WASHINGTON—In his first public communication in more than a year, terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden said in an audiotape released Thursday that al-Qaida is preparing to mount new attacks on the United States, but he offered a truce to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bin Laden, in a double-edged message addressed to Americans, cited public discontent in the United States with the war in Iraq and bragged that "our situation, thank God, is getting better and better, while your situation is the opposite of that."
"We don't mind offering you a long-term truce on fair conditions that we adhere to," bin Laden said on the tape, first broadcast on the Arabic Al-Jazeera satellite TV network. "Both sides can enjoy security and stability under this truce so we can build Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been destroyed in this war. There is no shame in this solution."
The White House quickly rejected the offer, as did members of Congress.
"We do not negotiate with terrorists. We put them out of business," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.
Current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials warned against seeing the truce offer as a sign of weakness in the al-Qaida terrorist network.
One official, who like others requested anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, recalled that bin Laden offered a truce to European countries in 2004, about a month after the deadly bombings on commuter trains in Madrid. When it met no response, militants staged attacks in London.
Bin Laden, citing the attacks in Europe, said, "The delay in similar operations happening in America has not been because of failure to break through your security measures. The operations are under preparation and you will see them in your homes the minute (the preparations) are through."
Former State Department terrorism expert Dennis Pluchinsky said that the al-Qaida leader could be following an Islamic tradition of warning his enemies before striking them.
"The fact that he has been absent for over 12 months and then makes an appearance is suspicious," said Pluchinsky, now with TranSecur, a private security firm. "Some people would interpret it as a harbinger of something to come."
Bin Laden hadn't been heard from since a December 2004 audiotape, leading some U.S. officials to question whether he was alive or still in control of the terrorist network he founded. The consensus in the U.S. intelligence community before Thursday had been that he was still alive, officials said.
CIA analysts using voice-matching techniques quickly confirmed that the voice on the tape was bin Laden's.
Intelligence officials said the analysts were struck by the generally downbeat tone of bin Laden's remarks, which could signify the pressure his group is under after recent U.S. strikes on his lieutenants. They also noted the poor quality of the tape, indicating it may have been rushed to Al-Jazeera without polishing.
The audiotape was released days after a CIA drone launched one or more missiles on a gathering in a Pakistani village in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to kill bin Laden's chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.
Pakistani officials have told journalists that the strike killed as many as four top al-Qaida operatives, including poisons and explosives expert Midhat Mursi al-Sayid, also known as Abu Khabab al-Masri. U.S. counterterrorism officials said that al-Masri is believed to have been in the vicinity, but they can't confirm that he was killed.
"It could mean that key people were killed in the airstrike and that bin Laden is trying to show that the organization is still functioning and is not mortally wounded," said Kenneth Katzman, a terrorism expert at the Congressional Research Service.
Katzman said he believes the increased pace of U.S. operations on the Afghan-Pakistan border suggests that U.S. intelligence has succeeded over the past several years to build a deep understanding of the terrain, peoples, tribal ties and leadership structures. That and the deployment of thousands of Pakistani troops have allowed U.S. forces to step up their efforts to run bin Laden and his closest aides to ground.
"They've got somewhat more penetration into that area," he said.
"It takes a few years to intellectually map that region," Katzman added. "Eventually, you form a picture of the territory and who's there, who's who, and what locations are used for hiding places."
U.S. intelligence officials confirmed that the effort has involved monitoring al-Qaida's communications, intense aerial surveillance and improved cooperation by Pakistani intelligence officials.
Al-Jazeera at first said the bin Laden tape was recorded in December, but later corrected that and said it was made earlier this month, according to news reports from the region.
In it, bin Laden mentions a purported remark by Bush to British Prime Minister Tony Blair about bombing Al-Jazeera's headquarters in Qatar. News reports of the remark—denied by the British government—first surfaced last November, dating bin Laden's audio recording in the last two months.
Counterterrorism officials said they had no intelligence indicating an imminent attack on the United States. The Department of Homeland Security's color-coded threat level remained at yellow.
In the tape, bin Laden dwells on a favorite theme—that the United States is weak and can't long stomach casualties or other setbacks.
He cites—incorrectly—polls showing an "overwhelming majority" of Americans want to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. In fact, several recent polls show the U.S. public evenly divided about whether to set a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops, with few supporting immediate departure.
Bin Laden asserts that morale is sinking among U.S. troops in Iraq and suicides are rising, while anti-American insurgents are growing stronger. "The news of our brother mujahedeen is different from what the Pentagon publishes," he said, according to an Associated Press translation.
The al-Qaida leader also disputed Bush's frequent contention that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism. Instead, he said, "Iraq has become a point of attraction and restorer of (our) energies."
Roger Cressey, a former senior White House counterterrorism official in the Clinton and Bush administrations, said bin Laden may be under pressure to strike the United States, because the focus of Islamic militancy has shifted to Iraq and militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
"The money and other things in terms of resources are going there," Cressey said. "So bin Laden and Zawahri don't want to be reduced to merely propagandists."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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