Bin Laden, on Tape, Reveals Sept. 11 Motive
Four days before the U.S. presidential election, Osama bin Laden appeared on a videotape broadcast worldwide Friday, describing his motives for plotting the Sept. 11 attacks and telling Americans that they can save themselves from future violence by not supporting a crackdown on his Al Qaeda network.
Appearing healthy and looking directly into the camera, Bin Laden said that neither President Bush nor his Democratic rival, Sen. John F. Kerry, held the keys to American security. “O American people, I am speaking to tell you about the ideal way to avoid another Manhattan.... Your security is in your own hands and each state which does not harm our security will remain safe.”
The tape, portions of which were aired first on the Arabic-language Al Jazeera satellite television channel, marked the first time in a year that the Al Qaeda leader had appeared on videotape. It was also the first time since December 2001 that Bin Laden had made a lengthy address on videotape.
In the tape, Bin Laden said the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington had been inspired by his anger over the U.S. role in Israel’s 1982 occupation of Lebanon. He had admitted his role in the attacks in a videotape in December 2001.
The tape added an uncertain element to the waning days of the presidential campaign and prompted quick responses from the candidates. For months, Bush and Kerry have made the U.S.-declared war on terrorism a central theme in their campaigns, and on Friday each asserted that Bin Laden’s remarks were further proof that voters should elect him Tuesday.
At a campaign stop in West Palm Beach, Fla., Kerry said, “Let me make it clear -- crystal clear: As Americans, we are absolutely united in our determination to hunt down and destroy Osama bin Laden and the terrorists. They are barbarians. And I will stop at absolutely nothing to hunt down, capture or kill the terrorists wherever they are, whatever it takes. Period.”
After a campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio, Bush read a short statement on the airport tarmac. He took no questions.
“Americans will not be intimidated or influenced by an enemy of our country. I’m sure Sen. Kerry agrees with this,” Bush said. “I also want to say to the American people that we’re at war with these terrorists. And I’m confident that we will prevail.”
In a separate television interview, Kerry renewed his attacks on Bush for failing to capture the Al Qaeda leader during the battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan in late 2001.
That prompted Bush to strike back, calling those remarks “the worst kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking.”
Observers suggested that it was too soon to say how Bin Laden’s resurfacing might affect the outcome of the presidential election, if at all.
“You can argue that it shifts attention back to the global war on terrorism and away from Iraq, the economy and healthcare,” said Charles Cook, publisher of the Cook Political Report, an independent election guide. “Or you can argue that it reminds people that Bin Laden was never caught, that we put the emphasis on Iraq and Saddam Hussein instead.”
U.S. counter-terrorism officials and experts agreed that Bin Laden’s taped message appeared timed to affect the election, but it was unclear how. Bin Laden was dismissive of both major candidates, although most of his scorn centered on Bush.
It was also unclear whether it portends a new attack. “The very fact that he appeared is significant and cause for concern, in and of itself. But the message itself is not a blood-curdling one,” said one U.S. official who was familiar with the tape.
“He does not have a rifle in this one. He’s not in cammies,” the official said, referring to military fatigues. “There was no explicit threat.... But I emphasize we’re early on in analyzing this. Does concern remain high? You bet.”
In the past, Bin Laden and top deputy Ayman Zawahiri have appeared on such tapes shortly before attacks occurred, including the strikes on two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and on the U.S. destroyer Cole in 2000. Often Bin Laden and Zawahiri wore camouflage or displayed rifles or daggers, senior intelligence officials said.
In other cases, no attacks have occurred, particularly after the release of tapes in which no weapons or other symbols of war were visible, they noted. Nevertheless, authorities have been warning for months that intelligence indicated that Al Qaeda wanted to influence the upcoming presidential election.
Even if the new tape was not intended to trigger a specific attack by Al Qaeda operatives, the official noted, it could spark violence and terrorism anyway. “Having [Bin Laden] show up and lay a catalog of grievances at the feet of the American government is incitement.”
The U.S. official said the CIA and other agencies had received nothing specific in recent days to suggest that plans for an attack were underway. And he said that Al Qaeda rarely, if ever, synchronizes its assaults with a particular event such as an election or symbolic date.
“They attack when they’re ready and when they think they can get away with it,” the official said. “So if the elections go off peacefully, no one is going to walk off the field and say it’s over. Not at all.”
A State Department official confirmed that the United States spent half a day trying to persuade Qatar-based Al Jazeera and the government in Doha to keep the tape off the air.
“We don’t believe it’s appropriate or desirable for any media outlet to provide a platform for terrorists to preach their message of hatred and violence,” the State Department official said. “I think the Qatar government is trying to have it both ways. They’ve tried to accommodate us by not showing the whole thing but also tried not to cave in” to Al Qaeda by showing part of the tape rather than all of it.
Al Jazeera said it broadcast only “newsworthy and relevant” portions of the tape, which U.S. officials said was about 18 minutes long.
Bin Laden again acknowledged a central role in initiating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed about 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, saying he thought of the idea after the U.S. military involvement in Lebanon in 1982.
“As I watched the destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the unjust the same way [and] to destroy towers in America so it could taste some of what we are tasting and to stop killing our children and women,” he said, according to one translation.
By late Friday, the CIA and other U.S. agencies had thoroughly scoured the new tape for clues to where, how and when it was made as well as clues Bin Laden may have left in the content and delivery of his message.
On the tape, markings indicate that it was made by the Al Sahab for Media Production, which the U.S. official identified as Al Qaeda’s media committee, responsible for some previous tapes. It also bears the date “10 Ramadan,” or last Sunday, the official said.
The U.S. official and other authorities said Bin Laden looked healthy, if slightly thinner than in his last appearance. He spoke in a strong, unwavering voice, at times appearing almost defiant, jabbing his finger in the air on occasion for emphasis.
“He is saying, ‘I am here. They haven’t got me,’ ” said the official who is familiar with the tape, who requested anonymity.
Only last week, Vice President Dick Cheney commented on Bin Laden’s low profile.
“We haven’t seen much of him,” Cheney said on Oct. 22. “You’ll notice there haven’t been any Bin Laden tapes running on the air where he’s out broadcasting messages, frankly, because we think he’s probably in a deep hole someplace, in hiding.”
Bin Laden also criticizes Bush harshly, attacking his political leadership and his performance as commander in chief on Sept. 11, when the president remained in a Florida classroom and listened to the reading of a children’s book after being told of the attacks.
“It never occurred to us that the commander in chief of the American forces would leave 50,000 citizens in the two towers to face those horrors alone at a time when they most needed him, because he thought listening to a child discussing her goat and its ramming was more important than the planes and their ramming of the skyscrapers,” Bin Laden said.
“I am surprised by you,” the Saudi-born militant said, addressing Americans. “Despite entering the fourth year after Sept. 11, Bush is still deceiving you and hiding the truth from you and therefore the reasons are still there to repeat what happened.”
Bush, Bin Laden said, “resembles the regimes in our countries, half of which are ruled by the military and the other half by the sons of kings.... They have a lot of pride, arrogance, greed and thievery.”
Bush was aboard Air Force One just before noon Friday when national security advisor Condoleezza Rice notified him of Bin Laden’s comments, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters.
McClellan said there would be no immediate change in the nation’s terrorist threat level, which remains at Code Orange, or high risk of attack, for Washington and the financial services sector in New York City and northern New Jersey. Orange is the second-highest level on the government’s five-level warning scale. The rest of the nation is at Code Yellow, or elevated risk.
“We are on a heightened state of awareness already,” McClellan said. He declined to answer questions about whether Bush believed that Bin Laden was trying to influence the election, saying, “I’ll leave the political analysis to others.” He added, “If there is actionable intelligence on it, we will act.”
Authorities planned to analyze the tape through the weekend, cross-referencing it with other recent intelligence as well as with historical data on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. They were particularly interested in whether Bin Laden showed signs of shrapnel injuries he might have sustained during the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan in late 2001, and indications that he suffers from kidney disease, as many have suggested.
Meanwhile, senior U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials differed sharply in their initial interpretations of the tape. “This has raised the anxiety level through the roof,” said one senior federal law enforcement official in Washington.
But a second senior official called the tape confusing. “Everybody is kind of scratching their head,” the official said. “Clearly, he’s trying to influence American voters. The question is, why?”
On March 11, suspected Al Qaeda followers blew up commuter trains in Madrid just before Spanish national elections, killing 191 and prompting voters to reject the incumbent party, which had sent troops to Iraq and had been expected to win. A month later, Bin Laden released a tape in which he offered other European governments a cease-fire of sorts if they withdrew their troops from Iraq and other Islamic nations.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
‘Your Security Is in Your Own Hands’
EXCERPTS FROM BIN LADEN TAPE
Unlike what Bush says, that we hate freedom, let him tell us why didn’t we attack Sweden, for example.... As you undermine our security, we undermine yours.
Despite entering the fourth year after Sept. 11, Bush is still deceiving you and hiding the truth from you....
The incidents that affected me directly go back to 1982 and afterward, when America allowed Israelis to invade Lebanon, with the help of the American 6th Fleet....
As I watched the destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the unjust the same way [and] to destroy towers in America so it could taste some of what we are tasting and to stop killing our children and women.
We did not find it difficult to deal with Bush and his administration, because it resembles the regimes in our countries, half of which are ruled by the military and the other half by the sons of kings.... They have a lot of pride, arrogance, greed and thievery.
This resemblance became clear in Bush the father’s visits to the region.... He wound up being impressed by the royal and military regimes and envied them for staying decades in their positions and embezzling the nation’s money with no supervision.
He passed on tyranny and oppression to his son, and they called it the Patriot Act, under the pretext of fighting terror. Bush the father did well in placing his sons as governors and did not forget to pass on the expertise in fraud from the leaders of the [Mideast] region to Florida to use it in critical moments.
It never occurred to us that the commander in chief of the American forces would leave 50,000 citizens in the two towers to face these horrors alone ... because he thought listening to a child discussing her goat and its ramming was more important than the planes and their ramming of the skyscrapers.
Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or Al Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands, and each state which does not harm our security will remain safe.
Source: Times Wire Services
Times staff writers Edwin Chen, Maura Reynolds and Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.
Times staff writers Edwin Chen, Maura Reynolds and Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.