Presenting to a worldwide television audience what it said is a compelling case, the Bush administration Thursday released a videotape that shows a serene and often smiling Osama bin Laden recounting his role in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Amid repeated references to God, Bin Laden describes the deadly operation in incriminating detail, saying that many of the hijackers knew only that they'd been dispatched on a mission of "martyrdom" and tilting his head back in laughter when recounting early radio reports of the attacks.
In one chilling segment, he uses his hands to reenact the collisions of the hijacked airliners hitting the World Trade Center and smiles at how the subsequent carnage exceeded even his "most optimistic" expectations.
"I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit and all the floors above it only," he explains. "This is all that we had hoped for."
The videotape, which the Pentagon said was recovered recently by allied forces in Afghanistan, depicts a remarkably casual early November meeting in Kandahar between Bin Laden, other top Al Qaeda officials and a man U.S. intelligence officials have identified as a visiting Saudi sheik.
Wearing military fatigues and carrying an AK47 rifle on his back, Bin Laden is seen describing the hijacking plot in coldly analytical terms. Plotters, he said, had "calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy who would be killed, based on the position of the tower" they targeted.
Though much of the tape's contents had been revealed in recent days by government officials, the White House withheld the footage from public release until 8 a.m. PST Thursday, when it was broadcast simultaneously by major television networks around the world.
The images on the tape are murky, events are out of sequence and portions of Bin Laden's conversation are inaudible. Administration officials said they had taken painstaking care in translating the Arabic dialogue into English text that scrolled upward from the bottom of the screen.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld noted that two independent experts were consulted to verify the accuracy of the translation, and the authenticity of the tape itself.
Still, there were skeptical reactions from the Arab world, where many raised questions about gaps in the tape's audio track and wondered whether exculpatory language had been omitted.
Labib Kamhawi, a political science professor at Jordan University in Amman, the capital, was among many who said the poor quality of the recording made it impossible to judge the accuracy of the U.S. transcript. Others suggested the images could have been manipulated.
The tape "does not give any meat to Americans' allegations," Kamhawi said. "This sort of talk and discussion that took place is probably the same sort of talk that took place in many houses throughout the Muslim world--this sort of talk and fantasizing--but it does not really prove anything."
But Sheik Abdullah bin Zaid al Nahayan, information minister for the United Arab Emirates, was convinced of the tape's authenticity. "There is no doubt in my mind that Bin Laden was behind those operations," he told Reuters. "The tape confirms that in a way that leaves no room for doubt."
An independent translator hired by The Times said much of the White House-furnished translation appears accurate but that the tape's sound quality is so poor in many sections that Bin Laden's words are indecipherable.
As a result, the translator, Radwan Hakim of Arab American Translators in Falls Church, Va., said he was unable to confirm about 30% to 40% of the transcript.
Anticipating skepticism, the White House sought to portray itself as a mere conduit for a piece of evidence culled from the battlefield. "The tape speaks for itself," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said. "People will be able to watch it and listen to it for themselves and form their own judgments."
Tens of millions of viewers around the world did exactly that, turning to their televisions in numbers not seen since coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks themselves on New York and the Pentagon. Among them were families and friends of the victims who perished, and of U.S. troops in Afghanistan who continued Thursday to pursue Bin Laden in the Tora Bora cave complexes where he is believed to be hiding.
Florence Foti, whose husband was among the firefighters who died at the World Trade Center, said she was repulsed by the footage but expressed hope that it would help convince the world of Bin Laden's evil.
"This maniac had a death wish for America and my two children lost their father," she said as she watched the tape. Bin Laden is "not a man," she said. "He's the antichrist, and now everybody sees it."
Other relatives of victims said they were unable to bring themselves to watch.
A Pentagon statement said officials released the tape after balancing "concerns about any additional pain that could be caused by its release against the value of having the world fully appreciate what we are up against in the war against terrorism."
U.S. intelligence officials said the videotape offers little new information about Bin Laden and the capabilities of his Al Qaeda terrorist network. But for a nation fighting a far-off war and still struggling to comprehend its new vulnerability, the tape offered a rare unguarded look at a sworn enemy.
The videotape appears to be an Al Qaeda home video of sorts. It captures about 40 minutes of conversation between Bin Laden and the visiting Saudi sheik, interrupted by about 20 minutes of footage of Al Qaeda members combing through the wreckage of a U.S. helicopter in Afghanistan.
As Bin Laden spoke of the attacks, he guided the fingertips of his right hand into the palm of his left, simulating the planes' moments of impact at the two World Trade Center towers. He then curled the fingers of his left hand to show how the structures were expected to topple.
Most of those involved in the suicide plot, Bin Laden said, remained ignorant of its details until they boarded the planes. "All they knew was that they have a martyrdom operation," Bin Laden said. "We asked each of them to go to America, but they didn't know anything about the operation, not even one letter."
Confirming suspicions of investigators, Bin Laden said the teams that carried out the plan were kept apart to protect secrecy. "Those who were trained to fly," he said, "didn't know the others." Mohamed Atta, the pilot of the first plane to strike the trade center, was "in charge of the group."
Bin Laden recounts news coverage of the attacks with particular relish. After finishing "our work that day," he said, he and colleagues gathered in the late afternoon around radios to catch the first bulletins on the strikes.
"Immediately, we heard the news that a plane had hit the World Trade Center," Bin Laden said. When colleagues erupted in delight, he recalled, "I said to them: 'Be patient,' " implying that more strikes would come.
As Bin Laden recalled the scene, he tilted his head back in laughter, politely concealing his mouth with his fist.
Throughout the tape, Bin Laden basks in the admiration of his guest, a sheik who appeared to be crippled from the waist down and was unable to rise from the floor when Bin Laden entered the sparse room to greet him with a kiss.
The sheik described how he had been "smuggled in" to see Bin Laden, expecting to be delivered to a cave hide-out but pleasantly surprised that they could meet in such a "clean and comfortable" guest house.
(A senior Saudi official identified the sheik Thursday night as a militant cleric named "al-Ghamdi," from the southern part of Saudi Arabia near the border with Yemen, according to the Washington Post.)
He praised the attacks as a victory for Islam. "Everybody praises what you did," the sheik said. "This is the guidance of God and the blessed fruit of jihad." The day of the attacks, he added, "the congratulations were coming on the phone nonstop."
The two discussed stories of followers who had come to them claiming to have foreseen the Sept. 11 attacks in dreams. At one point, Bin Laden said he grew concerned that so many Muslim "brothers" were having such prescient dreams before the attacks.
"I was worried that maybe the secret would be revealed if everyone starts seeing it in their dream," he said, recalling how he told one follower "not to tell anybody."
At the end of the footage of their dinner meeting, Bin Laden recited a poem that includes the line: "We will not stop our raids/until you free our lands."
Seated beside Bin Laden throughout the footage is Sulayman Abu Guaith, who serves as something of an Al Qaeda spokesman and has appeared several times in recent months on the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite television news channel.
U.S. intelligence officials said several top Al Qaeda officials also appear on the tape, including Ayman Zawahiri, Bin Laden's top deputy and a former leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. There have been repeated but unconfirmed reports that Zawahiri has since been killed in the war.
The CIA obtained the tape in late November from a Pushtun source who apparently recovered it near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, an intelligence official said.
Officials said they believe the tape was never meant to find its way into U.S. hands. "The manner in which the tape was acquired," Fleischer said, "would suggest that people were leaving the house in a real big hurry and left it behind."
Fleischer said President Bush learned of the tape on Nov. 29 and viewed portions of it, along with a transcript, early the next morning during his daily intelligence briefing.
The videotape carries a date stamp of Nov. 9, and intelligence officials say they believe that is approximately accurate because it is consistent with references in the recording to the then-approaching Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
On the day the Bin Laden tape is thought to have been recorded, opposition forces reported they had strengthened their positions in the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, sending Taliban soldiers fleeing from the strategic northern city and marking the most significant offensive in the then-monthlong war.
One lengthy segment of the tape includes images of the wreckage of a U.S. helicopter that made a hard emergency landing Nov. 2 in the Ghanzi province of Afghanistan because of bad weather.
The crew members all were rescued, Rumsfeld said at the time, but four of them suffered back injuries from the impact. The helicopter crew was on a mission to rescue a U.S. soldier on the ground who had fallen ill. That soldier was later picked up by another helicopter.
The remains of the helicopter looked charred in the video because two U.S. fighter jets were sent to the crash site to destroy the wreckage.
In another segment, Bin Laden followers are seen picking over the contents of a U.S. military bag that contained a gas mask and other implements. The Pentagon refused to release information about the bag, although tags visible on the tape appeared to show that it was the property of a Sgt. Fabela.
"For security reasons, we are not going to be identifying anything about the person," said Lt. Col. Martin Compton of the Air Force Central Command.
_ _ _
Times staff writers Elizabeth Shogren, Edwin Chen and Norman Kempster in Washington, Michael Slackman in Cairo and Josh Getlin in New York contributed to this report.