WASHINGTON – An audiotape attributed to Usama bin Laden threatening more terror against the United States and its allies has U.S. officials concerned that the long-absent terrorist leader has re-emerged to direct new Al Qaeda attacks.
In the audiotape aired Tuesday on an Arabic television network, a man purported to be bin Laden refers to recent terrorist strikes U.S. officials believe are connected to the Al Qaeda network. If verified, it would provide the first evidence in a year that bin Laden survived American bombs in Afghanistan and has hidden from a global dragnet.
"It sounds like bin Laden's voice," a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said after initial reviews of the audiotape. "Something of this import, we want to be as sure as we can be. It's still being evaluated."
The tape is addressed to "peoples of the countries allied with the tyrannical U.S. government" and mentions Britain, France, Italy, Canada, Germany, Australia and Israel, according to a U.S. government translation provided to The Associated Press.
The release of the tape raised already heightened concerns of new terrorist strikes. U.S. counterterrorism officials say some earlier public statements from Al Qaeda have served as preludes to large-scale attacks.
The new tape could also be a simple call to action to bin Laden's followers around the world, or an attempt to boost the morale among the troops.
"It is time we get even," says the voice. "You will be killed just as you kill, and will be bombed just as you bomb. And expect more that will further distress you."
Confirmation that bin Laden is alive could pose problems for President Bush, underscoring to an anxious public that the war on terrorism is far from over. As the president tries to rally the country against Iraq, Americans would be reminded that the public enemy No. 1 slipped from America's grasp during the Afghanistan war.
The recording also underscores Bush's point that the United States is vulnerable to attack. In addition, if bin Laden is feeling brave enough to make public statements again, he may venture into territory where U.S. officials can find him, catch him or kill him.
The tape seems to have been made in the last two weeks. The speaker appears to refer to the killing of a U.S. diplomat in Amman, Jordan, on Oct. 28, the most recent event noted in the transcript. Whether bin Laden or Al Qaeda had a direct hand in the attack is unknown, U.S. officials said.
The speaker also praises six terrorist attacks by suspected Islamic militants between April and October, including the bombing of a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia, on Oct. 12, that left close to 200 people dead, and the Chechen takeover of a theater in Moscow, in late October.
The voice also vilifies Bush as the "pharaoh of the age," calls Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld "the butcher of Vietnam" and compares Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell to marauding Mongols.
To authenticate the tape, U.S. intelligence officials are comparing it to known recordings of bin Laden to determine if the voiceprints match. The CIA has previously verified audio recordings came from bin Laden.
The last hard evidence bin Laden was alive came late last year. A videotape, recovered by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, showed him having dinner with some of his deputies. The tape, which was believed to have been filmed on Nov. 9, 2001, in Afghanistan, was released by the Pentagon in December.
Late in December, another tape of bin Laden giving a statement aired. He appeared gaunt and possibly wounded. The references in the tape suggested it was filmed in late November or early December, but officials could not be certain.
On Dec. 10, in the Tora Bora area of Afghanistan where bin Laden was believed to be hiding, U.S. personnel intercepted a radio transmission that was believed to have come from the Al Qaeda leader. But it was not recorded and never matched against his voiceprint, U.S. officials have said.
U.S. intelligence has confirmed several tapes released earlier in 2002 to have come from bin Laden, who is believed to have led the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington that left 3,000 dead. However, those tapes gave no reference to recent events, and provided no confirmation whether Al Qaeda's leader was still alive.
For months, operations to find bin Laden him have continued on the presumption he survived the onslaught in Afghanistan, but administration officials have reflected the lack of intelligence on his whereabouts in public statements.
"I don't know whether bin Laden is dead or alive," Bush told reporters on Oct. 14.
U.S. counterterrorism officials have said if bin Laden has survived, he is probably hiding in the wild mountainous region of Pakistan that borders his former home of Afghanistan.
Recent public statements from other Al Qaeda leaders have led U.S. and European leaders to warn of possible new attacks, particularly against railroads, oil and gas interests. A law enforcement official said Tuesday that chatter among suspected terrorists has reached the level seen before the Sept. 11 attacks.