- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

Lawmakers warned yesterday that even though New Year’s Eve passed safely, Americans still are at risk from terror network al Qaeda which “remains as dangerous as it was before September 11.”

The warnings came as the Arabic TV news network Al Jazeera broadcast a new, recently recorded audiotape, apparently of the network’s leader, Osama bin Laden. Analysts said the tape might presage more attacks by al Qaeda.

“Al Qaeda remains as dangerous as it was before September 11,” the senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee, California Rep. Jane Harman, told CNN. “It is a horizontal — meaning it doesn’t need command just from the top — organization, and it has cells all over the world.

“That worries me very much,” Mrs. Harman concluded.

Just before Christmas, the administration raised the nation’s color-coded alert level from yellow or “elevated,” to orange, or “high.” Officials said they had intelligence that al Qaeda had planned a large-scale attack against the United States, perhaps using hijacked airliners.

Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican, told CNN that, although al Qaeda still very much was able to function, “a great deal has been accomplished” since September 11 in terms of making the country safer.

But Mr. Cox acknowledged that America was a “soft target,” and it never would be possible to achieve total security.

“We have a big, open society,” he said. “Every shopping mall, every office building … there is no end to it. … We can’t harden every soft target in America.”

Underlining the urgency of the task, Al Jazeera broadcast an audiotape yesterday, apparently of bin Laden.

The tape made an elliptical reference to the capture of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the middle of last month and talked in straightforward terms about other recent events.

“He begins by saying ‘I am Osama bin Laden,’” terrorism analyst Peter Bergen said. “With that and all these time-specific references, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is a self-conscious effort at proving he’s alive.”

An official said U.S. intelligence agencies would study the recording to see whether it really was bin Laden.

If it was, private-sector terror analyst Ben Venzke said, it might well presage further attacks by al Qaeda.

“Every major al Qaeda attack during [the past] two years was preceded by the release of an Osama bin Laden audiotape with the exception of the attack on the French oil tanker Limburg,” said Mr. Venzke in an e-mail alert. “In the case of the Limburg attack, the tape was released the following day.”

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