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U.S.: Latest tapes 'cause for concern'

Ayman al-Zawahiri speaks to Osama bin Laden at an undisclosed location in this photo made from an undated videotape broadcast April 15 by Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera.
Ayman al-Zawahiri speaks to Osama bin Laden at an undisclosed location in this photo made from an undated videotape broadcast April 15 by Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera.

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Experts believe a new audio recording threatening fresh attacks on the U.S. contains the voice of a top aide to Osama bin Laden. CNN's Kelli Arena reports (October 10)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. government is taking seriously two taped statements -- one purportedly from Osama bin Laden, the other possibly from his top lieutenant -- that threaten attacks against the United States and its economy, senior U.S. officials told CNN Wednesday.

The officials said the two messages are "cause for concern" and that the government is in a "period of increased concern" about the threat to the nation.

Although unease about new attacks has gone up and down several times since September 11, they said this is "definitely a peak."

The tapes, along with the gun attack in Kuwait that killed a U.S. Marine Tuesday and the Sunday explosion aboard a French tanker, have all played a role in the increasing level of anxiety among U.S. officials. (Attacks on U.S. troops)

One official said they still do "not know which bits and pieces are connected."

A law enforcement source told CNN the audiotaped message possibly from Ayman al-Zawahiri -- bin Laden's No. 2 man who is one of the "most wanted" terrorists in the world -- has prompted authorities in New York City to tighten security even more at bridges, tunnels and other sensitive locations.

Neither the al-Zawahiri tape or the bin Laden message have been confirmed definitively to be from the men.

U.S. officials familiar with al-Zawahiri's voice said they were almost certain it is him on the tape, although they cannot give 100 percent confirmation.

The officials said the "operating presumption" is that the voice is al-Zawahiri's. They said the tape is no older than three months and was most likely made in July.

On the tape, which was released Tuesday, the speaker threatens fresh attacks against the United States, its economy and its allies.

He makes numerous references to current events, including the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks and the possible U.S. action against Iraq.

The speaker also says bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar "are both in good health."

If the voice is that of al-Zawahiri, it would be the first dated references to recent events made by bin Laden's top lieutenant, whose whereabouts remain unknown.

U.S. officials have been vague about whether the other message is indeed from bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Monday cast doubt on the tape's authenticity, saying there was no way to tell when the tape was recorded. (Full story)

The audiotaped message was released Sunday. In it, the voice says al Qaeda is preparing attacks on U.S. economic targets.

"I promise you that the Islamic youth are preparing for you what will fill your hearts with horror, and they will target the centers of your economy until you stop your tyranny and terror, until one of us dies," the speaker says.

Kuwaiti officials said an attack Tuesday by two Kuwaiti assailants, believed to be al Qaeda operatives, that killed a U.S. Marine and wounded another may have been the "first response" to the taped messages.

Well-placed Kuwaiti sources also said the head of Kuwait's main mosque is under investigation for allegedly assisting the two men who fired on the Marines. (Full story) Pentagon officials said they did not know if the leadership of al Qaeda ordered the attack or if it was the work of an independent al Qaeda cell.

In Yemen, U.S. investigators arrived late Wednesday to help investigate Sunday's explosion aboard a French tanker that killed one crewman. Yemeni officials have maintained the explosion was an accident; U.S. and French authorities have said it is too early to draw a conclusion.

Al-Zawahiri, 51, is believed to be bin Laden's doctor and a primary al Qaeda strategist. He was the founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which merged with al Qaeda during the late 1990s.

He has been indicted for his alleged role in the August 7, 1998, bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. Because of that charge, Al-Zawahiri is on the U.S. "most wanted" list, with a $25 million reward being offered for information leading to his capture and conviction. (More on charges, reward)

On the tape, the speaker who could be al-Zawahiri says: "America and its deputies [allies] should know that their crimes will not go unpunished. "We advise them to make a hasty retreat from Palestine, the Arabian Gulf, Afghanistan and the rest of the Muslim states, before they lose everything."

The speaker goes on to say America "will have to pay the price."

"The settlement of this overburdened account will indeed be heavy. We will also aim to continue, by permission of Allah, the destruction of the American economy," he says.

The voice dismisses the American campaign in Afghanistan, suggesting that it "has not achieved its goals." The man also claims an American-led campaign against Iraq would be an attack against the Arab world meant to "destroy any effective military force in the proximity of Israel."

CNN Justice Correspondent Kelli Arena contributed to this report.

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