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Bin Laden's commercial

Al Qaeda leader reminds America of unfinished business

By JAMES PONIEWOZIK

Osama Bin Laden has a flair for dramatic timing. In October 2001, he materialized on TV screens hours after bombs began falling on Afghanistan. Three years later, he surfaced on videotape four days before the U.S. presidential election.

It was not quite the Osama October Surprise that some Democrats had imagined -- bin Laden doing a perp walk in an orange jumpsuit -- but it rattled the United States and roiled the campaign just the same.

Bin Laden's core message was much the same as before: If the United States did not change its behavior toward the Muslim world, it would get hit again. "Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or al-Qaeda," he warned. "Your security is in your own hands." He tried to rationalize al-Qaeda's terrorism -- and court Muslim support -- by airing historical grievances against the West and Israel.

But the messenger was at least superficially different. Whereas he had earlier looked gaunt and tired, he seemed healthy and well groomed, if a bit thinner. He used both hands despite earlier reports that one of his arms had been injured in Afghanistan.

Gone were the fatigues and the AK47. Bin Laden wore a golden robe, sat behind a desk and read from notes. The media-conscious terrorist leader seemed to be trying for the image not of a soldier but of a statesman -- or at least of a TV host.

If the latter, the show could have been Hardball. At times bin Laden attacked Bush in language straight from the presidential campaign. "Bush is still deceiving you and hiding the truth from you," he said, denying the president's repeated charge that Islamic extremists "hate freedom." Bin Laden riposted, "Let him tell us then why did we not attack Sweden."

He likened Bush and his father to Middle Eastern despots who hand down power to their children. And in a dig described by one U.S. official as "more personal" than the criticisms leveled in previous bin Laden tapes, he taunted Bush with the fact, popularized by Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, that the president sat for seven minutes in a classroom reading "The Pet Goat"after learning about the 9/11 attacks. "This gave us three times the time needed to carry out the operations, thanks be to God," he said.

Although FBI and CIA officials said they saw no actionable intelligence in the video, there were differing opinions in Washington about whether bin Laden had issued a new fatwa, or religious pronouncement, summoning supporters to violence.

Some intelligence officials downplayed this interpretation, while others sounded the alarm. "People are worried," says an administration official. "They're trying to see if there's anything in it that is code signaling that now is the time." The setting -- in front of a well-lit backdrop -- gave no immediate clue to bin Laden's whereabouts, compared with earlier tapes that showed him in mountainous settings.

But the tape was at least easier to date. A reference to 1,000 dead in Iraq suggests the tape was made within the past month. A date stamp on the tape read 10 RAMADAN (October 24), but it could have been faked.

Unlike the reaction to bin Laden's earlier tapes, however, the buzz of the 24-hour media was not about the tape's national-security implications but about its political ones. Would the tape help Bush by reminding voters of 9/11? Or would it help Kerry by reminding voters that bin Laden remained at large?

Both candidates immediately delivered statements saying that Americans were in agreement in their opposition to the terrorists. But the tape quickly became a weapon in their battle. On a Wisconsin radio station Kerry, repeating a longtime criticism, said that Bush "didn't choose to use American forces to hunt down Osama bin Laden" at Tora Bora in 2001. Bush shot back at a rally in Ohio that Kerry's criticisms were "especially shameful in light of the new tape from America's enemy."

It was impossible to determine, of course, whether bin Laden wanted to tilt the election, signal further attacks or simply enhance his standing in the Muslim world by showing up on global TV screens. "Take it as one possibility," said a well-placed U.S. official, that the al Qaeda leader's "aim is to influence not elections but policies." He accomplished at least one thing for certain: reminding us that the winner, whoever he is, has a major piece of unfinished business to attend to.


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