CAIRO, Egypt – Usama bin Laden issued new threats in an audiotape broadcast on Arab television Sunday and accused the United States and Europe of supporting a "Zionist" war on Islam by cutting off funds to the Hamas-led Palestinian government.
He also urged followers to go to Sudan, his former base, to fight a proposed U.N. peacekeeping force.
His words, the first new message by the Al Qaeda leader in three months, seemed designed to justify potential attacks on civilians — something Al Qaeda has been criticized for even by its Arab supporters.
He also appeared to be trying to drum up support among Arabs by accusing the West of targeting Hamas, a militant group that fights against Israel and now heads the Palestinian government.
Citing the West's decision to cut off aid to the Hamas-led government because it refuses to renounce violence or recognize Israel, bin Laden said Washington and Europe were waging war on Islam.
"The blockade which the West is imposing on the government of Hamas proves that there is a Zionist, crusaders' war on Islam," bin Laden said.
President Bush was told about the tape Sunday morning. The intelligence community has informed the White House that it believes the tape is authentic, said Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan.
"The Al Qaeda leadership is on the run and under a lot of pressure," McClellan said at a Marine base in Twentynine Palms, Calif., where Bush was having lunch with military families.
"We are on the advance. They are on the run."
Al Qaeda is not believed to have direct links to Hamas, which is an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri was quick to distance the group from bin Laden, declaring that "the ideology of Hamas is totally different from the ideology of Sheik bin Laden."
The groups do, however, share an anti-Israel ideology that calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. And recent reports in Middle East media have said Al Qaeda is trying to build cells in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Lebanon and Sudan. Israel has indicted two West Bank militants for Al Qaeda membership.
Israeli government spokesman Raanan Gissin said it appeared bin Laden decided to issue the verbal assault to deflect growing Arab animosity toward Al Qaeda.
That criticism peaked in December when the leader of the Al Qaeda in Iraq group, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility for the bombings of Jordan hotels that killed many Arabs.
"This is something the Arab world can agree upon," Gissin said.
Bin Laden "has been criticized for the destruction and carnage he's causing the Muslim nation. He's looking for another justification," Gissin said. "Criticizing Israel sounds more politically correct."
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad — a former ambassador to Afghanistan — said the tape was another attempt by bin Laden to gain attention for his cause.
"He wants to be relevant to the situation, wants to get attention that he still is a player," Khalilzad said on CNN's "Late Edition."
The voice on the tape sounded strong and resembled that on other recordings attributed to bin Laden, but its authenticity could not be verified independently.
Al-Jazeera television appeared to have had the tape long enough to make significant edits, with its news reader providing background comments. The network broadcast about five minutes of the tape in all.
Bin Laden's remarks touched on the full range of issues that anger militant Arabs and other Muslims. Many of them see a renewal of a Christian- and Jewish-inspired Western "crusade" to dominate the Islamic world and to confiscate Muslim lands and resources — particularly oil.
Bob Ayers, a security expert with the Chatham House think tank in London, said the tape may be bin Laden's way of playing cat-and-mouse with those hunting him.
"It's when people have kind of forgotten about him, when he's not been on the news, that the tapes emerge," Ayers said. "It's kind of his way of thumbing his nose at the U.S. and saying, 'Hey, I'm still out here, and you haven't caught me and you can't.' That's what he's saying."
Concerning Sudan, bin Laden called on "mujahedeen and their supporters, especially in Sudan and the Arab peninsula, to prepare for long war again the crusader plunderers in Western Sudan. Our goal is not defending the Khartoum government but to defend Islam, its land and its people."
"I urge holy warriors to be acquainted with the land and the tribes in Darfur," he said, adding they should be aware that the rainy season approaches and that will hamper their movement.
Al Qaeda has targeted Western forces in Africa before — including its attacks against U.S. troops trying to bring peace to Somalia in 1993.
The fighting in Darfur began when rebels from black African tribes took up arms in February 2003, complaining of discrimination and oppression by Sudan's Arab-dominated government.
The government has been accused of unleashing Arab tribal militia known as the Janjaweed against civilians in a campaign of murder, rape and arson — a charge it denies. At least 180,000 people have died — many from hunger and disease — and 2 million people have been displaced in the vast, arid region of western Sudan and as refugees in neighboring Chad.
The United Nations has described the conflict as the world's gravest humanitarian crisis. The United States has described it as genocide.
Negotiators are trying to broker a peace deal between warring factions by an April 30 deadline. Members of the African Union have agreed in principle to hand over peacekeeping duties to the United Nations this fall.
The Saudi-born bin Laden set up headquarters in Sudan after he was forced to leave his homeland, but Khartoum expelled him under threats from the United States. He moved to Afghanistan, where he trained fighters and organized the Sept. 11 attacks.
He is believed hiding in the rugged mountains on the Pakistani side of that country's long border with Afghanistan.
In Washington, U.S. intelligence officials said bin Laden was living separately from top deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and, in a sign he has to be careful about whom he trusts, surrounded by fellow Arabs.
The Al Qaeda chieftain, who last issued a message broadcast by Al-Jazeera on Jan. 19, also made a point of trying to justify attacks on civilians. He said citizens of Western countries were equally responsible with their governments for what he termed the "war on Islam."
"I say that this war is the joint responsibility of the people and the governments. While the war continues, the people renew their allegiance to their rulers and politicians and continue to send their sons to our countries to fight us," bin Laden said.
In his last message, bin Laden offered the United States a long-term truce but warned that Al Qaeda soon would launch a fresh attack on American soil. But no new attacks on the United States have occurred.
In the Sunday broadcast, bin Laden called for a global Muslim boycott of American goods similar to the recent ban on Danish products after the publication of caricatures of Islam's Prophet Muhammad that outraged the Muslim world.
The Al-Jazeera news reader said bin Laden, in a portion of the tape not aired by the Qatar-based broadcaster, also scoffed at Saudi King Abdullah for his calls for a "dialogue among civilizations" and blasted liberal Arab writers for participating in the Western cultural invasion of Muslim lands.