Officials believe latest bin Laden tapes are old and meant to keep the message alive


Monday, April 22nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


Images of the al-Qaida leader swirl on televisions across the Middle East, his steady voice preaching war as he kneels before a scenic mountain range.

U.S. officials believe the latest pictures of Osama bin Laden were probably filmed last year and are an attempt by his followers to keep the message alive while his fate remains unknown.

Some in the region say the strategy is working.

``They are trying to prove that bin Laden is still alive, he has people and can get his word out,'' said Mohammed Salah, an Egyptian journalist who covers militant movements for the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat. ``It's not just a declaration that al-Qaida carried out Sept. 11, but that they can carry out attacks against Americans again.''

The first word from bin Laden after the carnage at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon came as the United States struck at his Afghan bases on Oct. 7. In a message taped before the strike but aired afterward on the Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera, the Saudi-born bin Laden reveled in the fear Sept. 11 created. Wearing fatigues and clutching a rifle, he swore that America would not know security until its troops were out of Saudi Arabia.

Since then, he has appeared on seven tapes released by Al-Jazeera, CNN or the Pentagon. Other al-Qaida tapes have surfaced carrying messages from bin Laden's deputies or images of al-Qaida training exercises. Authorities in Asia and Europe have confiscated recruiting tapes and ones allegedly detailing attacks in the planning stages. U.S. officials say all the tapes in their possession are being analyzed.

They believe bin Laden is alive in Afghanistan or Pakistan but say the latest videotapes containing old footage have little intelligence value and provide no clues to his exact location or condition.

Much of what the public has seen of al-Qaida comes from its terrorist actions and its videotapes.

An Australian network obtained a tape in Afghanistan that showed al-Qaida militants practicing a mass assassination of world leaders at a golf tournament and plans for an attack on a motorcade in Washington, D.C.

The Singaporean government released surveillance videos it said were taken by al-Qaida operatives preparing to hit Western targets there.

In London, Scotland Yard's Anti-Terrorist Squad has been investigating the distribution of videotapes that may have been used to recruit young Muslim men into al-Qaida.

Associated Press Television News recently obtained a tape from a Kabul resident who said he found it in December in an abandoned safe house that was used by al-Qaida.

Speaking in a slow, soft monotone, bin Laden indirectly criticizes Arab governments and attacks the presence of U.S. soldiers, especially women, serving in the Gulf. Waging war, he says in the tape obtained by APTN, is the best way to heaven.

He looks strong and healthy but as in a videotape aired on Al-Jazeera in December, Bin Laden's left arm is kept at his side, immobile. He is believed to be left-handed and it wasn't clear if he avoided using that hand because of a problem or injury.

Like other tapes, it is about an hour long and offers few clues to when it was made. In it, bin Laden weaves together Quranic stories, political rhetoric and a stern view of the secular world as the basis for war against the West.

He makes little mention of current events _ the most contemporary references are to the 1990s conflicts in Bosnia and Chechnya _ and the views he expresses have been heard before in tapes widely circulated among his followers.

Salah, the Egyptian journalist who authored ``Events of the Jihad Years: The Journey of the Afghan Arabs,'' published in Egypt in November, said timing was everything. The recent surge in videotapes, after no word from the organization in January, February or March, has everything to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said.

``They know that people in Arab countries now are feeling bad toward the Americans because of what is happening with the Palestinians. Al-Qaida is trying to take advantage of that anti-American sentiment and to send a message to the Americans that the organization is still alive, they can put together sophisticated productions and get them aired.''

Early on in the war on terrorism, some in the Bush administration criticized Qatar-based Al-Jazeera for airing tapes of bin Laden and his deputies. The White House asked U.S. networks to refrain from showing the videotapes in full, fearing they might contain coded messages, and also asked the Qatari government to get Al-Jazeera to do the same.

Despite the pressure, the tapes continued to air and the Pentagon released one of its own. The U.S. government has at least one other unaired videotape of bin Laden, found by allied Afghan soldiers in Afghanistan.

Two al-Qaida tapes broadcast last week on Arab stations juxtapose scenes of suffering Palestinians, the crumbling World Trade Center towers, farewell messages from men identified as Sept. 11 hijackers and sermons by bin Laden.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called the tapes ``a patchwork of clips from previous periods.''

Nancy Snow, an expert on the use of propaganda who lectures at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said the tapes play much differently in the Muslim world than to Western audience.

``To us it looked like a cut and paste effort but the way the tapes are played on Al-Jazeera is more effective. In that part of the world, they're showing a lot of footage of these sympathetic causes like the situation with the Palestinians over and over and then they bring in bin Laden. It works.''

George Michael, an Arabic translator who deciphered bin Laden's comments for the Pentagon's videotape agreed.

``The tapes are clearly old but for a lot of people, they just see that it's on television. A lot of people just pass by, see it, and assume he's alive.''

Bin Laden is believed to have been in the Jalalabad area when the war started, before moving south into the Tora Bora region. Officials believe he fled Tora Bora in early December as allied troops, aided by U.S. Special Forces and American airstrikes, closed in.

After Tora Bora, officials wondered if he had been killed or wounded there. But intelligence officials believe they would have received some evidence of his death, through intercepted communications of his followers or other sources.

He is now believed to have fled to the south, toward Pakistan and Afghanistan's Paktia province. Much of the U.S. military action in Afghanistan since Tora Bora has been in Paktia, a traditional al-Qaida sanctuary.