Friday, September 12, 2003

The CIA has concluded that a recent audiotape of al Qaeda leaders contains the voice of No. 2 official Ayman al-Zawahri, but the voice of Osama bin Laden may be taken from an old recording.

A CIA official yesterday said the agency completed a preliminary technical analysis of the audiotape broadcast Wednesday by the Qatari satellite-television station Al Jazeera. It aired along with what was said to be new video footage of bin Laden and al-Zawahri together.

“We have high confidence it contains the voice of Ayman al-Zawahri,” one official said. “The part of the tape with bin Laden is inconclusive.”

U.S. officials said there are concerns the release of the tape could signal an impending major terrorist attack. Past strikes have been preceded by similar public statements by al Qaeda leaders.

The State Department issued a worldwide warning Wednesday to Americans that al Qaeda was planning new attacks. It said that with the anniversary of September 11, “we are seeing increasing indications that al Qaeda is preparing to strike U.S. interests abroad.”

“We also cannot rule out the potential for al Qaeda to attempt a second catastrophic attack within the U.S.,” the notice stated.

But the timing of the tape, coinciding with the second anniversary of al Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, indicated the tape was more likely a propaganda effort by the terrorist group.

“What this appears to be is very much a propaganda ploy in an effort to buck up morale in the al Qaeda rank and file and to indicate that bin Laden is still around and a force to be reckoned with,” the official said.

Al-Zawahri, an Egyptian terrorist, is heard in Wednesday’s audiotape urging Islamists in Iraq to attack U.S. troops. He also talks about the second anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington that killed more than 3,000 people, and the battles in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“We tell you [America] that what you have seen so far are only the first skirmishes and the beginning of the clash. The real battle, however, has not started yet,” al-Zawahri stated, warning, “Prepare yourself for punishment for your crimes.”

The CIA official said that in contrast to the al-Zawahri message, the tape of bin Laden made no time reference that would indicate when it was produced. “It could have been recorded at any time,” the official said.

Bin Laden’s message contains the “standard al Qaeda rhetoric,” the official said.

But analysts told United Press International that bin Laden’s message does contain an apparent reference to the U.S.-led military assault in Iraq.

Speaking of the September 11 hijackers, the fugitive Saudi says, “Those youths … confused the enemy’s hostile schemes. Documents have shown that this aggression to occupy and divide the region had been preplanned six months ahead of the [World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks].”

The reference might have been to Afghanistan, but several analysts told UPI it was much more likely a reference to Iraq. They pointed to news stories, widely circulated in the Arab world, highlighting the long-standing pre-September 11 commitment by senior Bush administration officials to regime change and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Al Jazeera television said at the time of Wednesday’s broadcast that the al Qaeda leaders appeared to have been videotaped last spring. But the recording also could have been made in the spring of 2002, the CIA official said.

• Shaun Waterman of United Press International contributed to this report.

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