CAIRO, Egypt — A man identified as Osama bin Laden, speaking on an audiotape posted on an Islamic Web site Thursday, praised an attack this month on a U.S. consulate in Saudi Arabia and criticized the Saudi regime as weak and controlled by the United States.
U.S. intelligence officials were analyzing the tape, which was more than an hour long, to determine whether it was authentic, but a senior U.S. intelligence official told NBC News that “we have high confidence that this is the voice of Osama bin Laden.”
Secretary of State Colin Powell also said the voice on the tape “appears to be” that of bin Laden, who is blamed for orchestrating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.
The tape was posted on a site known as a clearinghouse for militant Islamic comment, which U.S. intelligence officials noted was a departure from al-Qaida’s standard practice of delivering communiqués from its leaders to Arab media. They told NBC News that choice could mean that security had become an issue for bin Laden.
In addition to trying to authenticate the tape, U.S. analysts were comparing the message to other recent public statements by bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri.
U.S. officials noted that the al-Qaida leaders had issued four other audiotapes and videotapes since Sept. 9, the highest number of communiqués in such a short period since the end of 2001. Numerous other messages from al-Qaida leaders, especially al-Zawahri, have been followed closely by terrorist attacks.
The new tape the same day that another Saudi dissident called for anti-monarchy protests in the kingdom.
The tape’s reference to the Dec. 6 attack in which five militants shot their way into the compound of the U.S. Consulate in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, killing five non-U.S. employees, showed that it was made recently. Four of the attackers were also killed, and one was wounded.
The attack was claimed at the time by al-Qaida’s branch in the kingdom.
“God bless our brothers who stormed the American Consulate in Jiddah,” the speaker said. “Those who were killed [were] our brothers. We ask God to accept them as martyrs.”
Site claims audio from consulate attack
Also Thursday, an audiotape surfaced on the same Web site that was purportedly a recording of the sounds of the consulate attack transmitted via the attackers’ mobile telephones. Sirens, machine gun fire and shouts of “God is Great!” can be heard. At the end, a man recites Quranic verses and then says: “Humiliation for America the infidel and its allies!”
On the new tape attributed to bin Laden, the speaker, speaking in calm and even tones, appeared not to direct his remarks at the United States. Instead, he focused his anger at Saudi rulers, whom he accused of “violating God’s rules,” a common theme of the Saudi exile.
“The sins the regime committed are great. ... It practiced injustices against the people, violating their rights, humiliating their pride,” the speaker said. He accused the Saudi royal family of misspending public money while “millions of people are suffering from poverty and deprivation.”
He specifically referred to Western control of world oil, which he said was how Washington was able to “control our countries.”
The speaker called on militants to attack oil fields in Iraq and elsewhere in the region to drive up the price of oil. In the past, bin Laden has said the price of oil should be set at $100 a barrel, but he has not, until now, suggested attacking oil facilities to disrupt supplies.
“Do your best to get between them and the oil,” the speaker said. “Concentrate your operations on it, especially in Iraq and the gulf. That is their destiny.”
While calling for change, the speaker scoffed at such overtures as promised municipal elections and a national dialogue that Saudi rulers recently initiated to open public debate on democratization and other issues.
“This hasn’t changed anything. ... The best they can do is that they will go into the elections game as happened before in Yemen and Jordan or Egypt and move in a vicious circle for dozens of years. This is regardless of the fact that it is prohibited to enter the infidel legislative councils,” the speaker said.
The main statement was preceded by Quranic verses, a rhetorical device typical of bin Laden.
Crackdown on Muslim extremists
Saudi Arabia cracked down on Muslim extremists after the bombings of three residential compounds in Riyadh in May 2003 brought terrorism home to the kingdom, but it has not been able to contain the violence.
Addressing Saudi rulers, the taped statement attributed to bin Laden said: “You must know that people are fed up. ... Security will not be able to stop them.”
The sound quality was described as very poor, but a U.S. intelligence analyst said that did not necessarily mean bin Laden, who is believed to have been hiding in the mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, had been forced to move to a more remote location. Instead, the analyst said, it could reflect digital compression for Web posting.
Bin Laden last reached out to his followers in October in a videotape that aired on the Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera just before the U.S. presidential elections. In that statement, he clearly took responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks for the first time and said the United States could avoid another such strike if it stopped threatening the security of Muslims.
NBC’s Robert Windrem in New York and Andrea Mitchell and Tamara Kupperman in Washington contributed to this report with The Associated Press.