CAIRO, Egypt – Osama bin Laden, publicly injecting himself into the campaign four days ahead of presidential election, said in a videotape aired Friday that the United States can avoid another Sept. 11 attack if it stops threatening the security of Muslims.
In the portion of the tape that was broadcast, the al Qaeda leader refrained from directly warning of new attacks, although he said “there are still reasons to repeat what happened.”
“Your security is not in the hands of Kerry, Bush or al Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands,” bin Laden said, referring to the president and his Democratic opponent. “Any state that does not mess with our security has naturally guaranteed its own security.”
Admitting for the first time that he ordered the Sept. 11 attacks, bin Laden said he did so because of injustices against the Lebanese and Palestinians by Israel and the United States.
In what appeared to be conciliatory language, bin Laden said he wanted to explain why he ordered the suicide airline hijackings that hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon so Americans would know how to act to prevent another attack.
“To the American people, my talk to you is about the best way to avoid another Manhattan,” he said. “I tell you: Security is an important element of human life and, free people do not give up their security.”
After the video was aired, President Bush said that “Americans will not be intimidated” by bin Laden. Sen. John Kerry criticized Bush for failing to capture bin Laden earlier and said that “I can run a more effective war on terror.”
The political impact of the tape could cut both ways. It bolsters Bush’s argument that the world is a dangerous place and plays to his strength as commander in chief in fighting the war on terror, but it also underscores that his administration has failed to capture or kill America’s No. 1 enemy more than three years after the terror attacks on New York and Washington.
It was the first footage in more than a year of the fugitive al Qaeda leader, thought to be hiding in the mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The video, broadcast on Al-Jazeera television, showed bin Laden with a long, gray beard, wearing traditional white robes, a turban and a golden cloak, standing behind a table with papers and in front of a plain, brown curtain.
His hands were steady and he appeared healthy.
The Bush administration said it believes the videotape is authentic and was made recently, noting that bin Laden referred to 1,000 U.S. military deaths in Iraq – which happened in early September.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the administration did not plan to raise the nation’s threat level for now. The U.S. official said the 18-minute tape – which carries English subtitles, though not in the portion shown on Al-Jazeera – lacks an explicit threat and repeats well-worn themes.
Al-Jazeera, which is based in Qatar, broadcast about seven minutes of the tape. The station’s spokesman, Jihad Ali Ballout, said Al-Jazeera aired what was “newsworthy and relevant” and refused to describe the unaired portions, including whether they included any threats. Ballout said the station received the tape Friday but would not say how.
Before the tape was aired, the State Department asked the government of Qatar to discourage Al-Jazeera from broadcasting it, a senior State Department official said.
In the video, bin Laden accused Bush of misleading Americans by saying the attack was carried out because al Qaeda members “hate freedom.” The terrorist leader said his followers have left alone countries that do not threaten Muslims.
“We fought you because we are free … and want to regain freedom for our nation. As you undermine our security we undermine yours,” bin Laden said.
He said he was first inspired to attack the United States by the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon in which towers and buildings in Beirut were destroyed in the siege of the capital.
“While I was looking at these destroyed towers in Lebanon, it sparked in my mind that the tyrant should be punished with the same and that we should destroy towers in America, so that it tastes what we taste and would be deterred from killing our children and women,” he said.
“God knows that it had not occurred to our mind to attack the towers, but after our patience ran out and we saw the injustice and inflexibility of the American-Israeli alliance toward our people in Palestine and Lebanon, this came to my mind,” he said.
Bin Laden suggested Bush was slow to react to the Sept. 11 attacks, giving the hijackers more time than they expected. At the time of the attacks, the president was listening to schoolchildren in Florida reading a book.
“It never occurred to us that the commander in chief of the American armed forces would leave 50,000 of his citizens in the two towers to face these horrors alone,” he said, referring to the number of people who worked at the World Trade Center.
“It appeared to him (Bush) that a little girl’s talk about her goat and its butting was more important than the planes and their butting of the skyscrapers. That gave us three times the required time to carry out the operations, thank God,” he said.
Excluding the hijackers, the Sept. 11 attacks killed 2,749 people at the World Trade Center, 184 at the Pentagon and 40 in Pennsylvania.
In planning the attacks, bin Laden said he told Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers, that the strikes had to be carried out “within 20 minutes before Bush and his administration noticed.”
Bin Laden compared the Bush administration to repressive Arab regimes, “half of which are ruled by the military and the other half are ruled by the sons of kings and presidents.”
He said the resemblance became clear when Bush’s father was president and visited Arab countries.
“He wound up being impressed by the royal and military regimes and envied them for staying decades in their positions and embezzling the nation’s money with no supervision,” bin Laden said.
“He passed on tyranny and oppression to his son, and they called it the Patriot Act, under the pretext of fighting terror. Bush the father did well in placing his sons as governors and did not forget to pass on the expertise in fraud from the leaders of the (Mideast) region to Florida to use it in critical moments.”
The image of bin Laden reading a statement was dramatically different from the few other videos of the al Qaeda leader that have emerged since the Sept. 11 attacks.
In the last videotape, issued Sept. 10, 2003, bin Laden is seen walking through rocky terrain with his top deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, both carrying automatic rifles. In a taped message issued at the same time, bin Laden praises the “great damage to the enemy” on Sept. 11 and mentions five hijackers by name.