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Bin Laden Threatens U.S. in New Message

January 19, 2006 at 6:00 PM EST
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SPENCER MICHELS: The newest audiotape from al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was reportedly recorded this month. Parts of the CIA-verified tape appeared to speak directly to the American people. Bin Laden talked of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts he said his organization is winning.

OSAMA BIN LADEN (Translated): Our condition, thanks to God, is improving from good to better. Your conditions are the opposite.

But what motivated me to talk is your President Bush’s repeated twisting of the facts in his comments on the results of the opinion polls, which showed that the vast majority of you favor the withdrawal of forces from Iraq. But he went against this wish and said withdrawing these forces would send a wrong message to the adversaries, and that it would be best to fight them on their own land rather than them fighting us on our land.

SPENCER MICHELS: Then came the warning that al-Qaida is preparing new attacks.

OSAMA BIN LADEN (Translated): With God’s blessing, the Mujahadeen were able, time after time, to infiltrate the security measures taken by the unjust allied countries. The proof of this is the series of bombings which you have witnessed in these evil countries’ most important capitals.

As for launching similar operations in America, it is not because of the difficulty in infiltrating your security measures. The operations are being planned and you shall see them in your own homeland as soon as the preparations are finished.

SPENCER MICHELS: As he has before, bin Laden made another truce offer.

Osama bin Laden

OSAMA BIN LADEN (Translated): It is clear that what Bush is saying is unsound. But the basis of his saying, the poll results about troop withdrawals and that it would be better not to fight the Muslims on their land, we have no objection in agreeing to a long truce with you, with fair conditions which we shall meet. We are a nation from which God has forbidden deception and lies.

During this truce, the two sides would enjoy security and stability and rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, which were ravaged by the war.

SPENCER MICHELS: Osama bin Laden has eluded capture by U.S. forces since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that killed nearly 3,000 Americans. U.S. and Afghan forces thought they had bin Laden cornered two months later, in the mountains around Tora Bora, Afghanistan.

graves in PakistanToday’s audiotape was released six days after a U.S. air strike in northwestern Pakistan targeted but missed Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.

U.S. and Pakistani officials have been quoted in news accounts as saying four leading al-Qaida figures were killed in the strike. One victim, Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, had a $5 million bounty posted by the U.S. Government. He allegedly trained hundreds of al-Qaida terrorists in explosives.

JIM LEHRER: For more on this we go to Paul Pillar, who served as national intelligence officer for Near East and South Asia, and deputy chief of the Counterterrorist Center at the CIA. He’s now a visiting professor at Georgetown University; and Mamoun Fandy, he’s a senior fellow specializing in Middle East politics at Rice University’s Baker Institute. He’s also a columnist for the Pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Pillar, first of all, one thing we do know as a result of this tape is that Osama bin Laden is still alive, right?

Certainly it shows to us that bin Laden is very worried about losing his audience. It what is happening in a context in the Arab media today where the debate last week has been about the death of Zawahiri the death of bin Laden, the fragmentation of al-Qaida, so this one came as a response to that, to say that we are alive and kicking.Mamoun Fandy, Rice University

PAUL PILLAR: We don’t know exactly when the tape was made. The most recent event referenced in there is the alleged plan to bomb al-Jazeera where that refers to a British memo that was in the news back around November. So we can’t say that for sure. Possibly the technical experts that will be analyzing the tape in the intelligence community would be able to shed some more light on that. So we can’t quite jump to that conclusion.

JIM LEHRER: But we can jump to the conclusion he was alive when he did the tape, whenever that was.

PAUL PILLAR: At least since last November, right.

JIM LEHRER: At least since last November. But al-Jazeera said it was recorded this month. But that and a nickel gets you what?

PAUL PILLAR: That gets you maybe a dime but not much more than a nickel.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about that in terms of what it establishes about the — just the fact of Osama bin Laden still being alive?

Momoun FandyMAMOUN FANDY: Well, I agree with Paul, actually because the only thing we know — the event mentioned here is the documents about al-Jazeera. So we know it is taped after Nov. 22.

Certainly it shows to us that bin Laden is very worried about losing his audience. It what is happening in a context in the Arab media today where the debate last week has been about the death of Zawahiri the death of bin Laden, the fragmentation of al-Qaida, so this one came as a response to that, to say that we are alive and kicking.

JIM LEHRER: So you didn’t hear anything that made you think that it was not. Did you hear anything that made you think it was more recent than November last year?

MAMOUN FANDY: No, no.

JIM LEHRER: Did you, Mr. Pillar.

Paul PillarPAUL PILLAR: No, I didn’t. It might have been a tape that was in the can, so to speak, and the release of which possibly was influenced by the missile strike last week.

JIM LEHRER: Bottom line, should we take his threat seriously?

PAUL PILLAR: We need to take his threat seriously, not because he says so in this or any other tape but because he and his organization may well still be planning additional operations. And that, of course, was part of the message to put that scare into us.

JIM LEHRER: Does al-Qaida, in fact, have the capability of launching an attack of the ferocity of 9/11?

MAMOUN FANDY: I don’t think so, right now. I mean studying these people for the last ten years myself, I think it seems to me looking at this tape, it seems to me that bin Laden is losing on the ground and trying to win the airwave war and have influence in the Arab media, in particular and Muslim media.

So every indicator in the Middle East — and I just returned from there — shows that really al-Qaida losing recruits, losing sympathizers and the pool of recruit is thinning, especially also after the Sunni Triangle in Iraq today now turned against his main man in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about it?

PAUL PILLAR: I agree with Mamoun. Al-Qaida, that’s to say Bin Laden’s own organization has come under very heavy pressure. I think it is a weaker group than it was at the time of 9/11 but one immediately has to add a couple big caveats here: One, when you are talking with about a group like that, there always is the capability for additional –

Jim LehrerJIM LEHRER: Why is that? Why is there always the capability?

PAUL PILLAR: Because it is such a difficult intelligence target. And you don’t need, even anywhere near as large and vibrant an organization as well, it once was compared to what it is now, to do an awful lot of damage.

But there have been a lot of successful U.S. counterterrorist operations, particularly since 9/11 in the last three and a half years; that group is under heavy pressure.

JIM LEHRER: What does the intelligence say, recent intelligence say about Osama bin Laden’s control of his organization now? Is he still calling the shots and running things, and saying, do this, do that, or could he in fact order somebody to do what he said, what he threatened to do in this tape?

MAMOUN FANDY: Well, it doesn’t seem like, you know, really that al-Qaida still is a formal structure, is one piece. I mean, it’s becoming more and more of a franchise type where every small group does attacks like in Iraq and other places and claim to be al-Qaida.

But for the last year we’ve seen Zawahiri –

JIM LEHRER: Without direct contacts with Osama bin Laden?

MAMOUN FANDY: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mr. Pillar?

PAUL PILLAR: That’s right. I mean, the term “al-Qaida” gets rather loosely applied to the larger Jihadist radical Sunni network. And we have to worry about all of that.

Many of the things that bin Laden even in this tape refers to as “our accomplishments, our attacks” such as the attacks in London, Europe, Southeast Asia, they aren’t necessarily things that bin Laden or Zawahiri ordered but they are part of the larger movement that is inspired to some degree by him.

JIM LEHRER: So the danger here then — if I hear you both correctly — is that he could inspire a group that doesn’t answer to him, but reacts to inspirational words from him, is that what you are suggesting?

PAUL PILLAR: Right.

Momoun FandyMAMOUN FANDY: Right, but this particular tape is not terribly inspiring, just looking at the language of it. This is the first tape of bin Laden that has no single verse from the Koran. It does not have the flowery language of Arabic.

It seems to me that it is written in English first, and then translated into Arabic. It is very western style of tape. It is not very characteristic of bin Laden, at least it tells me that the non-Arabic speaking within the al-Qaida network are taking over the organization –

JIM LEHRER: You mean he didn’t write this is what you are suggesting?

MAMOUN FANDY: The Arabic speakers in al-Qaida, the parts that are coming from the Arab world, are losing to the non-Arabic speaker, so it’s really becoming more of a South Asian organization, rather than an Arab organization.

JIM LEHRER: Do you read it the same?

PAUL PILLAR: — which may reflect his physical situation somewhere along that frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan where possibly his immediate entourage — his staff, if you will are Urdu speakers or Pashtu speakers, rather than Arabic speakers, or at least part of them are.

JIM LEHRER: How should this offer of a truce be taken?

Paul PillarPAUL PILLAR: I don’t think there was any delusion on bin Laden’s part that the response by our leaders would be anything other than a proper response, which we heard today from the White House, which was to reject it out of hand.

There’s nothing to negotiate with al-Qaida and bin Laden. I think that was more projecting the image of restraint, of statesmanship. It fit in with another of the messages in this tape which was, if we haven’t been attacking things and bombing things right and left, it’s not because we are unable to do it; it’s because we are exercising restraint.

But I don’t think he thought it would be taken seriously by our leaders. And of course it should not be taken seriously.

JIM LEHRER: PR, in other words?

MAMOUN FANDY: PR but also an indicator of a threat, a serious threat in a sense that when he offered truce to the Europeans basically to win the audience in the Arab and Muslim world, that I really sort of warned them but they didn’t respond. So it legitimates whatever acts he takes afterwards.

So whenever there is an offer of a truce, there is always an attack that came after it — like the 7/7 in London.

JIM LEHRER: One of these folks we have been talking about is not directly answerable to Osama bin Laden but who may be influenced by Osama bin Laden, is that kind of rhetoric a turnoff for those people? If you are trying to get somebody fired up you don’t do it by saying we offer these infidels a truce.

Mamoun FandyMAMOUN FANDY: Absolutely. I mean, this is something totally uncharacteristic of him. Even this particular truce is not back — there no backing of it with Islamic jurisprudence, there is nothing from the Koran to say this is why I’m doing it, so it not really inspiring for those serious believers and his men who really want a word of God to tell them go and kill the unbelievers.

JIM LEHRER: How does this tie in, Mr. Pillar, in your opinion, if at all, to the Pakistan attack last week as we reported? Now it looks like there was a major al-Qaida bomb maker and three other top operatives killed in that. Is there any connection, do you think?

PAUL PILLAR: Quite possibly in the sense of the timing in that at this particular moment after the reports that we were just hearing, that if Zawahiri was missed, perhaps there were other senior leaders who were killed.

This was all the more important a time for al-Qaida and bin Laden to get out the message that we’re alive, we’re effective, we can attack. We’re still — we’re still out there. You haven’t hit us as hard as you think you have.

JIM LEHRER: And that goes for your point earlier that they could have had this thing in the can, pulled it off the shelf, give it to al-Jazeera because of the –

PAUL PILLAR: At the right moment, yes.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have an opinion on that?

MAMOUN FANDY: It’s a tone of desperation, and I agree with Paul. And I think, Jim, if you see how the Arab media for the last week after the attack on al-Qaida in Pakistan — that they all basically became very suspicious whether bin Laden himself is alive or Zawahiri is alive.

So just having this tape is really to assure the followers, to assure his constituency that we are still alive and kicking, and we can basically influence a threat against the United States.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Pillar, finally, the question that everybody in the CIA and at the Pentagon and the U.S. Government gets asked all the time, why in the world can’t we find Osama bin Laden? They keep saying he is in the mountains somewhere up there between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Why is it so hard to find him?

PAUL PILLAR: He and his people are highly conscious of operational security. They are in a very rugged, very remote land where even the writ Pakistani government hasn’t run very far, at least until recent times. And this, I think, might be related to the paucity of tapes that we’ve gotten from bin Laden. It’s been over a year.

They recognize that as a security risk. Every time one of these tapes is passed to al-Jazeera or someone else there is a potential for U.S. security agencies, intelligence agencies to trace it back. So they’ve been extremely cautious and made themselves very hard targets as a result.

JIM LEHRER: But when all the millions and millions of dollars, all this great hardware that we’re supposed to have, why is it, why can’t we find — it seems, a layman looks at this and says come on, what is the problem?

PAUL PILLAR: Because it doesn’t come down to hardware.

JIM LEHRER: It doesn’t?

Jim Lehrer and Paul PillarPAUL PILLAR: It comes down to the caution and the security on their part, and at least a modicum of support and sympathy amongst the local population, which they seem to have enjoyed in that part of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

JIM LEHRER: And they still do as we speak.

PAUL PILLAR: They still do as we speak.

JIM LEHRER: And nothing can be done about it.

PAUL PILLAR: Well, not nothing.

JIM LEHRER: Nothing has been done.

PAUL PILLAR: We’ve had dealings with the Pakistani government to encourage them to try to do more in Waziristan to try to bring that area under control. And they have made some efforts. But it’s extremely difficult.

JIM LEHRER: Anything you would add to that?

MAMOUN FANDY: It would feed into the whole conspiracy theory in the Arab and Muslim world that actually the mighty United States does not want to get bin Laden and Zawahiri because it wants to continue its campaign against the Muslim world. And all Muslims are puzzled why the mighty United States with all satellite intelligence and everything else, they cannot pinpoint these two guys. So they must have an ulterior motive. There is something larger.

And that really complicates the issue. Pinpointing bin Laden and getting him and Zawahiri would also turn the Muslim world around and make them believe that the United States is serious.

JIM LEHRER: Is this a widely held opinion?

MAMOUN FANDY: Very widely — widely held point of view that the United States know where he. But they don’t want to get him because there is a larger agenda. They want to take Iraq and they want to take Syria afterwards and Iran and so on.

JIM LEHRER: What do you make of that?

PAUL PILLAR: It doesn’t take much to start those sorts of theories and for a lot of people to believe them in that part of the world.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.