By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 8, 2007
Ending a nearly three-year absence from public view, a dark-bearded Osama bin Laden surfaced yesterday in a new video in which he repeatedly taunted the Bush administration but made no overt threats of renewed terrorist attacks.
The al-Qaeda leader appeared visibly older and spoke in somber tones as he delivered a rambling, 25-minute monologue that included a lengthy tirade against Western capitalism sprinkled with references to recent news events and cultural and political figures.
Addressing his message to "the people of America," bin Laden predicted failure for U.S. forces in Iraq and warned against what he described as the continued oppression and humiliation of Muslims by the West.
"The blood of the Muslims will not be spilled with impunity," he said.
The tape was undergoing technical evaluation by U.S. intelligence analysts, but an initial review indicated it was authentic. "The analysis suggests that the voice on the tape is indeed that of Osama bin Laden," said a U.S. intelligence official, speaking on the condition that he not be identified by name.
If confirmed as genuine, the recording will represent the first video footage of the al-Qaeda leader since he appeared in an October 2004 tape during the run-up to the U.S. presidential elections.
Terrorism analysts said the video offered little new information but appeared intended to show that bin Laden is not only alive but vital and committed to continuing his campaign against the West nearly six years to the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The tape, which appears to have been professionally produced, is believed to have been made no earlier than mid-August, analysts said.
"He is saying, 'I am still here, and we are still engaged in the war against the United States -- and we will widen the circle of the war,' " said Husain Haqqani, an expert on Islamic terrorist groups and the director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University. "The overall message is one of trying to bolster the morale of the al-Qaeda faithful and at the same time thumbing his nose at the United States."
In Sydney, President Bush told reporters: "The tape is a reminder about the dangerous world in which we live. And it is a reminder that we must work together to protect . . . against these extremists who murder the innocent in order to achieve their political objectives."
"I found it interesting that on the tape Iraq was mentioned, which is a reminder that Iraq is a part of this war against extremists," Bush continued. "If al-Qaeda bothers to mention Iraq, it is because they want to achieve their objectives in Iraq, which is to drive us out and to develop a safe haven."
Bin Laden's lengthy speech is interspersed with references suggesting that the al-Qaeda leader closely follows events in the West. He refers to the recently elected leaders of Britain and France -- Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy -- saying they, like Bush, "talk about freedom and human rights with a disregard for the intellects of human beings." He even refers to global warming and the troubled credit and real estate markets in the United States.
The tape's most striking feature was bin Laden's physical appearance: The straggly, gray-streaked whiskers of his previous images had been replaced with a neatly trimmed beard of black or dark brown. While some analysts speculated that the beard was fake, others said it was likely that bin Laden had dyed his beard, as is customary for older men in some Muslim cultures.
In the rugged area along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where U.S. officials believe al-Qaeda is based and is regrouping, Muslim men use a locally made henna dye that leaves a dark red color, said John O. Brennan, an al-Qaeda expert and former acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
"In some respects he appears to be demonstrating his vanity," Brennan said.
In the video, bin Laden also had replaced his customary military camouflage jacket with a more traditional gold robe and white tunic. Against a plain backdrop, he reads his remarks from a script, occasionally gesturing with one hand to emphasize a point. He does not appear obviously ill, though some analysts said his face is visibly wizened compared with his appearance in earlier videos, and the dark circles beneath his eyes are more pronounced.
The tape surfaced less than 24 hours after the appearance of announcements on several Islamic Web sites of the imminent release of a new statement from the "Lion Sheik" bin Laden.
The video was obtained early yesterday by U.S. intelligence officials and was first made public on the Web site of the SITE Institute, a D.C.-based nonprofit group that studies terrorist organizations. The circumstances of its release were unusual: No copy of the video had appeared on Islamic Web sites as of yesterday, as has been the norm for past al-Qaeda videos. A spokesman for SITE declined to comment on how it obtained the most recent video.
A script in English and Arabic that accompanied the video gives the title of bin Laden's message as "The Solution" and links his remarks to the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. In the speech, bin Laden calls on Americans to "embrace Islam" as the true religion, and he contends that the attacks succeeded in damaging the U.S. economy and undermining the United States' reputation and global prestige.
"Despite America being the greatest economic power and possessing the most powerful and up-to-date military arsenal . . . 19 young men were able, by the grace of Allah, the Most High, to change the direction of its compass," he says in the speech, referring to the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.
He chides not only Bush -- a leader who he says "harvests nothing but failure" -- but also the Democratic leadership of Congress. "Why have the Democrats failed to stop this war, despite them being the majority?" he asks, according to the translation provided by the SITE group. Later, answering his own question, he argues that the failure of Americans to stop the Iraq war was attributable to the political dominance of large corporations that "benefit from this continuation."
In a speech yesterday at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden did not comment directly on the tape. But he said al-Qaeda leaders, working from bases inside Pakistan, continue to plot against the United States.
"Al-Qaeda is focusing on targets that would produce mass casualties, dramatic destruction, and significant economic aftershocks," Hayden said. "Al-Qaeda's success with planting operatives in this country is less certain."
Staff writers Dafna Linzer in New York and Michael A. Fletcher in Sydney contributed to this report.