The world's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, has proved he is still alive with his taped message broadcast Tuesday. He has also stood himself foursquare beside Iraq, amid mounting US preparations for an assault on Baghdad.
Threatening more violence against America and its allies, Mr. bin Laden justified recent attacks on Western targets and cast himself - once again - as a defender of the Iraqi people.
"At this pivotal point in history, as the US prepares to go to war against Iraq, he almost had to speak out ... to maintain credibility among his followers," says Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terrorism at the RAND Corp.
By doing so, bin Laden also appears to be presaging a new wave of terrorist attacks if there's a war with Iraq. "A commonality of interest," between Washington's two top enemies "could become a marriage of convenience," warns Magnus Ranstorp, who studies terrorism at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "War could push the connection, and Iraqi intelligence could certainly facilitate terror attacks."
The US and its allies are taking the bin Laden tape seriously.
Intelligence officials, who have not been sure whether bin Laden survived the intense military bombing of his Afghan mountain stronghold of Tora Bora last December, worked through the night to authenticate the tape. With near-certain verification that the voice is bin Laden's, it proves he has not only evaded an intense year-long dragnet, but also that the top leadership of his group is intact and still capable of wreaking more havoc.
"I don't think we have ever had an enemy more willing for us to know what he was doing," says a senior intelligence official. "Osama bin Laden is not going to engage in tit for tat discussions. When he has something to say, he will say it."
These intelligence officials and experts put credence in what bin Laden says because of the previous messages he and other members of his leadership have released, going back to 1996.
In early October, for example, Al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released an audiotape that preceded the terror attacks against the US Marines in Kuwait, the French tanker in Yemen, and the bomb blast in Bali. Many experts say that tape was meant to telegraph that Al Qaeda was still in business. It was also a likely signal to its followers to pick up the intensity of strikes.
But experts and intelligence officials say this tape was also meant to rally Al Qaeda followers around its long-stated ideological aims: to stop US support for Israel in its campaign against the Palestinian people, to force the US to withdraw its troops from the Islamic holy land in Saudi Arabia, and to end sanctions that were placed on Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War.
"To do nothing now and remain on the sidelines," Mr. Hoffman says, "would vitiate all their propagandistic claims over the years.... It shows that despite the enormous punishment inflicted on them, they still see the importance of communicating, disseminating propaganda."
To be sure, the US and its allies have inflicted enormous damage on the terror group. In a resoundingly successful military campaign, the US ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan last fall, depriving Al Qaeda of a headquarters from which to run its operations and a training ground for its followers.
In the months since, Al Qaeda's lead military planner, Mohammed Atef, was killed. Abu Zubaydah, bin Laden's operations chief, was taken into US custody. So were Ramzi Binalshibh, considered to be the instrumental planner of the 9/11 terror attacks against the US, and Omar al-Farouq, considered Al Qaeda's key facilitator for terror operations in Southeast Asia. In addition, hundreds of detainees have been rounded up in more than 90 countries cooperating with the US. And three alleged terror support cells have been broken up in the US.
The prospect of a US war against Iraq is already stirring anti-Western resentment in the Middle East, analysts say, and bin Laden's message appears an attempt to capitalize on that sentiment.
Though the Al Qaeda leader has little sympathy for the determinedly secular Saddam Hussein, the enemy of his enemy is his friend.
"This is an effort to mobilize his supporters, destabilize the West, and capitalize on the situation vis-à-vis Iraq," Dr. Ranstorp says of the tape. The message serves to encourage Al Qaeda supporters and possibly send a coded instruction to operatives. "The tape serves multiple purposes," he says. "One is to tell followers to get ready, to be poised to strike ... for whatever plan has been put in place."
Al Qaeda sleeper cells in the West will probably stick to their schedules for any attacks they are plotting, regardless of war in Iraq, Ranstorp says. But a US attack on Mr. Hussein "would act as an accelerator for spontaneous attacks by sympathizers" launching uncoordinated smaller attacks against Westerners in the Middle East.
The US and its allies are at a heightened state of alert because of this latest message and recent "chatter" intercepts. They have also urged citizens to remain vigilant, noting today's scheduled execution in Virginia of a Pakistani convicted of murdering two CIA employees in 1993.
The Bush administration says the US has the capability of fighting both the war on terror and a war on Iraq simultaneously. But that has many experts worried. "I think we're in for some very unpleasant surprises," says Stanley Bedlington, a former senior analyst in the CIA's counterterrorism center. "[Bin Laden] doesn't make idle threats."
Excerpts from the US translation of the Nov. 12 audiotape by Osama bin Laden:
"The road to safety begins by ending the aggression. Reciprocal treatment is part of justice. The incidents that have taken place since the raids of New York and Washington until now - like the killing of Germans in Tunisia and the French in Karachi, the bombing of the giant French tanker in Yemen, the killing of Marines in Failaka and the British and Australians in the Bali explosions, the recent operation in Moscow ... are only reactions and reciprocal actions. These actions were carried out by the zealous sons of Islam in defense of their religion....
"If you were distressed by the deaths of your men and the men of your allies in Tunisia, Karachi, Failaka, Bali, and Amman, remember our children who are killed in Palestine and Iraq everyday....
"Why should fear, killing, destruction, displacement, orphaning and widowing continue to be our lot, while security, stability and happiness be your lot? This is unfair. It is time we get even. You will be killed just as you kill, and will be bombed just as you bomb...."
- Associated Press