The government sought Friday to pinpoint when Osama bin Laden recorded his most recent warning about planned attacks on the United States — a key fact that could help determine the risk that terrorists will carry out the threat.
Intelligence officials said analysts were scrutinizing the audiotape by the al-Qaida leader for any clues — including certain words and phrases — that might be a signal for the terror network’s members or followers. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
The Homeland Security Department said it had no plans to raise the nation’s terror threat alert level and no reason to believe an attack was imminent.
“We, of course, have been very concerned about the threat of terrorism, generally, since the attacks of 9/11,” Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said. “And obviously we expect the American people to live their lives as normally as possible.”
“We clearly understand that we have a very real threat against the United States, United States interests here and abroad,” Gonzales said. “And that we ought to be doing everything that we can do to protect America against that threat.”
The audio recording was the first public statement by bin Laden since December 2004. That is the longest stretch the terror leader has been publicly quiet since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Authorities would not say whether the recording indicates anything about bin Laden’s whereabouts or health.
Unclear if tape made after U.S. strike
A counterterror official said analysts believe the tape appears to have been recorded since December, although it was not clear how recently — or if in response to U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan last week that Pakistani authorities said killed four senior al-Qaida operatives.
Arab television network Al-Jazeera, which released the tape Thursday, initially reported it was made in December but corrected itself later to say it was recorded in January. Editors at the station said they could not comment on how they knew when it was made.
John Rollins, a former Homeland Security intelligence official, said the timeline is important because terror threats can lose credibility as time goes on without an attack.
“If you can date it back as being from weeks or months ago, and he’s saying then that he’s getting close to operation readiness, this gives you an indication that it’s bravado,” said Rollins, now a terrorism expert at the Congressional Research Service.
But if the threats were recorded very recently, “then that does raise the bar to more concerns that the timing of the tape may coincide with actual plans that are under way,” Rollins said.
Getting the exact date is important because “the difference between December and January is pretty minimal,” said Roger W. Cressey, a former White House counterterrorism official during the Clinton and current Bush administrations. “It’s almost irrelevant — unless you could say it was recorded last week.”
An analysis by the IntelCenter, a U.S. government contractor that does work for intelligence agencies, highlighted language in bin Laden’s statement that it said could be part of a warning cycle for Americans.
In his most recent recording, bin Laden began his statement by saying, “Peace be upon those who follow guidance.” That language, the analysis concluded, closely matches a pattern seen before the bombings in London last July 7. Bin Laden used almost identical greetings in statements directed to Europeans in April 2004 and to Americans in October 2004.
“We believe that this signifies this is a warning message, and they feel they’re obligated (to give) in the run-up to an attack,” said Ben Venzke, chief executive at the IntelCenter.
The government’s counterterror officials declined to comment on the analysis.
The tape came days before a planned weekend training exercise in which military aircraft are to conduct patrols over the nation’s capital to intercept and divert planes that appear to pose a threat. But Michael Kucharek, a spokesman for the U.S. Northern Command, which is responsible for the defense of U.S. territory, said there have been no changes to the systematic air patrolling of U.S. airspace.
The threat on the bin Laden audiotape “means nothing to us,” the spokesman said, adding that the training was planned well before the tape’s release and was just the latest in a series of such exercises.