ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The latest Usama bin Laden tape became Topic A on militant Islamic Web sites Wednesday with excited Al Qaeda followers praising what is seen as his triumphant survival. Experts say the tape is reinvigorating the terrorist network's rank-and-file, whether it's authentic or not.
President Bush said he'd leave it to the experts to determine whether bin Laden made the new recording while U.S. counterterrorism officials said they believe it is probably real and new.
Mohamed Salah, an Egyptian journalist who covers Al Qaeda for the respected Arab daily Al-Hayat in London, said the tape was taken as positive proof across the Middle East that bin Laden is alive and that it was very important for Al Qaeda followers.
"Because of the war in Afghanistan, the membership has been separated from him and so they need information about their top leaders."
Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism official, said the new tape would help the organization find additional recruits and funding.
"His emergence has provided a great morale boost to Al Qaeda and signals that the organization has gone through some tough times but that he's back. From the point of view of the followers, who have not been near the leadership, it's a big morale booster."
Cannistraro suggested the tape was made sometime between Oct. 28, when a U.S. diplomat was killed in the Jordanian capital of Amman, and Nov. 8, when the U.N. resolution on Iraq was approved.
In the tape, the speaker identified as bin Laden mentions Amman but not the resolution, which was approved with the surprise support of Iraq's Arab neighbor, Syria. "He would have definitely made a reference to that," Cannistraro said.
Other recent events such as the Oct. 12 Bali bombings, the slaying last month of a Marine in Kuwait, the bombing of a French oil tanker off Yemen and the Moscow hostage-taking were mentioned, however, fueling the hopes of followers that bin Laden survived the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
In an unsigned commentary on an Al Qaeda Web site, someone wrote Wednesday: "This is the first time that Sheik bin Laden speaks about these latest operations in his own voice, may Allah protect him. It's an indication that's beyond doubt that he is alive."
The title of sheik is often given to a man considered learned in the Quran.
An analysis posted on another site suggested that "Sheik Osama wanted to give hope and strength to the spirits of the sons of the Iraqi people and the Islamic community and push them toward jihad." The unidentified writer also said bin Laden's statement was motivated by a desire to divide the international community on Iraq.
Salah, of Al-Hayat, said traffic on Arabic chat rooms and the Web sites was up Wednesday, with people eager to swap theories about bin Laden's sudden re-emergence.
Several Al Qaeda recordings that came out in September and early October claimed bin Laden was alive and focused on U.S. threats of war against Iraq. This time, though, the Iraq message was aimed at American allies, who could potentially support U.S. military action there as they did in Afghanistan.
In a little over four minutes, the man identified as bin Laden threatened Britain, France, Italy, Canada, Germany, and Australia.
"It is time we get even," he said. "You will be killed just as you kill, and will be bombed just as you bomb."
Cannistraro said bin Laden was "trying to intimidate allies by threatening Europe with potential attacks."
The audiotape was played alongside an old photograph of the Al Qaeda leader, but there was no new video of him. Bin Laden's whereabouts are unknown. The last confirmed sign of bin Laden came from a videotaped dinner with associates on Nov. 9, 2001, in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.
Officials said an audio recording, rather than a video, was easier to make and limits the chances of revealing bin Laden's location. Ramzi Binalshibh, suspected in the planning of the Sept. 11 attacks, was caught in Karachi, Pakistan after a TV interview he gave to the Al-Jazeera network this summer.
Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, a reporter with Al-Jazeera, said he was given the latest tape Tuesday in Islamabad, Pakistan by one of bin Laden's emissaries. Zaidan said the man's face was partially covered, but that he believes the same person arranged a similar drop-off two months ago.
Pakistan is widely believed to be the new home of many Al Qaeda members who operated in Afghanistan before the U.S. campaign destroyed the organization's bases and toppled the hardline Taliban government that provided them refuge.
Linda Ma'ay'ah, a journalist for the Jordanian daily Al Arab El Yawm, said that Sept. 11 only increased Jordanians' interest in Al Qaeda "because they consider bin Laden a hero who may return Jerusalem back to Arabs."
The audio tape, she said, "was a surprise for people, and a pleasant one for many, especially after people heard that he disappeared or ... that he has died."
But Nabil Ghishan, vice president of Jordan's Association of Journalists, said bin Laden "doesn't have the same effect on people," anymore. "He doesn't enjoy the same importance and glory," Ghishan said.
"In the events of Sept. 11, people feel glad," he said. "But in the long range, they realize how it reflects badly on the Arabs and Muslims and their issues, whether in Palestine or Iraq."