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Bin Laden message: 'I'm still here.'

In new audiotape, the Al Qaeda leader both threatens the US and offers a kind of truce.

By , Faye Bowers / January 20, 2006


A new audiotape of Osama bin Laden is designed to counter Western intelligence speculation that the Al Qaeda leader has been cornered or killed, terrorism experts say - and to raise jitters that America's most wanted is still planning terrorist attacks.

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"It proves two things," says Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's Bin Laden unit. "He's not dead. And despite all the things we say about him being isolated and alone, he can clearly dominate the international media when he wants to."

As in the past, the Islamist radical is also believed to be sending a message as much to the Muslim world as to the United States.

In a brief audiotape aired Thursday on Arab television station Al Jazeera, the speaker scoffs at claims that US antiterrorism measures are the reason no more attacks have hit the US since Sept. 11, 2001. Instead, the speaker says, further attacks are in preparation and "you will see them in your houses as soon as they are complete, God willing."

In a new twist, the speaker refers to rising US public opinion against the war in Iraq and says, "We have no objection to responding to this with a long-term truce." In an April 2004 tape, bin Laden offered Europe a truce - a move some analysts saw at the time as an effort to exploit a divide among Western allies over Iraq and antiterrorist measures.

In the same way, bin Laden might be trying to take advantage of what he sees as divisions in the US - although some analysts caution against reading more into the latest tape than a basic desire to reaffirm that the terrorist leader is alive and well.

"He's saying that whatever measures we've taken, they have not affected him," says Judith Yaphe, a former CIA Middle East analyst now at the National Defense University in Washington. "He's got to reassure people that he's alive and well."

Experts in South Asia, where bin Laden is assumed to remain in hiding, agree.

"There has been this long discussion in the media - is Osama bin Laden alive, is he dead, why hasn't he spoken, et cetera? So this is probably a reaction to that," says Ahmed Rashid, author of "The Taliban" and a longtime observer of jihadist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Of course, if the voice on the tape does turn out to be confirmed as bin Laden's, it does not necessarily prove that bin Laden is unaffected by US and other counterterrorism measures aimed at him and other Al Qaeda operatives.

"It's extremely easy for him to get a message out like this," says Mr. Scheuer, the former US intelligence analyst. "It can be delivered from anywhere in the world" but still appear as though he is doing just fine. On a tape, he adds, "a pup tent can be made to look like a palace."

Still, the tape holds particular messages - both to the US, in the form of an offered "truce," and to the Muslim world, Scheuer says.

The truce offer is not unlike the overture bin Laden made to Europeans in April 2004, he says.

"[The] Madrid [bombings] came first [in March 2004], then he offered the truce, and then there were the London bombings," Scheuer says. "So I think we have to take him at his word here."

But then there is his message to Muslims. One goal is probably to reconfirm bin Laden's standing among Muslims as a leader.

"This says, 'I am the equal of George Bush,' " Ms. Yaphe notes, in the sense of a global player able to make a decision with global impact.

Other experts agree, noting that whatever Al Qaeda leaders may be trying to communicate to the US, they - like all wartime leaders - first and foremost are speaking to the homefront.

"Their real message is meant for consumption by their followers and potential recruits," says Brian Jenkins, a terror expert at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif. "It says, No. 1, Osama bin Laden is still in charge. By his communications, by him saying he has been busy preparing operations ... his offer of a truce - all of these are an assertion of leadership."

Beyond that, Mr. Jenkins adds, "It says he is in operational control," something that has been widely debated among analysts. "What [Bin Laden] is saying here is not only is he the leader, but that he also runs operations."