A chilling message to American voters

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The Independent Online

Osama bin Laden made a dramatic 11th-hour entry into the US presidential election campaign last night with a videotaped message in which he rebuked President George Bush for being slow to react on the morning of 11 September and said America's security was contingent on its safeguarding the security of the Islamic world.

It was the first time in more than a year that the fugitive al-Qa'ida leader had been seen on tape. The timing of his speech, broadcast on the Arab satellite channel al-Jazeera, was unmistakably planned for maximum impact just four days before the United States elects a new President.

Bin Laden laid into Mr Bush, saying his decision to sit vacantly in a Florida classroom on the morning of the 11 September attacks, choosing to keep listening to the story "My Pet Goat" even after he had been told two planes had hit the World Trade Centre, had given the suicide-hijackers far more time to carry out their deadly missions. "It never occurred to us that the commander-in-chief of the American armed forces would leave 50,000 of his citizens in the two towers to face these horrors alone," Bin Laden said. "It appeared to him [Mr Bush] that a little girl's talk about her goat and its ramming was more important than the planes and their ramming of the skyscrapers. That gave us three times the required time to carry out the operations, thank God."

Addressing the American people directly and issuing a not-so-veiled threat, he added: "Despite entering the fourth year after 11 September, Bush is still deceiving you and hiding the truth from you and therefore the reasons are still there to repeat what happened."

President Bush, campaigning in Toledo, Ohio, said that he had learned of the video's existence earlier in the day. "Let me make this very clear. Americans will not be intimidated or influenced by an enemy of our country," he said. John Kerry, who has criticised Mr Bush for failing to do enough to capture Bin Laden, said: "We are absolutely united in our determination to hunt down and destroy Osama bin Laden and the terrorists ... They are barbarians and I will stop at absolutely nothing to hunt down and capture or kill the terrorists wherever they are, whatever it takes. Period."

The intervention by Bin Laden appeared designed, above all, to provoke a reaction rather than provide any cogent political critique. If nothing else, it reminded US voters that he is still at large, and as elusive as ever. But it also seemed inevitable that it would be seized upon by one campaign team or the other for any partisan advantage that could be squeezed out of them. President Bush has frequently said that he believes al-Qa'ida would prefer Mr Kerry in the White House.

Bin Laden himself offered no endorsements. America's security, he said, depended not on who was elected President but on the country's policies towards the Muslim world.

"Your security is not in the hands of Kerry, Bush or al-Qa'ida. Your security is in your own hands," he said. "Each state that does not mess with our security, has naturally guaranteed its own security."

It was not immediately clear when the tape was made, but several experts including US government officials were left in no doubt about its authenticity. Its reference to Senator Kerry meant it could be no more than a few months old, and was likely to be considerably more recent than that.

On the tape, Bin Laden appeared strong and in good health. Standing at a lectern in front of a uniform brown background, he was shown pointing his right index finger directly at the camera as he spoke. His beard appeared largely grey.

The tape contained the first direct admission of responsibility for the 11 September attacks, which killed about 3,000 people. Bin Laden has boasted about them before, but never has he given a detailed rationale for why he ordered them.

"We fought you because we are free ... and want to regain freedom for our nation," he said. "As you undermine our security we undermine yours."

He said he was first inspired to attack the US by the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon in which towers and buildings in Beirut were destroyed. "While I was looking at these destroyed towers in Lebanon, it sparked in my mind that the tyrant should be punished with the same and that we should destroy towers in America, so that it tastes what we taste and would be deterred from killing our children and women," he said.