WASHINGTON – Ending a nearly three-year absence from public view, a dark-bearded Osama bin Laden surfaced Friday in a video in which he repeatedly taunted the Bush administration but made no overt threats of renewed terrorist attacks.
The al-Qaida leader appeared older and spoke in somber tones as he delivered a rambling, 25-minute monologue that included a lengthy tirade against Western capitalism sprinkled with references to recent news events and cultural and political figures.
Addressing his message to “the people of America,” bin Laden predicted failure for U.S. forces in Iraq and warned against what he described as the continued oppression and humiliation of Muslims by the West.
“The blood of the Muslims will not be spilled with impunity,” he said.
The tape was undergoing technical evaluation by U.S. intelligence analysts, but an initial review indicated it was authentic.
If confirmed as genuine, the recording will represent the first video footage of the al-Qaida leader since he appeared in an October 2004 tape during the run-up to the U.S. presidential elections.
Terrorism analysts said the video offered little new information but appeared intended to show that bin Laden is not only alive but vital and committed to continuing his campaign against the West nearly six years to the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The tape, which appears to have been professionally produced, is believed to have been made no earlier than mid-August, analysts said.
“He is saying, ‘I am still here, and we are still engaged in the war against the United States – and we will widen the circle of the war,’ ” said Husain Haqqani, an expert in Islamic terrorist groups and director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University. “The overall message is one of trying to bolster the morale of the al-Qaida faithful and at the same time thumbing his nose at the United States.”
In an appearance in Sydney, Australia, President Bush said, “The tape is a reminder about the dangerous world in which we live. And it is a reminder that we must work together to protect … against these extremists who murder the innocent in order to achieve their political objectives.
“I found it interesting that on the tape Iraq was mentioned, which is a reminder that Iraq is a part of this war against extremists,” Bush continued. “If al-Qaida bothers to mention Iraq, it is because they want to achieve their objectives in Iraq, which is to drive us out and to develop a safe haven.”
Bin Laden’s lengthy speech is interspersed with references suggesting that the al-Qaida leader closely follows events in the West. He refers to the recently elected leaders of Britain and France – Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy – saying they, like Bush, “talk about freedom and human rights with a disregard for the intellects of human beings.” He even refers to global warming and the troubled credit and real estate markets in the United States.
The tape’s most striking feature was bin Laden’s physical appearance: The straggly, gray-streaked whiskers of his previous images had been replaced with a neatly trimmed beard of black or dark brown. While some analysts speculated the beard was fake, others said it was likely that bin Laden had dyed his beard, as is customary for older men in some Muslim cultures.
He does not appear obviously ill, though some analysts said his face is visibly wizened compared with his appearance in earlier videos, and the dark circles beneath his eyes are more pronounced.