacks and we'll be back -- in large numbers and with renewed energy and in renewed form,' " said Michele Flournoy, a terrorism and international security specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank.

But the tape, U.S. officials and experts said, is clearly linked just as much to the three hot spots -- to rally new resistance and even the creation of a third generation of militants to confront the United States at a moment of vulnerability.

"It's a good time to rub our nose in it. We're under pressure across the board," said Frank Anderson, the former chief of the CIA's Near East division who was involved in Afghanistan as well as the Arab world.

In the audiotape, a voice believed to be that of Ayman Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who is Bin Laden's deputy, evoked common cause with Iraqis and Palestinians -- in what seemed to be the most recent part of the tape.

"To our struggling brothers in Iraq: We pray to God to be on your side in fighting the crusaders.... We tell you that Allah is with you and the [Islamic] nation supports you," he said. "Rely on God and devour the Americans as lions do and bury them in the graveyard of Iraq."

The voice says the United States will remain a target as long as Washington is "not fair" on the issue of the Palestinians. He called on militants not to give up the fight because, he said, they would not achieve their goals any other way.

"We call on them to stand fast on the path of jihad and not to be deceived by the tricks of America -- Palestine will only be liberated with jihad," the voice says.

A senior U.S. official expressed deep concern Wednesday that the specificity of the message on the tape either predicted or would prompt concerted attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan or even the United States by Palestinians or militants. That would serve to "link" the disparate groups in the different arenas, the official said.

"They are opportunistic in terms of identifying new ways of energizing people to their cause and rallying new members. Iraq and the new round of turmoil between Israel and Palestinians are opportunities for them to generate new recruits and a new level of activity and enthusiasm," said Flournoy, the security specialist.

Striking further afield, the voice believed to be Zawahiri's called on all Arabs to oust their rulers and urged Pakistanis to rise up against President Pervez Musharraf.

The voice boasts: "What you saw until now are only the first skirmishes. The true epic has not begun."

Assessments of the tape's impact vary. Some think it may have more appeal because of the current problems in U.S. foreign policy.

"Bin Laden's been very successful in engaging in savvy media operations, which is one of the things that makes Al Qaeda most dangerous. Much of what he is engaged in is at the psychological level as part of a media campaign, part of his own 'public diplomacy,' " said Audrey Kurth Cronin, a terrorism analyst at the Congressional Research Service.

Other experts said the tape may reflect Bin Laden's weakness after the arrest of many top Al Qaeda leaders and dozens of operatives or sympathizers. He might be trying to jump on the bandwagon of other militant groups.

U.S. officials said the CIA would need several days to determine whether the tapes were authentic.

They added that the preliminary assessment of intelligence analysts was that the voices and images were those of Bin Laden and Zawahiri.

"It looks like them, sounds like them," said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. He noted that the Zawahiri voice refers to events that indicate it was recorded recently. The voice speaks of the war in Iraq, the Sept. 11 anniversary and the Middle East "road map."

The supposed Bin Laden audio, however, makes no time-specific references. Al Jazeera said the footage was shot in April or May.

The video footage shows two men, purportedly Bin Laden and Zawahiri, dressed in traditional Afghan or Pakistani garb, hiking across rocky terrain carrying weapons and walking sticks.

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Times staff writer Greg Miller contributed to this report.

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