MARGARET WARNER: The voice is that of Osama bin Laden -- so said the al Jazeera television network, in broadcasting this audiotape late yesterday. It was a message addressed to "the peoples of the countries allied with the tyrannical U.S. Government."
The man on the tape lauded a string of very recent attacks that have been attributed to operatives and allies of bin Laden's terrorist network--al-Qaida.
"The bombing of the giant French tanker in Yemen, the British and Australians in the Bali explosions, the recent operation in Moscow, are only reactions and reciprocal actions," the voice said.
"These actions were carried out by the zealous sons of Islam in defense of their religion and in response to the order of their god and prophet."
Calling President Bush the pharaoh of the century, the voice accused him of "murdering our children in Iraq." The man also cited Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of State Colin Powell, and said, "the White House gangsters are the biggest butchers of this age." He went on to warn foreign governments they'd be targets of new attacks if they continued to back the United States.
"Australia was warned about its participation in Afghanistan and East Timor," he said, "but it ignored this warning until it was awakened by the echoes of explosions in Bali."
"As you assassinate so will you be assassinated; and as you bomb, so will you likewise be." U.S. Intelligence officials are analyzing the tape, but have been quoted anonymously as saying it sounds like bin Laden. At the Justice Department today, FBI Director Robert Mueller said the U.S. is taking the taped threats very seriously.
ROBERT MUELLER: The fact of the tape out there does and should put us on greater alert. If the conclusion ultimate is that it is bin Laden, then the fact of the warning is something we cannot dismiss, but to the contrary should cause us to be on greater alert to determine all that we can from our sources as to the possibilities of future attacks and to be continuously vigilant.
MARGARET WARNER: There have been a number of purported bin Laden video and audiotapes in the past year, but he hasn't been seen on video for more than ten months, not since this tape broadcast on al Jazeera December 26, 2001.
MARGARET WARNER: To assess the significance of this latest tape, we're joined by David Johnston, a reporter/correspondent for the New York Times; Daniel Benjamin, the director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council during the second Clinton administration. He's co-author of "The Age of Sacred Terror," a book about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida; and Ahmed Rashid, who covers Central and South Asia for the Wall Street Journal, the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Daily Telegraph. He is the author of a new book, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia.
Welcome to you all, and, David Johnston, beginning with you, what's the latest from your reporting in terms of what U.S. Intelligence officials think about this tape? Is it bin Laden?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Well, there is an evolving sense of this tape. I think the linguists who have listened to this tape feel that the sound of the voice is very much like bin Laden's in terms of the vocabulary, the manner of speaking, the mode of speech. I think there have been some subsequent tests that we have heard about later this afternoon that have been conducted on kind of the electronic signature of the speech and I think those have been less conclusive. Those tests are still underway, we understand, but I think the later sense of this from this afternoon is that the Bush administration has yet to really reach a judgment on whether this is an authentic bin Laden tape.
MARGARET WARNER: What do they make of the tape, the content and the timing?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Well, there is obviously a deep concern in a sense, because there is no particular reason why this tape should surface at this point. The fear is of course is that this means that there is some operational readiness by al-Qaida or related groups and could signal some kind of an attack.
MARGARET WARNER: Dan Benjamin, if this is bin Laden why now, why this tape?
DANIEL BENJAMIN: Osama bin Laden is nothing if not a great dramatist and he stage manages everything that he does. He has been holding back a proof of his existence because he knew that it would be a powerful blow in this struggle. And he chose this moment, I believe, because it underscores his message, his message that the U.S. is leading the west on the war in Islam. It comes at a moment of heightened tension between the United States and Iraq and therefore, it underscores what he's saying. He's saying look here come the Americans again and they're bashing Muslims; they're killing Muslims, and he's revealing himself as the true champion of the Islamic people.
MARGARET WARNER: And if he wanted to absolutely demonstrate he is alive and certainly the timing of the incidents he refers to suggests they're very recent, why wouldn't he do it on videotape?
DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, first of all he is mentioning those events because he wants to take ownership of them in some way and there very well may be connections; particularly we know with the Indonesia bombing and to a certain extent with the Moscow bombing. It may simply be the case there is no video camera available to him, it could be as simple as that. It could also be he's not looking that well and doesn't want to be seen as less than great heroic figure of radical Islam.
MARGARET WARNER: Ahmed Rashid, what do you make of this tape, its significance and its timing?
AHMED RASHID: Well, clearly we still have to see if it's authenticated but I think the message is a very powerful message. He takes ownership for all the recent incidents of terrorism; he singles out top officials from the U.S. administration and he names countries, which could be seen as being perhaps potential targets in the weeks or days to come ahead for having backed the United States in the war against terrorism. It's a very tight message. It has the touches of rhetoric for which bin Laden is very famous for but it covers a huge amount of ground. And I think it could well be a kind of signal for operatives in other parts of the world to start some kind of action.
MARGARET WARNER: David Johnston, back to you what, does the Administration make of the fact this tape specifically mentions the President, Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I think there have been previous references to President Bush but it is new to mention these other senior officials. I think that is a cause of a very great concern.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you interpret that Mr. Rashid; do you think it has any particular meaning or significance?
AHMED RASHID: Well, I think that linked with the countries that are named, I mean, it's a very comprehensive list of countries. I think it does seem to have importance and I don't think we have had messages which have been so precise before.
MARGARET WARNER: And the countries, Dan Benjamin, that he mentions are also western countries, he doesn't mention any Muslim countries in the region but, where's my list here - it was Britain, France, Italy, Canada, Germany, and Australia; what do you make of the countries he named and the countries he didn't name and what is his objective here?
DANIEL BENJAMIN: Let me first just say that in earlier fatwa's, in some of his rulings in 1998 and before he actually mentioned previous U.S. officials. He once addressed an entire document to William Perry, the Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration, but as for the countries that he has picked, I think he is looking at the potential members of a coalition that might participate in one way or another in hostilities in Iraq. There is some disingenuousness about the message because in other statements bin Laden has always made it clear that he considers all of these countries to be lackeys in the United States and that they were therefore, justifiable targets. In fact, Britain and France have had some of their facilities surveiled before for terrorist operations. Nonetheless I think he's hoping that he can make citizens in those countries shy away from involvement in a war.
MARGARET WARNER: Ahmed Rashid, if this is not bin Laden, what would that tell you?
AHMED RASHID: Well, I think the message itself is very comprehensive and even if it's not bin Laden, I think Islamic radicals who are supporting al-Qaida, who are working for al-Qaida will take it as his message and will read it as a very comprehensive summary of the last few months of actions that they have taken and perhaps pointing out future targets. On the timing let me just say that I think we should remember the first thing is we have just passed the first anniversary of the fall of Kabul, the fall of Kabul and the retreat of the Taliban. We are about to approach the next few weeks the anniversary of the Bonn agreement, which set up the interim government in Afghanistan, there are several anniversaries coming up, which could be significant for al-Qaida. The other thing is -- I don't want to read too much into this -- but if there's a sense that Saddam Hussein was going to comply with these U.N. resolution, here you have Saddam, as it were, capitulating to the western demands and here you have bin Laden saying, I defy you and I will not.
MARGARET WARNER: And apparently, Dan Benjamin, on a lot of Islamic radical Web sites today there is a huge kind of outpouring of commentary and apparent belief that this really is bin Laden and a sort of inspirational tone to it all.
DANIEL BENJAMIN: There are a number of aspects of that that are interesting. The first is that bin Laden passes himself off in many ways almost as a Messianic figure among these Jihadists so his self-revelation of a year being absent has almost a divine characteristic for these people. I can't agree enough with what Ahmed just said because the contrast between the secularist Saddam capitulating to the U.N., which is viewed also as being a tool of the United States, and the fundamentalists bin Laden saying, I won't go on bended knee I think is stark and I think it's meant to energize the faithful.
MARGARET WARNER: David, to what degree does the U.S. Administration think that say all these recent attacks particularly in the month of October but the ones this tape mentions, were being directed from sort of central command, whether it was bin Laden, himself, or al al-Zawahiri, his number two deputy, a tape has also surfaced of him, first these being kind of freelancers maybe taking their inspiration from bin Laden but not being directed any longer by him?
DANIEL BENJAMIN: I don't think that there is a belief that these operations were directed from a sort of central command post headquarters kind of operation. I think there is a much greater sense these were inspired by, that there are people, perhaps, some who are trained in the camps in Afghanistan who have spread far around the globe who understand the significance of these messages and are prepared and to some degree inspired by them. And I recall that the last bin Laden message in early October, that was never authenticated, yet there was a strong sense that that did inspire and was very much related to some of these attacks that are mentioned in this latest message.
MARGARET WARNER: Ahmed Rashid, do you have a view as to whether this message, whether it comes from bin Laden or those close to him, those who want to run al-Qaida now, whether it's meant to try to inspire new attacks against the targets mentioned or whether it's essentially a sign that other attacks are in the works - the kind of thing David Johnston referred to earlier, the possibility that he's sort of putting the world on notice so when the next really catastrophic attack takes place there will be no doubt that he is responsible?
AHMED RASHID: Well, I think it's very difficult to say but I do agree, I don't think there is a central command. I think that lot of these attacks are being carried out by individual high level individual commandeers of al-Qaida who have managed to get away to various countries, and local groups as well. But I think what a message like this does give you is a kind of timetable. If you know how to read the inherent messages, I think this gives you a timetable and gives these groups the sense that you know the very fact that he's spoken out, our leader has spoken out, our leader wants certain things done, and these are the countries, these are the individuals, I think the message is very strong, that something is going to be in the works.
MARGARET WARNER: So you mean it really is you think probably meant as a signal that now is the time to do whatever you are going to do and these are the targets?
AHMED RASHID: Certainly. I think that's the kind of direction we're talking about. That's the kind of limited direction that bin Laden can give right now. I think he's alive but he's incapacitated, he's certainly not in command with all the groups around the world or even in Afghanistan. And I think this is the only way that he can convey a kind of general direction to his followers.
MARGARET WARNER: What's your sense of that?
DANIEL BENJAMIN: Al-Qaida always had a two track strategy. One track is supporting Muslim groups, fundamentalists groups around the world targeting what the call the near enemy, secular Muslim regimes, and this is been the struggle that's been going on for forty or fifty years. The other tactic, the other strategy, excuse me, is targeting the United States with catastrophic terror. Both of these strategies have gone on for now a number of years and I think that the reason the fact that they're continuing on one track with these local attacks doesn't mean that we should assume that it isn't going on on the other track as well. Every time bin Laden has done a major sort of appearance, except for the period right after 9/11 there has been a lag of four to seven months or so before there was an attack against the United States. So I think that we need to be vigilant and recognize that the possibility of a catastrophic attack against the U.S. remains very real.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, on that note we'll end it. Thank you, all three, very much.