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Previously unseen tape shows bin Laden's declaration of war

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Flanked by bodyguards, bin Laden flinches as a rocket-propelled grenade passes over him during a training exercise.  

From Nic Robertson

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- A never-before-seen al Qaeda video obtained by CNN shows Osama bin Laden declaring war against the United States and the West.

The tape of a May 26, 1998, news conference is among 64 obtained in Afghanistan from a source, who said the tapes were found in an Afghan house where bin Laden had stayed. Experts say the collection of tapes sheds new light on al Qaeda's training, capabilities and mindset.

"By God's grace," bin Laden says on the tape, "we have formed with many other Islamic groups and organizations in the Islamic world a front called the International Islamic Front to do jihad against the crusaders and Jews."

"And by God's grace," he says at another point in the tape, "the men ... are going to have a successful result in killing Americans and getting rid of them."

CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen, who interviewed bin Laden a year earlier, believes the tape depicts a key moment for al Qaeda.

"They're going public," Bergen said. "They're saying, 'We're having this war against the United States.'"

Accompanying bin Laden on the video are Ayman Al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's right-hand man and inspirational ally, and military adviser Mohammad Atef, who died last November in coalition bombing.

Although a select group of Pakistani journalists and one Chinese writer were invited to witness as al Qaeda launched its jihad on the West, the event never got wide exposure because no independent videotaping was allowed.

Ismail Khan was one of the journalists there that day.

"We were given a few instructions, you know, on how to photograph and only take a picture of Osama and the two leaders who were going to sit close by him. Nobody else," Khan said.

Rohan Gunaratna, an international terrorism expert and author of "Inside Al Qaeda," suggests security was a key reason for keeping the video under wraps.

"Making that tape public would compromise the security of al Qaeda and of Osama bin Laden," he said. "They did not release that tape."

Among those who appear with bin Laden are the two sons of Sheik Abdul Rahman, the spiritual leader of those convicted of blowing up the World Trade Center in 1993. He is now in a U.S. prison for planning other attacks on New York.

Bergen says the significance of the sons' presence at the press conference "can't be underestimated." They distribute what they claim is the will of their father, which calls for attacks on Americans.

"The purported will states, 'Attack them on the sea. Attack them on the land. Attack them everywhere. Attack their economy,'" Bergen said.

The connection to Rahman, Bergen said, is key for bin Laden, who uses the sheik's spiritual guidance as a religious fig leaf from behind which bin Laden broadens his terror groups' appeal to radicals.

With hindsight, the important moments on the video are easy to pick out, including bin Laden hinting at an attack on U.S. targets.

Within 11 weeks of the declaration, al Qaeda attacked U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, in bombings that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.

And perhaps almost as chilling, because it didn't happen, al-Zawahiri appears to justify an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt.




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