DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Audiotapes purported to be from Usama bin Laden's (search) top lieutenant aired on Arabic TV stations Tuesday, one taunting President Bush and threatening more attacks on the United States, the second criticizing France's decision to ban Islamic headscarves in schools.
Portions of separate audiotapes attributed to Ayman al-Zawahri (search) were broadcast a few hours apart on Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera, competing pan-Arab satellite channels based in the Persian Gulf. Officials at both stations said they had aired only excerpts judged newsworthy. The two stations said they had received different tapes.
In Al-Jazeera's tape, the voice believed to be al-Zawahri's challenged Bush's claim to have liberated Iraq and indicated Al Qaeda is still running operations from Afghanistan.
"We remind Bush that situation is not stable in Afghanistan, or else how do we wage, with God's support and might, our attacks on your troops and agents. ... How do we send our messages that challenge you and reveal your lies," the tape said.
"We remind Bush that he didn't destroy two-thirds of Al Qaeda. On the contrary, thanks be to God, Al Qaeda is still in the holy war battleground raising the banner of Islam in the face of the Zionist-Crusader campaign against the Islamic community," it added.
In his State of the Union address in January, Bush said "nearly two-thirds" of Al Qaeda's known leaders had been captured or killed.
"Bush, fortify your targets, tighten your defense, intensify your security measures," the voice warned, "because the fighting Islamic community -- which sent you New York and Washington battalions -- has decided to send you one battalion after the other, carrying death and seeking heaven."
Dia'a Rashwan, an expert on radical Islam at Egypt's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the tapes appeared to be a response to recent reports that U.S. forces are closing in on bin Laden and his aide.
"While the tapes don't deny this, they seem to signal that (Zawahri) is still connected, and give the impression that he has great communication abilities," Rashwan said.
Rashwan said he believed both tapes were authentic and that issuing them at about the same time to the two stations "requires logistical ability ... and also a central decision to be able to do that. This is not insignificant organizational capabilities."
The audiotape aired by Dubai-based al-Arabiya also criticized France's decision to ban religious symbols in public buildings, including headscarves worn by Muslim women. The law is expected to go before the French Senate early next month, where little opposition exists.
"The decision of the French president to issue a law to prevent Muslim girls from covering their heads in schools is another example of the Crusader's malice, which Westerners have against Muslims," the voice said in Al-Arabiya's tape. "This envy boils in their hearts and overflows in their chests and they pass it on to the generations."
Both stations identified the voice on their tapes as that of al-Zawahri, and both said they had received the material on Tuesday. Officials at both stations spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Al-Arabiya official said his station's analysts believed the voice to be al-Zawahri's and that the station believed it was authentic primarily because of the source from which it received the tape, which he would not disclose. The Al-Jazeera official said only that his station had received the material over telephone lines and that al-Zawahri's voice was familiar to his staff.
The voice on both tapes sounded identical. The tone and rhetoric were familiar from previous videotapes and audiotapes also believed to be from al-Zawahri, though it was not possible to independently confirm the speaker's identity.
Al-Zawahri, an Egyptian-born physician, is thought to be in hiding along with bin Laden in the mountains somewhere along the rugged border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The tapes come at a time when Pakistani forces backed by helicopters were searching villages in a remote border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan where bin Laden and Taliban suspects are believed to be hiding. The fugitives were believed to have taken refuge among tribes.
The voice on Al-Arabiya's tape singled out Egypt's foremost religious leader, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the grand sheik of Al-Azhar, calling his support of the French decision "a scandal."
Tantawi issued an edict early this year asking Muslim women living in France to comply with French laws on religious symbols. His first remarks defending the ban were made Dec. 30, so the tape would have been made sometime after that.
The French decision has sparked protests across the Islamic world.
A French Foreign Ministry official, responding to the tape, reiterated Tuesday his country's position that the law is meant to protect the country's secular foundations and is not directed at Muslims or any particular religion.
Al-Qaida is blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. Tapes by the group have focused on the wars with the Americans and their allies in Afghanistan and Iraq. France has strongly opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
The last time a videotape of al-Zawahri was released on Arab television was in September. It showed the bearded, turbaned cleric climbing down a craggy mountainside with bin Laden.