A new videotape that has surfaced in Pakistan threatens a massive attack against the United States by a purported American member of Al Qaeda. It is not yet known if the tape is an authentic Al Qaeda production, but it bears enough resemblance that some experts are taking the tape seriously.
The chilling 75-minute digital videotape, seen by a Christian Science Monitor reporter in Pakistan, where it was obtained by ABC News, shows a high degree of sophistication and bears the logo of Al Qaeda's video production house, As-Sahab.
On the video, the unknown man's face is masked with a Palestinian scarf and sunglasses. He stabs the air with his finger, which appears to be fair-skinned, as he delivers his warning in American-accented English.
"Allah willing, the streets of America will run red with blood, matching drop for drop the blood of America's victims," says the speaker, who calls himself Azzam al Amriki (or Azzam the American). "What took place on September 11th was but the opening salvo in the global war on America."
The next attacks, he adds, "could come at any moment."
This is the first time a purported Al Qaeda video has featured an English-speaking messenger, and while he references the top two Al Qaeda leaders, neither Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri appear. This unique circumstance, as well as the highly charged timing of the tape's release just days before Americans head to the polls, has the US intelligence community approaching the tape with caution.
"As-Sahab is an Al Qaeda propaganda outfit and engages in psychological warfare," says Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terror at the RAND Corp. in Washington. "Given the hype of the US election in general, that the jihadists claim credit for affecting the outcome of the Spanish elections, and the heightened chatter that intelligence agencies acknowledge, I'm surprised we haven't seen something like this sooner."
While ABC has not aired the video, knowledge of its existence was leaked to the Drudge Report and picked up by the mainstream press including NBC, Fox, the Washington Post, and Reuters who all reported on the video without seeing it.
"ABC News has shared this tape with both the CIA and FBI as part of our reporting process. ABC News is committed to accurate, credible, and complete journalism and is applying the same scrutiny to this tape that we apply to all raw information. ABC continues to report this story very aggressively," says Jeffery Schneider, vice president of ABC News.
At press time, the US intelligence community had yet to authenticate the video but they continued to work on it.
"Unless you can identify the individual or compare [it] to known samples, it is difficult to authenticate," says a US intelligence official. "There's no information in the intelligence community that links this video to a specific threat. So what [the speaker] is talking about doesn't appear in other intelligence."
The tape, delivered to ABC in Islamabad last Sunday by a courier who was paid a $500 transport fee, contains a lengthy Q&A session between "Mr. Amriki" and an off-camera interviewer. It ends with his warning, which cuts off abruptly when the tape runs out.
Analysts at Pakistan's spy agency, the ISI, say the tape is genuine, explaining the material bears the same "signature" as previous As-Sahab video releases, which are unique in the world of jihadi video for their sophisticated editing techniques.
It features the same gold logo that appeared, among other places, in a 2003 statement from Mr. bin Laden.
There's also simultaneous Arabic subtitling - a complicated and time consuming process to put together - and a scrolling message across the bottom of the screen (similar to the news tickers on CNN and Fox) that was featured on a recent statement from al-Zawahiri.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, as-Sahab has consistently pushed the frontiers of jihad media, publishing everything from "Nineteen Martyrs" (the story of the 9/11 hijackers) to live action terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia captured on video, says terrorism consultant Evan Kohlmann, who saw a portion of the material. "For someone to put that amount of advanced effort into fabricating an as-Sahab video sounds a little far-fetched," he says.
Ahmad Muffaq Zaidan, Pakistan's bureau chief for the Arab-language network Al Jazeera and the recipient of past As-Sahab material here, also rated the material genuine. "We have seen this style before - the translation, the logo, the scroll," he says.
The US intelligence official agrees that "there's a production value" to the tape.
"The tape itself was edited and portions were spliced together," he says. "It probably was worked on for a period of time - probably done fairly recently, as recently as late summer."
The tape's speaker references the conflict in Darfur, the 9/11 commission, Massachusetts same sex legislation, and the upcoming US presidential election.
Nevertheless, it's become easier and cheaper to produce a relatively sophisticated video. With about $3,500, one can purchase a small digital video camera and a laptop with video editing software, and create output, which as Kohlmann puts it, is worthy of "a half-decent Hollywood studio."
"Terrorist wannabes [have] manufactured an encyclopedia full of fraudulent threats and communiques on the Internet," says Kohlmann. "It is now getting easy enough that similar wannabes can produce their own jihad videos too."
Al Amriki issues several bursts of Arabic, mainly from the Koran, speaking the language well, but not as a native, say Arabic speakers who've heard the tape. And he's clearly a sophisticated news consumer - quoting sources ranging from BBC's Arabic language radio to US comedian Bill Maher.
His rhetoric - both in English and Arabic - closely mirrors past statements by Al Qaeda: calling US leaders crusaders and weaving a picture of America as a corrupt empire about to expire.
The courier who delivered the tape would reveal nothing about Al Amriki's identity, saying only that he received the material last Friday in Peshawar. He insisted it had been filmed in Pakistan's tribal belt, where militants are battling the Pakistani military.
ISI analysts believe dozens of US and European passport holders of Muslim descent have joined jihadi groups there, and say this man is probably one of them. Others believe he may be a new John Walker Lindh, the California native caught fighting with the Taliban in 2001.
US law enforcement agents have suggested it could be Adam Yahiye Gadahn, an Orange County native, suspected by the FBI to be working with Al Qaeda, possibly as a translator. Mr. Gadahn, who was born Adam Pearlman, also goes by the nom de guerre Abu Suhayb Al-Amriki.
"In the realm of psychological warfare, which is calculated to ratchet up the fear level, if it is a sworn enemy making those threats it's one thing, if it's someone speaking our language, living among us, it does heighten the sense of fear," says Mr. Hoffman of RAND. "That's what terrorism tries to do - raise the level of fear."
• Reporter Gretchen Peters is also ABC's producer in Pakistan. Staff writer Faye Bowers contributed from Washington.