The mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden deepened last night with the release of a tape apparently made on about 11 December, in which he accuses the United States of a "vicious attack" against Islam.
The first excerpts of the tape were broadcast last night on the Qatar-based al-Jazeera television network, with the promise of a full airing of the 33-minute video tonight.
In it, the world's most wanted man claims to be speaking three months after the "blessed attack" against the US, and two months after the start of the "crusade against Islam" – presumably the beginning of the military campaign in Afghanistan on 7 October.
If so, then the tape would suggest that the Saudi-born Mr bin Laden is alive, and either survived – or had already escaped from – the fierce bombardment of al-Qa'ida's network of caves and bunkers in the Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan, which was at its height in mid- December.
In that context, the tape would be Mr bin Laden's answer to reports that he had been killed in the airstrikes (or, as one report in a Pakistani newspaper had it yesterday, that he had died of an illness).
For his followers, shaken by the collapse of their patron Taliban regime, the broadcast will be a rallying cry. For his American pursuers, who have vowed to catch him dead or alive, it comes across as a calculated taunt.
Last night the Bush administration had little response to offer to the tape. "I don't know if it's real, if it's new, if it's old," Richard McGraw, a Pentagon spokesman, said last night.
The senior editor of al-Jazeera, Ibrahim Hilal, said it had been received by his station "a couple of days ago" by an air courier service from Pakistan. The sender, he said, had given no name. But, assuming that it is authentic, it will only intensify Washington's determination to bring Mr bin Laden to earth.
The video images give no clues about where or when the tape was made. The background appears to be a plain brown blanket. Mr bin Laden himself is wearing his familiar fatigues. A combat rifle leans against the curtain to his right.
The al-Qa'ida leader looks tired and distinctly more gaunt than in the tape made public by Washington two weeks ago. In that, he apparently gloats over the success of the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks, indicating his prior knowledge of them and his surprise at the extent of the devastation.
The Pentagon has repeatedly acknowledged that it has no idea where he is hiding – assuming that he is alive.
Some reports have put him in northern Pakistan, just across the border from Tora Bora. Others claim he is either dead, still in hiding in Afghanistan, or that he has made his escape to sympathetic states, ranging from Somalia to Yemen, the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya, or even his native Saudi Arabia.
In another clue about the date of the recording, Mr bin Laden refers to the bombing of a mosque in Khost as happening "several days" beforehand. An errant American bomb damaged a mosque in the town of Khost on 16 November.
In the tape, Mr bin Laden also condemns the US as a nation that speaks about humanity and freedom but that commits crimes against millions of Afghanis – another clear attempt to rally the wider Islamic world against America, the so-called "head of the snake" of the West.
"It has become crystal clear that the West in general, led by the United States, are full of hatred against Islam. Hatred cannot be defined," Mr bin Laden declares from his hideway.
The suicide attacks of 11 September, he says, were intended to stop US support for Israel.
This is one of the main grievances of the Arab world against Washington, on which he has sought to play.