Monday, August 4, 2003

U.S. intelligence has determined that a tape-recorded message from an al Qaeda terrorist probably contains the voice of the group’s No. 2 leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

“CIA’s assessment after a technical analysis of the tape aired Aug. 3 is that it is likely Al-Zawahiri’s voice,” a U.S. official said, though he added the agency had not determined “with absolute certainty” that the tape was recorded by Osama bin Laden’s chief deputy.

The message was broadcast on the satellite TV station Al-Arabiya and warned that the United States would be attacked for prosecuting or executing terrorism suspects now being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The CIA’s technical division conducted a voice analysis of the tape after it was broadcast Sunday, the U.S. official said.

Egyptian-born Al-Zawahiri is one of the terrorists most wanted by the U.S. government, which has offered a reward of $25 million for information leading to his death or capture.

The voice on the tape says, “I swear by the almighty God … that Crusader America will pay dearly for any harm done to any of the Muslim prisoners it is holding.”

CIA analysts were unable to determine when the tape was made, the U.S. official said.

The tape makes no reference to al Qaeda terrorists being held at other locations, an indication that the group views those held in Guantanamo as key personnel.

Al-Zawahiri last publicized a terrorist threat on Oct. 6, when he threatened in a recorded message to conduct attacks against the United States, its economy and its allies.

That message was the first proof that he had survived the bombing and ground assault on the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan in December 2001.

U.S. officials believe Al-Zawahiri is hiding somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, along with bin Laden.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said in a TV interview Sunday that the tape threatened “great damage” against the United States.

“I believe al Qaeda wants to strike us. I believe they want to strike us whenever and wherever they can,” Mr. Ashcroft said.

A captured Saudi cleric disclosed to Saudi authorities recently that al Qaeda was planning attacks using aircraft, U.S. officials said.

The latest message also warned other countries that handed al Qaeda prisoners to the United States that they too will pay a price.

“Let it be clear to those who conspire with America that America cannot defend itself, let alone defend others,” the Al-Zawahiri tape says.

Yesterday, Iran’s government announced that it would not turn over to the United States any of the al Qaeda members it says it holds.

U.S. intelligence officials believe several top al Qaeda leaders are in Iran, including Saad bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s eldest son; Saif Al-Adel, the chief of al Qaeda’s military operations; and Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the al Qaeda spokesman.

The recorded message states in Arabic that Islamists are seeking the release of the prisoners and says the prisoners are not forgotten and will be avenged.

“But we tell America one thing: What you have seen so far is nothing but the first skirmishes,” the Al-Zawahiri tape states. “The real battle hasn’t started yet.”

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