By Donna Bryson
CAIRO, Egypt – Osama bin Laden, pale and gaunt after months of U.S. bombardment, called for attacks against the U.S. economy in a videotape apparently made in recent weeks and broadcast in full today on an Arabic satellite channel.
Bin Laden, his beard gone mostly white, appeared in front of a brown cloth, dressed in military fatigues with a machine gun propped to his right. He occasionally smiled as he spoke and, though thinner than in past tapes, his voice was strong and clear. He spoke deliberately, often leaning into the camera, like a lawyer making a complex point to a jury.
“It is important to concentrate on the destruction of the American economy” so the United States will be too busy to bother with Islamic fighters, bin Laden said in the 33-minute video, aired on the Qatar-based television station Al-Jazeera.
The al-Qaida leader praised the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in eastern Africa. He said the attacks on Washington and the Pentagon were in response to “the continuing oppression inflicted on our children in Palestine, Iraq, Somalia and southern Sudan.”
But he did not take responsibility for the attacks, both of which have been blamed on his al-Qaida terror network.
U.S. officials dismissed the video as propaganda. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said experts would examine it for any valuable intelligence information on bin Laden. He admitted the United States did not know where the al-Qaida leader was.
“He is either in Afghanistan, or some other country or dead,” Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon. “We hear six, seven, eight, 10, 12 conflicting reports every day” on bin Laden’s location.
It was not clear where the tape – which the United States dismissed as “propaganda” – was made. Al-Jazeera, which has been airing excerpts over the past two days, has said the video arrived by air courier from Pakistan but the sender was anonymous.
Bin Laden makes comments suggesting it was recorded in early or mid-December. He said he was speaking “three months after the blessed attack against the international infidels and their leaders, the United States, and two months after the beginning of the vicious aggression against Islam,” apparent references to the Sept. 11 attacks and to the Oct. 7 start of U.S. retaliatory bombing of Afghanistan.
“Our terrorism is against America. Our terrorism is a blessed terrorism to prevent the unjust person from committing injustice and to stop American support for Israel, which kills our sons,” bin Laden said.
He said it was “inconceivable” that his followers would “go after innocent civilians.”
Those who carried out the attacks on New York and Washington were “just 19 high school students – may God accept them as martyrs – who shook America, struck the American economy in the heart and hit the biggest military force at its heart with God’s help,” he said.
U.S. forces have been searching caves in the mountainous Tora Bora area of eastern Afghanistan, where bin Laden’s al-Qaida fighters made their last stand. But for weeks, U.S. officials say, they have had no indication of where bin Laden might be – in Tora Bora, elsewhere in Afghanistan, fleeing across Pakistan or even dead.
Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said in China recently he was “reasonably sure” bin Laden had been killed by U.S. bombs at Tora Bora.
A spokesman for Afghanistan’s new defense ministry, Mohammad Abeel, said today that bin Laden was in a border area of Pakistan with “friends” of a Pakistani Islamic activist. But the Afghan interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai, said his government did not know where bin Laden was.
As bin Laden spoke into the camera in the new tape, he gestured with his right hand, keeping his left hand still at his side. Bin Laden is left-handed, according to the FBI website. It wasn’t clear if he avoided using that hand because of a problem or injury. Islam considers the right hand more blessed and left-handed gestures can be considered less proper. Bin Laden often has been shown gesturing with his right hand.
He appeared more tired than he did in an earlier tape that the Pentagon says was found in Afghanistan and dated Nov. 9. That video showed a relaxed, unscripted bin Laden telling a visitor details of the Sept. 11 attacks and indicating he was involved in their planning.
In the tape, bin Laden said the U.S.-led bombardment of Afghanistan shows that the West and the United States have an “indescribable hatred of Islam.”
“The people who have lived the last months under the continual American air strikes, they know that very well. Many villages were wiped out for no crime and many millions were displaced in this cold weather.”
He likened the bombing to terrorism.
“In Nairobi, when the boys – may God take them as martyrs – used a 2,000-kilo (4,400-pound) bomb, the U.S. said this was terrorism, that this was a weapon of mass destruction. And now the U.S. is using two bombs, each weighing 7,000 kilos (15,500 pounds). No one is questioning this.”
The United States has indicted bin Laden in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
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