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Afghanistan: Tape Purporting To Be Bin Laden Message Stirs Controversy

Is Osama bin Laden alive? Is the latest audio tape that claims to carry the voice of the Al-Qaeda leader authentic? U.S. experts are working hard to authenticate it, but early indications are that bin Laden is speaking on the recording.

Washington, 14 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Once again, a soft, almost mesmerizing voice has taken command of the world's attention: "From Allah's follower Osama bin Laden to the nations that are collaborating with the unjust American government. The road to safety [for the West] starts with stopping aggression. Justice and fairness is to treat likewise."

U.S. intelligence technicians are working to determine whether that voice is actually that of America's most wanted man, and they may never be able to do so with absolute certainty. But President George W. Bush says he is not dismissing the importance of the tape.

Speaking at the White House yesterday, Bush said: "Whoever put this tape out has put the world on notice yet again that we're at war and that we need to take these messages very seriously, and we will."

The audio tape was acquired Tuesday by Al-Jazeera, the satellite television news network based in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar. The Arabic-language station has previously broadcast messages from bin Laden, but this is the first that has included the speaker referring to recent events, indicating that bin Laden -- if the speaker is bin Laden -- is still alive.

In the message, the speaker cites the recent bombing in Bali, the hostage siege in Moscow, the killing of a U.S. soldier in Kuwait, the assassination of an American diplomat in Jordan, and the bomb attack against a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen.

And it warns America's allies -- Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Italy, and Australia -- that they face retaliation if they take part in what he calls a U.S.-led campaign against Muslims.

The most recent tape differs from previous bin Laden messages broadcast by Al-Jazeera in significant ways. First, it is an audio tape, while the previous statements were videotapes. Second, the speaker refers to very recent events, such as the Moscow siege, demonstrating that bin Laden -- again, if he is the speaker -- is probably still alive. Third, the message is directed to Western nations friendly to the United States, while previous statements are largely addressed to the Muslim world

International affairs analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say they are reluctant to speculate about the message, but they add that some aspects of the recording lead them to some conclusions.

Retired General Edward Atkeson, a former senior intelligence officer for the U.S. Army, said he believes that the format of the tape -- audio not video -- is significant. He said that bin Laden, if he is the speaker, may be in bad shape or in hiding and does not want this to be known. "It's more likely that he's trying to stiffen the sinews among his own group. And this is his best way of doing it without [leaving] any evidence that he has suffered a very severe setback, not only from the organizational point of view but [also] perhaps from his own personal point of view."

Atkeson says he sees no special significance in the tape's reference to recent terrorist attacks, other than to demonstrate that he has survived the U.S. bombing of suspected Al-Qaeda hideouts in Afghanistan.

James Phillips sees a further meaning to the references to Bali, Yemen, and other assaults linked to Muslim militants. Phillips studies the Middle East and terrorism issues at the Heritage Foundation, an independent policy research center in Washington. According to Phillips, bin Laden interprets these acts as enhancing his own importance, whether he was involved in them or not. "He may have seen the Bali explosion and the hostage taking in Moscow as high-profile operations that would have restored his credibility. In many respects, he's been on the run and his followers have been on the run. He may not have wanted to make a major statement until he had proven that he was still a factor to be reckoned with."

As for the speaker's target audience, Phillips told RFE/RL that it is clear bin Laden means to send a warning to any nation that would cooperate with the United States in its war on international terrorism. "What's especially noteworthy is by mentioning by name some of the U.S. allies, he's widening his targets and trying to drive a wedge between the United States and important members of the coalition that is fighting this war against terrorism. It also may presage attacks in those countries."

But Nathan Brown, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, sees the tape as less of a threat to U.S. allies and more of a message of encouragement to his own followers and sympathizers.

Brown told RFE/RL that he believes the wording on the tape suggests that its target audience is not Westerners, but Muslims. For example, he said, the speaker refers to the sacking of Baghdad by Hulagu in 1258, when Iraq's ancient capital was burned to the ground. This, he said, is well-known in the Muslim world, but not among Westerners. "When I read the text of the message, it still struck me that he's speaking primarily to a Muslim audience because there are references in there which would not mean very much to an Australian or an American without a substantial body of footnotes."

Brown said he sees the message as a way to rally bin Laden's followers around his success in inspiring, if not leading, several Muslim attacks against the West, and dominating the news around the globe. "In a sense, that message is an extremely successful one. The fact is he's dominating the news throughout the world -- certainly throughout the Muslim world -- so that even those people who might abhor what he stands for are certainly paying attention to him."

Brown said he thinks the statement is a "victory speech" -- and a call for more victories.