Video footage in which Osama bin Laden is shown meeting some of the hijackers responsible for the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington was aired last night on al-Jazeera television.
In the film Bin Laden is seen sitting with Mohammed Atef, a former lieutenant, and Ramzi Binalshibh, another suspected planner of the suicide hijackings. Bin Laden is also shown greeting several of what the tape said were the hijackers.
The film, produced by As-Sahab, al-Qa'ida's media branch, was released as George Bush, for the fourth time in just eight days, tried to focus the country on his handling of the "war on terror", insisting that his administration had made the US far safer in the five years since the 11 September terror attacks.
"We have waged an unprecedented campaign against terrorism at home and abroad and that campaign has succeeded in protecting the homeland," Mr Bush said in Atlanta, Georgia, four days before the anniversary of the 2001 attacks. His latest speech came less than 24 hours after his surprise announcement of the transfer of 14 suspected terrorists from secret CIA prisons to the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba.
One of those suspects, Ramzi Binalshibh, appeared in the footage shown on al-Jazeera last night. Binalshibh was captured four years ago in Pakistan and is being held in US custody. Atef, also known as Abu Hafs al-Masri, was killed in an attack by the US in Afghanistan in 2001.
The video shows Bin Laden dressed in a dark robe and white head gear walking outdoors in a mountainous area. Al-Jazeera did not say how it obtained the video. The station has screened numerous films airing Bin Laden and other al-Qa'ida supporters' views.
Yesterday Mr Bush also delivered a spirited defence of the Patriot Act, the 2001 measure renewed last March by Congress thatincreases the power of law enforcement agencies, but which critics say is a dangerous curtailment of civil liberties.
He insisted again that the programme of "warrantless" domestic wiretapping, run by the National Security Agency, was essential if the US was to protect itself from future terrorist attacks on its own soil.
With this series of public appearances, Mr Bush is seeking to imprint himself anew in the country's consciousness as he did in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, his finest hour, when he vowed to track down implacably those responsible for the worst terror attacks on the US mainland.
This vowexplains his determination to have Congress approve the proposals for special military commissions within the next few weeks that will conduct the trials of the 14 terror suspects.
This will also ensure that the legislature's business will be dominated by terrorism issues in the run-up to November's mid-term elections. The Democrats have in effect been challenged to go along with the President, or face charges from their opponents of being soft on national security a tactic that worked for the Republicans in 2002 and 2004.
The commissions will replace the previous tribunals outlawed by the Supreme Court earlier this year. If Congress goes along with it, they could be up and running early in 2007. However, serious obstacles remain, not least a group of senior Republicans, led by John Warner, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who demand greater protection for detainees than those contained in the draft bill.
Human rights groups are also aghast at the new provisions. As envisaged by the legislation sent to Congress, the commissions would allow the use of secret evidence and of statements obtained under coercion. The procedures "lack basic protections necessary for a fair trial", Human Rights Watch claimed.
In its present form, the measure would also make the Geneva Conventions the internationally agreed guidelines for the treatment of prisoners in time of war unenforceable in court, the group added.
For their part, Democrats will not give Mr Bush a free pass on the terror issue. "We're not going to be 'Swiftboated' on this issue," said Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader in the House a reference to John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid that was thrown by attacks on his Vietnam service as commander of a US Navy gunboat. Mr Kerry's belated response allowed Republicans to win the initiative at a critical moment of the campaign.