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U.S. Verifies Bin Laden Tape, Calls His Offer of a Truce a Ploy

January 20, 2006|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A new audiotape believed to be from Osama bin Laden warns that Al Qaeda is preparing terrorist attacks on the United States but says they can be avoided if U.S. officials agree to a truce that would allow Muslims to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan.

A CIA technical analysis of the tape concluded that the voice was that of the Al Qaeda leader, an agency official said. The tape, the first from Bin Laden in more than a year, was aired Thursday by the Al Jazeera satellite TV channel. It appeared to have been made in early December, U.S. intelligence officials said.

The message surfaced less than a week after a U.S. missile strike in Pakistan targeted Bin Laden's deputy. Officials say it probably missed him but killed several other Al Qaeda operatives.

Terrorism experts said the recording appeared to be aimed at reassuring Al Qaeda loyalists that the network remained poised to launch attacks in the United States, while also allowing Bin Laden to strike a statesman-like pose and propose an end to the violence that has killed thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan and angered many Muslims in the Middle East.

U.S. intelligence officials discounted the truce offer as a propaganda ploy but said the threat of attacks was being taken seriously. The nation's terrorist threat alert level remained unchanged Thursday at yellow, or "elevated."

"Operations are in preparation, and you will see them on your own ground once the preparations are finished," Bin Laden said, according to transcripts of the recording made by news services. The tape does not mention specific targets or plots.

Many counter-terrorism officials say Al Qaeda has become a more decentralized organization since it was chased from its bases in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks and its senior operatives were captured or killed. It is unclear how much control Bin Laden has over day-to-day operations.

Vice President Dick Cheney said in an interview on CNBC television that the recording was a reminder that there was a "serious threat" to the United States. But he also said that the U.S. had shored up its defenses significantly since Sept. 11 and that Al Qaeda's failure to mount another strike was "not just dumb luck."

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan dismissed the idea of a truce overture from Bin Laden. "We do not negotiate with terrorists," he said. "We put them out of business."

Bin Laden said his message was "about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how to end them," and he appealed for a break in the conflicts, which have claimed the lives of many Muslims as well as U.S. and allied troops.

"We don't mind offering you a long-term truce on fair conditions," Bin Laden said. "So both sides can enjoy security and stability under this truce so we can build Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been destroyed in this war."

He did not elaborate on the conditions for a truce.

The tape is addressed primarily to listeners in the United States. Bin Laden referred to the "repeated errors your President Bush has committed" in the administration's war on terrorism and to polls showing rising sentiment against the war in Iraq.

But terrorism experts said it was also tailored to audiences in the Middle East. In particular, Bin Laden's offer of a truce seems designed to elevate his stature among Muslims weary of suicide bombings and other violence.

"That's a wonderful propaganda ploy," said Paul Pillar, former deputy chief of the counter-terrorism center at the CIA. "He's portraying himself and his organization as a legitimate actor in international affairs."

Pillar said Bin Laden's claim that Al Qaeda was plotting fresh attacks in the United States was "a handy way of explaining why they haven't done more operations."

In the Middle East, Bin Laden's message was seen by some as a change in approach.

"This speech is a qualitative shift in Bin Laden's strategy and thinking," said Mamdouh Ismail, a top criminal lawyer for Islamic militants in Egypt.

"He's addressing the elite and the administration in the U.S. in a politically mature way, and throwing the ball in their court."

Several experts in the Middle East and at Arabic-language newspapers in London said they thought Bin Laden sounded tired or ill.

Release of the tape may also have been aimed at bolstering morale within the Al Qaeda terrorist network after last Friday's missile attack in western Pakistan.

Officials said it appeared increasingly unlikely that the airstrike had succeeded in hitting its primary target, Ayman Zawahiri, Bin Laden's top lieutenant. But U.S. officials have said that several senior Al Qaeda figures were killed, and Pakistani authorities have said that the network's chief bomb maker and chemical weapons expert, Abu Khabab Masri, may have been among them.

"What's interesting is the timing of this release," said one U.S. counter-terrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "For well over a year, Zawahiri has been the public face of Al Qaeda, doing numerous audio and video recordings."

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