CAIRO, Egypt — The CIA confirmed Thursday that the voice on an audiotape claiming al-Qaida is making preparations to attack the United States again but offering a truce “with fair conditions” is that of the terrorist group’s leader, Osama bin Laden.
The tape’s release came days after a U.S. airstrike in Pakistan that was targeting bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, and reportedly killed four leading al-Qaida figures, including possibly al-Zawahri’s son-in-law. There was no mention of the attack on the segments that were broadcast.
It was the first tape from the al-Qaida leader in more than a year — the longest period without a message since the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide hijackings in the United States.
In the tape, bin Laden refers to an alleged comment by President Bush about bombing the Qatar headquarters of Arab television station Al-Jazeera, which was first reported in the British press on Nov. 22.
He also refers indirectly to the July 7 bombings in London that killed 56 people and to poll numbers that showed a fall in Bush’s popularity, as occurred in late 2005.
U.S. counterterror officials, while warning against downplaying the taped threat, said there also has been no recent increase in “chatter” that can indicate that such an attack is imminent.
Threat alert will not be elevated
The Homeland Security Department said it would not raise the national threat alert at this time. But the tape prompted increased security at Los Angeles International Airport and other precautions at the city’s port and water and power facilities.
“At this time, we lack corroborating information suggesting that al-Qaida is prepared to attack the United States in the near term,” said Homeland Security spokeswoman Michelle Petrovich.
“But we recognize that al-Qaida remains committed to striking the homeland.”
The national terror threat level currently stands at yellow, the middle of five grades, signifying an elevated risk of attack. The government has raised the alert level to orange, signaling a high threat risk, seven times since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Al-Jazeera said the audio was from the Muslim lunar month that corresponds to January. The station said earlier the tape dated from December.
The United States will not let up in the war on terror despite the threats on the tape, said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. “We do not negotiate with terrorists,” McClellan said. “We put them out of business.”
Bin Laden said he was directing his message to the American people after polls showed that “an overwhelming majority of you want the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq but (Bush) opposed that desire.”
A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from last month does not support that. Two-thirds of Americans surveyed opposed an immediate withdrawal. But 60 percent believed the United States should reduce its troop levels in Iraq.
Bin Laden also said insurgents were winning the conflict in Iraq and warned that security measures in the West and the United States could not prevent attacks there.
“The proof of that is the explosions you have seen in the capitals of European nations,” he said. “The delay in similar operations happening in America has not been because of failure to break through your security measures. The operations are under preparation, and you will see them in your homes the minute they are through (with preparations), with God’s permission.”
No truce conditions offered
The al-Qaida leader did not give conditions for a truce in the excerpts aired by Al-Jazeera.
“We do not mind offering you a long-term truce with fair conditions that we adhere to,” he said. “We are a nation that God has forbidden to lie and cheat. So both sides can enjoy security and stability under this truce so we can build Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been destroyed in this war.
“There is no shame in this solution, which prevents the wasting of billions of dollars that have gone to those with influence and merchants of war in America,” he said.
In an Arabic transcription of the entire tape on the Al-Jazeera Web site — but not aired — bin Laden makes an oblique reference to how to prevent new attacks on the United States.
“If I were president, I would stop the attacks on the United States: First I would apologize to all the widows and orphans and those who were tortured. Then I would announce that American interference in the nations of the world has ended,” he said.
According to NBC News, bin Laden was quoting from the introduction of “Rogue State: America at War With the World,” a book written in 2004 by T.D. Allman, who has criticized Bush and Vie President Cheney in the past.
Longest gap between tapes
It has been more than a year since the last confirmed message from bin Laden — the longest period without a video or audiotape from the al-Qaida leader. The last audiotape purported to be from bin Laden was broadcast in December 2004 by Al-Jazeera. In that recording, he endorsed Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi as his deputy in Iraq and called for a boycott of Iraqi elections.
Since then, bin Laden’s deputy in al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahri, has issued a number of video and audiotapes, including one claiming responsibility for the London attacks, which he said came after Europe rejected the terms of a truce al-Qaida had previously offered them.
Al-Jazeera’s editor-in-chief Ahmed al-Sheik would not comment on when or where the tape was received. He said the full tape was 10 minutes long. The station aired four excerpts with what it “considered newsworthy,” he said, but would not say what was on the remainder.
Al-Jazeera said the tape was made last month but did not elaborate on how it knew that.
Truce offer in 2004
Bin Laden issued an audiotape in April 2004 in which he also offered a truce — on that occasion to Europe, but not to the United States.
Analysts saw the move at the time as an attempt to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies and to scare wavering coalition members out of Iraq.
U.S. officials, who insisted on anonymity, told NBC News that they found it interesting the statement aired Thursday was not via video and that the timing, after the Pakistan strike, was “really interesting.”
“It may have been necessary and appropriate after last week to try to demonstrate that bin Laden is around and a force to be reckoned with,” one U.S. source said, “both to the rank-and-file and to the world.”
Jeremy Bennie, a terrorism analyst for Jane’s Defense Weekly, said bin Laden appeared to be “playing the peacemaker, the more statesmanlike character” with his offer of a truce.
“They want to promote the image that they can launch attacks if and when it suits them. That’s the message of a powerful organization not a weakened one. They want us to believe they are in control,” he said.
“The only new element in his statement is that they are planning an attack soon on the United States,” said Richard Clarke, a former White House anti-terrorism chief.
“Would he say that and risk being proved wrong, if he can’t pull it off in a month or so?” Clarke asked.
NBC's Andrea Mitchell, the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.