WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden appears to be alive - and he's trying to exploit Muslim anger at the US presence in Iraq to recruit new followers for a final showdown with American "crusaders."
Those are the conclusions experts draw from a newly released video purporting to show Mr. bin Laden and his top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
A few analysts believe that the tape could be a pastiche of old clips. But most agree with the official US conclusion that the images are genuine.
They worry that the tape's fiery rhetoric reflects the degree to which Iraq today has become like Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation - a magnet for thousands of Islamists bent on jihad.
"They look for causes, and Iraq is a perfect cause," says Stanley Bedlington, a former senior analyst in the CIA's counterterrorism center.
The videotape of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri was broadcast on the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite television channel on September 10. It shows the pair walking through rocky terrain in an unidentified area. Bin Laden is shown in close-up next to a tree. Both men carry walking sticks at times, and at others, automatic weapons.
The video is silent, and in total runs for over an hour. Audiotapes released at the same time provide a narration of sorts.
Bin Laden's words are more general, and praises terrorists for doing "great damage to the enemy." He also names five of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Dr. Zawahiri's audio track is more specific. He denigrates US efforts to mediate peace between Israelis and Palestinians, saying that "Palestine will only be liberated with jihad." And he calls on resistance fighters to "bury [Americans] in Iraq's graveyard."
"We advise the mothers of the crusade soldiers, if they hope to see their sons, to quickly ask their governments to return them before they return them in coffins," says the voice alleged to be Dr. Zawahiri.
A senior intelligence official says that the US has concluded both voices were recorded at the same time, in the same room. Background noise, tone, and clarity were identical.
Pinpointing where the video was shot will be a daunting task, given the size of Afghanistan. But US intelligence will try.
"They'll wheel out geologists, guys who know about trees and flowers," says the US official.
Release of the tapes on the eve of the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks was a move clearly meant to say that bin Laden remains alive and well, according to experts both inside and outside government.
"He can't afford to be quiescent forever," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at RAND Corp. "He risks becoming irrelevant. If he is going to reappear, now is the time."
Yet the apparent survival of Al Qaeda's two top leaders does not by itself prove the group remains vital, caution some. The CIA has recently judged that continued pressure has isolated bin Laden, forcing him to rely on couriers for communications as he shuttles around the isolated border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. US intelligence holds that the central leadership of al Qaeda now risks coming apart.
"While the group has a large bench of middle managers and foot soldiers, it is rapidly losing its cadre of senior planners who have access to, and the trust of, bin Laden," concludes an unclassified CIA assessment.
But the CIA goes on to say that this progress does not mean that the danger from Al Qaeda and is allies has abated. Indeed, this lesson is clearly shown in Iraq, where at least some portion of the continuing violence is thought to be the work of several thousand Muslim extremists who have infiltrated the country from Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
Bin Laden's statements since being forced on the run in Afghanistan have always actively encouraged jihadists. It's not clear how closely Islamic fighters in Iraq are linked to Al Qaeda, but bin Laden's propaganda likely has motivated them.
"He ... set in motion what is materializing now," says Bruce Hoffman.
But it remains a stretch to equate Iraq today with Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation - and not just because of the different characters of the intervening regimes.
For one thing, in Afghanistan the population almost universally opposed the Russians and welcomed and aided guerrilla fighters. While there is substantial resistance to the US in Iraq, there is also a large segment of the population that is neutral, or pro-US.
"There is far less universal support in Iraq for opposition to the invading forces than there was in Afghanistan," says a former senior intelligence official with years of experience in the region.
For another, in Afghanistan there was an established great power, the US, that was aiding and abetting resistance, and a neighboring state, Pakistan, that was a willing conduit for the weapons and money of that great power.