Bin Laden ‘Could Be’ on Tape

Times Staff Writers

After more than a year of suspense over whether Osama bin Laden is dead or alive, U.S. officials said they believe the man heard on an audiotape Tuesday praising recent attacks against civilians in Indonesia and Russia and urging new strikes on the United States and its allies is the terrorist mastermind.

Several U.S. officials cautioned that the National Security Agency, CIA and other authorities would continue to analyze the high-quality audiotape throughout the night for conclusive confirmation that the voice is that of Bin Laden. But they said they believe that the founder and leader of the Al Qaeda network -- silent, hunted and unseen since last year -- is the man heard issuing a series of threats and calls to arms to Muslims around the world.

The 4 1/2-minute tape was provided to the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television network and broadcast globally beginning Tuesday afternoon under the heading, “New audio statement by Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden ... to the peoples of the countries allied with the tyrannical U.S. government,” according to a transcript released by U.S. officials Tuesday evening.


On the tape, the man believed to be Bin Laden refers to recent terrorist attacks in Bali, Tunisia, Yemen, Pakistan and Moscow and says they were in response to those countries’ support of the United States in its military strikes on Afghanistan and in other alleged acts of aggression against Muslims, including in Iraq.

The comments come at a troubling time as the U.S. spearheads a coalition gearing up for war with Iraq and amid growing indications that Al Qaeda is regrouping and planning more attacks in far-flung corners of the world.

The tape rang alarm bells at the White House, CIA, Pentagon and elsewhere in Washington, officials said, because Bin Laden has been known to make such public pronouncements just before a terrorist strike, as was the case before Al Qaeda truck bombs killed 224 people at two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.

Several U.S. officials said an initial analysis of the tape, based on comparison with existing “voiceprints” of Bin Laden, indicates that it is authentic and was made in recent weeks -- the first concrete evidence that the Saudi-born fugitive survived both the punishing military attacks in Afghanistan and perhaps the most aggressive global manhunt in history. Many U.S. officials, including the FBI’s top counter-terrorism authority, had said publicly that they believed Bin Laden was probably dead.

“I don’t doubt that it’s Bin Laden, but there is no reason to rush to judgment on this,” said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We are waiting for our analysts to check all possibilities. Significant portions of it could be Bin Laden, with other parts spliced in.

“Initial reports can be wrong,” the official added. “But we’re hearing that [technical] people are saying, yes, it sounds like him.”


Several counter-terrorism experts said Bin Laden’s apparent resurfacing might have been triggered by the increasing drumbeat of war with Iraq.

“The confrontation with Iraq is perfect grist for the jihadist mill,” said Daniel Benjamin, a former counter-terrorism expert at the National Security Council and co-author of a recent book on Al Qaeda and its conflicts with the West. “Even though he has no sympathy for [Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein or the regime there, Bin Laden has always cast the confrontation with Iraq as another example of the struggle between the infidels and the crusaders” and the followers of Islam.

Moreover, Bin Laden’s emergence would underscore what critics of an Iraq invasion have argued -- that the war on terrorism is unfinished and that an assault on Baghdad would stretch U.S. resources too thin. Senior military officials seem increasingly impatient with the progress of the war on terrorism, particularly the often fruitless sweeps of territory along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Last week, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he thought that the United States had “lost a little momentum” in the hunt for Al Qaeda and argued for putting greater emphasis on shoring up the Afghan government.

U.S. counter-terrorism authorities -- and British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- have cautioned in recent days that there has been an alarming increase in the kind of intelligence “chatter” that normally precedes a major terrorist attack, at a level unseen since the assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“Whoever made the tape is threatening the entire world and throws their barbs at everybody,” said one senior U.S. official. “Does this significantly change anything? Probably not, except that it is a good reminder that we are dealing with an international terrorist threat that is still out there and that we have to band together and fight it together.”


At the Justice Department and FBI, the airing of the tape put authorities on an even higher state of war footing than they had been previously, one official said. “It makes us have to be even more on our guard, which is a hard thing to do because we are already at a very heightened state of alert,” the official said.

If Bin Laden’s voice is confirmed, it is sure to renew hand-wringing over how the Al Qaeda leader escaped U.S. forces who had him all but trapped in the snowy mountains near Tora Bora, Afghanistan, last December.

For two weeks, allied forces and B-52 bombers pounded Al Qaeda fighters dug into the cavernous and rocky terrain. But when it was over, there was no sign of Bin Laden, and it was clear that hundreds of his followers had escaped.

The missed opportunity is regarded as a major blunder in the Afghan war. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, has been heavily criticized for failing to choke off exits with American troops and for relying on Afghan forces that, in hindsight, didn’t seem to have been up to the task.

The question of whether Bin Laden is alive remains a sensitive one for the Bush administration as well.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush talked of taking him “dead or alive.” In later months, he began to argue that capturing “one man” was not the primary objective of the war. More recently, senior administration officials have bristled when the subject has been broached.


On Tuesday, a spokesman for the White House and National Security Council said Bush would not comment on the tape until more information was available as to whether the voice was indeed Bin Laden’s.

On the tape, the man asks: “Why should fear, killing, destruction, displacement, orphaning and widowing continue to be our lot, while security, stability and happiness be your lot? It is time we get even.

“You will be killed just as you kill and will be bombed just as you bomb. And expect more that will further distress you.”

U.S. officials said that they began analyzing the tape even as it was being broadcast and that they were trying to determine how the tape came into the possession of the satellite network, which has been used frequently by Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders to get their militant messages broadcast to the world.

The NSA and CIA are using a variety of ultra-high-tech means to determine the authenticity of the tape, officials said. In addition, the tape is being scrutinized to see whether it has been manipulated to make use of recordings made by Bin Laden last year.

Authenticating the tape should be possible, said Andy Merlino, advanced technology manager for Virage Inc., a San Mateo company that specializes in video analysis for media and biometric security systems.


Voice analysis systems use verifiable samples of speech from a subject to create a “library” of vocal tones and frequencies, syntax and semantic usage of the language. Products from Virage can distinguish between 1,000 speakers using such technologies.

Mimicry of Bin Laden’s voice by another person would be detectable because each person uses unique intonation and vocal frequencies that can’t be fully copied, Merlino said.

“If he is alive, it means the [Al Qaeda] organization most likely is more cohesive and organized than it otherwise would be,” said William Wechsler, a former director of Transnational Threats at the White House and co-author of a report by the Council on Foreign Relations on Al Qaeda’s recent resurgence.

There have been recent signs of stepped-up activity in the hunt for Bin Laden. U.S. officials said a Pakistani physician believed to have treated Bin Laden was recently detained in Pakistan and is being questioned. Dr. Amir Aziz, a British-trained orthopedic surgeon, was arrested in Lahore in October.

Intelligence officials said the best available information indicates that if Bin Laden is still alive, he is likely to be hiding in Pakistan or in the border regions of Afghanistan.


Times staff writer Charles Piller in Los Angeles contributed to this report.