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Al-Qaida threat looms in U.S.

The first videotape showing Osama bin Laden in 17 months is broadcast on Al-Jazeera satellite television.

By Wire services
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 11, 2003

WASHINGTON - Two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Qaida maintains a largely invisible but extensive presence in the United States that includes recruiting and fundraising operatives, and financial conduits that link them to the terror organization's global network, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Even as a new videotape of an apparently healthy Osama bin Laden surfaced Wednesday, several senior U.S. officials confirmed that they are only now realizing the full extent of al-Qaida operations within the United States.

Their new insight, they said, is based largely on intelligence-gathering investigations into terrorist financing under way here, in Saudi Arabia and other countries, as well as from interrogations of al-Qaida detainees.

The new information indicates that while al-Qaida has been battered by the U.S.-led war on terrorism, it remains a resilient and deadly organization, with a deep bench of senior leaders and field commanders and a steady stream of funds and new recruits worldwide.

In some ways, they say, al-Qaida is more dangerous than ever, with a broad base of supporters willing to participate in bombings and other attacks against U.S. interests.

Of particular concern are recent indications that many of these so-called holy warriors are incensed by the U.S. occupation of Iraq and appear to be more intent than ever on launching attacks on U.S. soil, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing interviews with dozens of U.S. officials and terrorism experts.

A stark reminder that al-Qaida still lives was broadcast on the Al-Jazeera satellite television network on the eve of the second anniversary of the terror attacks on New York and Washington.

A man believed to be al-Qaida leader bin Laden was shown on videotape for the first time in 17 months, while his deputy urged jihad fighters to "pounce on the Americans" and "bury them in Iraq's graveyard."

The channel, based in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, said the video was recorded in late April or early May. It shows bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri using walking sticks to navigate rocky, downhill terrain in an unidentified mountainous area. It also shows a closeup of bin Laden sitting next to a tree. Both men wore traditional Afghan garments and at times carried what appeared to be AK-47 assault rifles.

U.S. intelligence officials said they believe it is the two al-Qaida leaders on the video, but said it was unclear when the footage was recorded. Audio analysts who listened to the tape said the recordings appeared to be authentic, but technical analysis will not be completed for a couple days.

President Bush, asked about the tape during a visit to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., said he had not heard it yet.

Although Arab media outlets have regularly aired audiotapes over the last two years purporting to come from bin Laden or other al-Qaida operatives, the footage would mark the first video appearance by bin Laden since April 2002, when the terrorist leader was shown outdoors wearing what appeared to be a sling on his left arm and marveling at the impact of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In the new audio track, which U.S. intelligence officials said was laid over the video broadcast Wednesday, a voice identified as bin Laden's praised the terrorists for inflicting "great damage to the enemy" in the attacks, which killed more than 3,000 in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. "These persons learned from the traditions of our prophet Mohammed," the voice says, according to an early translation by U.S. officials.

And the possibility that the tapes might have been made recently underscored intelligence officials' concerns about a new surge of Islamic terrorism in Iraq in response to the American-led occupation.

The man identified as al-Zawahri addresses his comments to both Palestinians and Iraqis. He urges Palestinians not to accept the U.S.-backed peace plan, which he describes as "the road map to hell," and argues that "Palestine will only be liberated with jihad."

He also calls on "our brother mujahadeen in Iraq" to continue attacking U.S.-led forces there, whom he refers to as "Crusaders."

"Rely on God, and pounce on the Americans just as lions pounce their prey, and bury them in Iraq's graveyard" the voice attributed to al-Zawahri commands, according to the early U.S. translation.

Al-Zawahri also makes reference to the casualties that have plagued U.S. forces in Iraq: "We advise the mothers of the crusade soldiers, if they hope to see their sons, to quickly ask their governments to return them before they return to them in coffins."

Intelligence analysts were poring over the video and audio, looking at the message and topography for clues to bin Laden's whereabouts.

Intelligence officials tend to think that bin Laden and al-Zawahri are alive and are hiding somewhere in the remote tribal areas along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their suspicions have focused on Waziristan, a rugged area on the Pakistani side where Pakistani officials say they have the least control and where Arab militants have overwhelming public support.

Although the tapes broadcast on Wednesday portray bin Laden and al-Zawahri as still powerful forces within al-Qaida, American intelligence officials believe their ability to lead the organization has been diminished.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, American officials say, nearly 65 percent of al-Qaida's leaders have either been killed or captured in the campaign against terrorism. Some 3,400 al-Qaida suspects have been arrested in the United States and overseas, from Yemen to Indonesia. Most of the operatives who helped plan the Sept. 11 plot have been accounted for, they say, and those who have been captured have described their roles in the plot, the New York Times reported.

Still, intelligence officials discount speculation that the group is crippled. Al-Qaida's resiliency lies in part in its ability to recruit and train a steady stream of middle managers and senior leaders as part of a disciplined succession plan, U.S. officials and experts say.

"To say we've taken out two-thirds of their leaders, it's pretty impressive," said Daniel Byman, a staff leader of last year's congressional joint intelligence inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks, who is now a scholar at the Brookings Institution. "But they have had two years to regroup and they have."

Recordings released by al-Qaida have sometimes preceded terrorist attacks by the group's operatives. Last year's Sept. 11 anniversary was preceded by an audiotape from bin Laden praising the hijackers as "men who changed the course of history."

Still, for the second anniversary of the attacks, the Bush administration has not raised the government's color-coded terrorist alert level. It has, however, obtained intelligence warning that operatives remain determined to carry out spectacular attacks involving aircraft, possibly hijacking a foreign airplane that would fly into American airspace, so that they could crash it into a building somewhere in this country.

- Information from the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post and Associated Press was used in this report.

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