Video footage and an audio recording of Osama bin Laden and his deputy were aired on an Arab satellite channel yesterday. The al-Qa'ida leaders praised the 11 September hijackers and warned that worse attacks were to come.
The al-Jazeera network, which broadcast the tapes, said they appeared to have been produced in late April or May. Bin Laden and his second-in command, Ayman al-Zawahri, are shown in Afghan dress, picking their way across a boulder-strewn hillside. In one shot, wildflowers can be seen, suggesting that the film was made in spring or early summer.
If so, the video is the first made of the al-Qa'ida leader since he was shown at a dinner on 9 November 2001 in Afghanistan. Since then both men have been sought by US and allied troops in the mountain area around the Afghan border with Pakistan. Bin Laden was heard on a tape in April 2003, authenticated by the CIA, in which he urged Muslims to rise up against the governments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other "agents of America". Last night the new tapes were being scrutinised by US intelligence.
Both men appear in good health. In separate shots, they are shown carrying weapons, and using walking sticks to negotiate the rocky terrain.
Relaxed and even smiling on occasion, Bin Laden looks over his shoulder several times, giving the impression he is being followed. At one point he waves at the camera.
But the most menacing material is on the audiotape. "Bury them in the Iraqi graveyard," says the voice purporting be that of Zawahri, urging on the guerrillas in Iraq.
More ominously, it describes the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington as "only the first skirmishes". The "true epic" had yet to begin. Al-Qa'ida would "chop off the hand that seeks to harm us, God Willing".
The voice believed to be Zawahri went on to say that the mothers of American soldiers should demand that the US government return them home before they "return in coffins".
It added that al-Qa'ida was operating and expanding despite the campaign against it. He referred to President George Bush and Tony Blair as "top criminals".
The voice saluted fighters in Iraq. "We tell you that Allah is with you and the [Islamic] nation supports you. Depend on Allah. Devour the Americans just like the lions devour their prey. On the second anniversary of the raids on New York and Washington we challenge America and its crusade, which is teetering from its wounds in Afghanistan and Iraq."
Despite the timing of the release of the tapes, intelligence officials in America do not believe that they portend another attack. The Department of Homeland Security is leaving its colour-coded terror alert at yellow, indicating an elevated, but not extreme, threat.
The tapes are seen instead as a deliberate message from the al-Qa'ida high command to their followers that the leaders have survived, and that despite the rout of the Taliban and the destruction of al-Qa'ida bases in Afghanistan, the cause is alive and well.
The appearance of Bin Laden is another awkward reminder for the White House that for all its successes against terrorism, the mastermind of 11 September has not been captured.
President George Bush dismissed claims that his government had neglected the hunt for Bin Laden while carrying out its campaign in Iraq. "No terrorist network will ever gain weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Hussein," he said yesterday. But he vowed to continue the pursuit of those behind the 11 September attacks. "We will never forget the servants of evil who plotted the attacks," he said.Reuse content