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."
The official stressed that "it's not clear at this point what his fate was," or whether Zawahiri was even in the vicinity when the missiles struck in a remote region of Pakistan. Zawahiri was part of a group of senior Al Qaeda figures who were expected to attend a terrorism summit in the region, U.S. officials said.
Bin Laden and Zawahiri are thought to be hiding along the rugged Afghan-Pakistani border, but counter-terrorism officials think the two have separated to reduce the chances of them being captured or killed together.
Bin Laden made a truce overture in April 2004, when he offered to stop attacks against European nations that withdrew their troops from Iraq and other Muslim countries.
The offer came a month after 191 people were killed in train bombings in Madrid but before last summer's transit attacks that killed 52 people in London.
In his latest message, Bin Laden referred to "the explosions you have seen in the capitals of the European nations that are in this aggressive coalition. The delay in similar operations in America has not been because of failure to break through your security measures."
Some claims the Al Qaeda leader makes are clearly unsubstantiated, such as a reference to the U.S. or "its agents" drilling through prisoners' heads.
He also promoted the economic benefits to America of ending the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"There is no shame in this solution, which prevents the wasting of billions of dollars that have gone to those with influence and merchants of war in America who have supported Bush's election campaign with billions of dollars," he said.
Previously, Bin Laden had professed hope that the cost of fighting terrorism would cripple the U.S. economy.
Bin Laden had not released any audiotape statement since December 2004, the longest period of silence since the Sept. 11 attacks.
His most recent videotape was released in October 2004, shortly before the U.S. presidential elections.
Times staff writers Janet Stobart in London and Hossam Hamalawy in Cairo contributed to this report.
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Other tapes from Osama bin Laden
Jan. 19, 2006: An audiotape attributed to Bin Laden says
Al Qaeda is making preparations for attacks in the United States
and offers a truce on "fair" but undefined conditions.
Dec. 27, 2004: In an audiotape, the Al Qaeda leader calls on Iraqis to boycott national assembly elections and names Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian blamed for major terrorist attacks in Iraq, as his deputy there.
Dec. 16, 2004: In an audiotape posted on an Islamist website, Bin Laden exonerates Islamic militants of responsibility for violence in Saudi Arabia and calls on militants to stop the flow of oil to the West.
Oct. 29, 2004: Al Jazeera broadcasts a videotape in which Bin Laden says the U.S. can avoid another attack like those of Sept. 11, 2001, if it stops threatening the security of Muslims.
May 6, 2004: In an online audiotape released on Islamic forums, Bin Laden offers rewards of gold for the killing of U.S. and United Nations officials.
April 15, 2004: In an audiotape broadcast on Arab TV channels, Bin Laden offers a "truce" to European countries that do not attack Muslims. He vows revenge against the United States for the Israeli assassination of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin.
Jan. 4, 2004: In an audiotape broadcast on Al Jazeera, Bin Laden says the U.S.-led war in Iraq is the beginning of the "occupation" of Persian Gulf states for their oil. He calls on Muslims to keep fighting a "holy war" in the Middle East.
Oct. 18, 2003: In an audiotape broadcast on Al Jazeera, Bin Laden warns Iraqis to stop cooperating with the U.S. and threatens new suicide attacks. *
Sept. 10, 2003: In the first video image of Bin Laden in nearly two years, he is shown walking through rocky terrain with his top deputy, Ayman Zawahiri. Two taped messages accompanied the video. In one, a voice purporting to be Bin Laden's praises the "great damage to the enemy" on Sept. 11 and mentions five hijackers by name. In the other, a voice said to be that of Zawahiri threatens more attacks on Americans.
April 8, 2003: In an audiotape obtained by Associated Press in Pakistan, a voice purported to be Bin Laden's exhorts Muslims to rise up against Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other states it calls "agents of America."
Feb. 13, 2003: An audiotape of Bin Laden reading a poetic last will and testament is aired on the British-based Islamic Al Ansaar news agency. Bin Laden says he wants to die a martyr in a new attack against the U.S.
Feb. 11, 2003: Bin Laden calls on Iraqis to carry out suicide attacks against Americans and defend themselves against a U.S. attack in an audiotape broadcast on Al Jazeera.
* Nov. 12, 2002: Al Jazeera airs an audiotape in which Bin Laden says the "youths of God" are planning more attacks against the U.S.
Dec. 13, 2001: Pentagon releases a videotape of Bin Laden in Afghanistan with a date stamp of Nov. 9, 2001, in which he says the Sept. 11 attacks exceeded even his "optimistic" calculations.
Source: Associated Press