Analysts seeking date, language of bin Laden tape for clues

Sunday, January 22, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Osama bin Laden's warning last week about an upcoming attack on the United States answered at least one question about the al-Qaida leader: He is still alive, or at least was until recently.

But it opened a new inquiry by counterterror officials who are analyzing the bin Laden audiotape for clues about when and where it was made -- and, most importantly, whether it sends a signal to carry out his threat.

Intelligence analysts were scrutinizing the recording for any clues -- including certain words and phrases -- that might be a signal for the terror network's members or followers. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

The Homeland Security Department said it had no plans to raise the nation's terror threat-alert level and no reason to believe an attack was imminent.

"We, of course, have been very concerned about the threat of terrorism, generally, since the attacks of 9-11," Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said. "And obviously we expect the American people to live their lives as normally as possible."

The audio recording was the first public statement by bin Laden since December 2004. That is the longest stretch the terror leader has been publicly quiet since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Authorities would not say whether the recording indicates anything about bin Laden's whereabouts or health.

A counterterror official said analysts believe the tape appears to have been recorded since December, although it was not clear how recently -- or if it was in response to U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan last week that Pakistani authorities said killed four senior al-Qaida operatives.

The Arab television network Al-Jazeera, which released the tape Thursday, initially reported it was made in December but corrected itself later to say it was recorded this month. Editors at the station said they could not comment on how they knew when it was made.

John Rollins, a former Homeland Security intelligence official, said the timeline is important because terror threats can lose credibility as time goes on without an attack.

"If you can date it back as being from weeks or months ago, and he's saying then that he's getting close to operation readiness, this gives you an indication that it's bravado," said Rollins, now a terrorism specialist at the Congressional Research Service.

But if the threats were recorded very recently, "then that does raise the bar to more concerns that the timing of the tape may coincide with actual plans that are under way," Rollins said.

An analysis by the IntelCenter, a contractor working with U.S. intelligence agencies, highlighted language in bin Laden's statement that it said could be part of a warning cycle for Americans.

In his most recent recording, bin Laden began his statement by saying, "Peace be upon those who follow guidance." That language, the analysis concluded, closely matches a pattern seen before the bombings in London last July 7. Bin Laden used almost identical greetings in statements directed to Europeans in April 2004 and to Americans in October 2004.

"We believe that this signifies this is a warning message, and they feel they're obligated (to give) in the run-up to an attack," said Ben Venzke, chief executive at the IntelCenter.

The government's counterterror officials declined to comment on the analysis.

The tape came days before a planned weekend training exercise in which military aircraft are to conduct patrols over the nation's capital to intercept and divert planes that appear to pose a threat. But Michael Kucharek, a spokesman for the U.S. Northern Command, which is responsible for the defense of U.S. territory, said there have been no changes to the systematic air patrolling of U.S. airspace.

The threat on the bin Laden audio tape "means nothing to us," the spokesman said. He said the training was planned well before the tape's release and was just the latest in a series of such exercises.

AP Military Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.

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