Tape indicts bin Laden

Herald news services

"We calculated in advance the number of casualties" that would result when airliners were crashed into New York’s World Trade Center, Osama bin Laden says softly in a videotape released Thursday by the Bush administration. "I was the most optimistic of all" in predicting "who would be killed," he says, smiling.

Although the "collapse (of) the area where the plane hit and all the floors above … is all that we had hoped for," bin Laden says, the attack exceeded his expectations when both towers collapsed to the ground, killing more than 3,000 people in the worst terrorist act in U.S. history.

The administration expressed its hope Thursday that bin Laden’s words, spoken at an informal al-Qaida dinner inside Afghanistan last month, will put to rest any doubts about his direct responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military has sent Special Operations sniper and "snatch and grab" teams to the Tora Bora area of eastern Afghanistan to assist in killing or capturing bin Laden and other senior leaders of the al-Qaida network, senior defense officials said late Thursday.

The arrival of the highly trained commandos indicated that war planners believe bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders have not fled the region and are now cornered in heavily fortified cave and tunnel complexes.

A senior defense official said there is growing confidence that bin Laden remains in the Tora Bora area, citing three factors: al-Qaida fighters are putting up extremely stiff resistance, "like there’s something worth fighting for"; Afghan fighters besieging Tora Bora have reported recent sightings of bin Laden; and other intelligence sources have provided evidence suggesting his presence, which the official declined to specify.

U.S. Special Operations forces have the "capability" to kill or capture al-Qaida leaders — "and yes, they’ve been authorized to use it," the official said.

In the amateur video, bin Laden is calm and languid, reclining on cushions in the corner of a bare-walled, carpeted room. He tells his visitor, an unnamed man the administration has identified only as a Saudi sheik, of his happiness at hearing a radio news broadcast confirm that the planned attack had been carried out. "We had notification since the previous Thursday that the event would take place that day," he says.

Bin Laden chuckles at the fact that most of the Islamic militants recruited for the "martyrdom operation" were unaware of the nature of the mission until the last minute. He inquires about reaction to news of the attacks inside "the mosques" in his home country of Saudi Arabia, and his guest tells him fawningly of the wide support he has among leading conservative clerics there.

A senior Saudi official Thursday night identified the sheik as a militant cleric named "al-Ghamdi," from the southern part of Saudi Arabia.

The video was turned over to U.S. forces several weeks ago after being found in a house in the eastern Afghanistan city of Jalalabad. Its release at the Pentagon followed intensive study by intelligence analysts and translation by two nongovernment interpreters who worked independently and then compared their results with translations done earlier by government Arabic specialists, officials said.

On the tape, a bin Laden aide begins recounting when he heard the first tower had been hit. When he ran into another room to tell bin Laden, the aide says, "he made a gesture with his hands, meaning: ‘I know, I know … ’ "

"He did not know about the operation," bin Laden says of the aide. "Not everybody knew." He notes that "Mohamed, from the Egyptian family, was in charge of the group." The Pentagon-prepared transcript notes that the reference is to Mohamed Atta, identified by U.S. officials as the leader of the 19 hijackers and the pilot of the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center.

"The brothers, who conducted the operation, all they knew was that they have a martyrdom operation and we asked each of them to go to America but they didn’t know anything about the operation, not even one letter," bin Laden says. "But they were trained and we did not reveal the operation to them until they are there and just before they boarded the planes … Those who were trained to fly didn’t know the others."

At the end of the dinner, al-Ghamdi tells bin Laden that "Allah prepares for you a great reward for this work," and notes that, for his part, "I live in happiness, happiness … I have not experienced, or felt, in a long time."

"By Allah," he says. "We congratulate you for the great work."

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