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From Bin Laden, Different Style, Same Message

In Latest Tape, Al Qaeda Leader Dropped Koranic Verses in Favor of Direct Appeal to U.S. Public

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 25, 2004; Page A20

BERLIN -- Gone were the guerrilla fatigues, the rambling religious rhetoric and scenes from his remote mountain hideout. Instead, Osama bin Laden wore a white turban and gold-colored robe as he stood behind a lectern and spoke softly to the camera, looking more like an elected official than the most wanted terrorist in the world.

The imagery and style were different, but bin Laden's message to "the people of America" was the same: You still don't understand why we are at war with each other.

"This is the message which I sought to communicate to you in word and deed, repeatedly, for years before September 11th," the fugitive al Qaeda leader said in a videotape aired around the world on Oct. 29. "But I am amazed at you. Even though we are in the fourth year after the events of September 11th . . . the reasons are still there for a repeat of what occurred."

Eight years after he issued a written declaration of war against the United States, the theme of bin Laden's speech was disbelief that he had failed to make his point with the American people, even after the deaths of nearly 3,000 people on U.S. soil and a succession of bombings, beheadings and other forms of bloodshed around the world.

"This talk of mine is for you and concerns the ideal way to prevent another Manhattan, and deals with the war and its causes and results," he said, in what are believed to be his first videotaped comments in three years.

An examination of bin Laden's speeches over the years shows that the underlying message has remained consistent: Americans have repeatedly humiliated Muslims with a foreign policy that has propped up corrupt governments in the Middle East and perpetuated conflict in the region. Until you prevail on your government to stop, we will strike back.

He did not quote the Koran during his latest, 13-minute speech, and he also avoided the obscure historical references that peppered his previous statements. Instead, he justified his embrace of terrorism in layman's language, explaining his tactics as a logical response to what he depicted as U.S. aggression.

"Should a man be blamed for defending his sanctuary?" he said, speaking in a composed manner and using formal Arabic. "Is defending oneself and punishing the aggressor in kind objectionable terrorism? If it is such, then it is unavoidable for us."

Analysts who have been studying the nuances of bin Laden's most recent speech said it was carefully staged and worded to present him as a polished statesman and the voice of a broad movement, instead of a terrorism-obsessed religious fanatic.

"Usually he gives religious statements, but this was a political statement," said Mustafa Alani, director of the security and terrorism studies program at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. "There was no rhetoric. It was straightforward. He never cited the Koran, which for him is very, very unusual."

Bin Laden looked healthy and very much in control of his surroundings, unlike the last time he spoke publicly on video.

In that appearance, in December 2001, bin Laden appeared physically weak and he spoke openly about his mortality. "Regardless if Osama is killed or survives," he said then, "the awakening has started, praise be God." That tape was recorded with an old home video camera around the time of the battle of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan and prompted speculation that bin Laden had been wounded or was sick.

"In that one, he looked quite ill. He seemed like he had a pre-sentiment of death," said Jerrold M. Post, a former CIA profiler who is now a professor of psychiatry at George Washington University. "To the extent that a picture is worth a thousand words, this one . . . reflects an apparent upturn in his health."

Intelligence analysts and other experts said the newest tape was of professional quality, with sophisticated lighting, a hallmark of al Qaeda productions before Sept. 11. Part of the intent, they surmised, was to communicate the impression that bin Laden remained in firm control of his organization and was not a man on the run.


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