Osama bin Laden issued ominous new threats in an audiotape broadcast Sunday, purportedly saying the West was at war with Islam and calling on his followers to go to Sudan to fight a proposed U.N. force.
In his first new message in three months, bin Laden said the West’s decision to cut off funds to the Palestinians because their Hamas leaders refuse to recognize Israel proved that the United States and Europe were conducting “a Zionist crusader war on Islam.”
“The blockade which the West is imposing on the government of Hamas proves that there is a Zionist crusader war on Islam,” said the speaker on the tape broadcast by the Al-Jazeera network.
“I say that this war is the joint responsibility of the people and the governments. While the war continues, the people renew their allegiance to their rulers and politicians and continue to send their sons to our countries to fight us.”
The voice on the tape sounded strong and resembled that on previous recordings attributed to bin Laden. There was no way to independently verify the authenticity of the tape, but a senior U.S. intelligence official told NBC News that the voice on the tape appears to be that of bin Laden.
“The voice sounds like his,” said the official, who requested anonymity. “Technical analysis is still underway and it's important to note that every tape, video or audio ascribed to bin Laden has turned out to be authentic."
Attacking Israel 'more politically correct'
Israeli government spokesman Raanan Gissin said bin Laden had decided to attack Israel to deflect growing Arab animosity toward al-Qaida.
“When he attacks Israel, this is something the Arab world can agree upon,” Gissin said. “He has been criticized for the destruction and carnage he’s causing the Muslim nation. He’s looking for another justification ... Criticizing Israel sounds more politically correct.”
Al-Qaida is believed to have no direct links to Hamas, which is an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they share an anti-Israel ideology that calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Recent media reports in the Middle East have said al-Qaida is building cells in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon and Sudan.
Israel indicts al-Qaida members
Israel has indicted two West Bank militants for al-Qaida membership and a Palestinian security official has acknowledged al-Qaida is “organizing cells and gathering supporters,” although Israeli officials say the inroads appear preliminary.
A Hamas spokesman said the militant group’s ideology is vastly different from al-Qaida’s but noted that international sanctions on the Palestinian government would naturally cause anger among some Muslims.
“It’s natural that this tension is going to create an impression that there is a Western-Israeli alliance working against the Palestinians,” Sami Abu Zuhri said, adding that Hamas is interested in having good relations with the West.
Bin Laden also addressed the conflict in Sudan, where he was based before being expelled under threats from the United States. He then moved to Afghanistan and is believed to be hiding out in the rugged mountains on the Pakistani side of their common border.
U.S.: Bin Laden surrounded by Arabs
In Washington, U.S. intelligence officials said bin Laden is separated from his top deputy and, in a sign he has to be careful about whom he trusts, surrounded by fellow Arabs.
His No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, is hiding in a more settled area along the border, also surrounded by al-Qaida operatives from Egypt, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
A three-year conflict between Darfur’s rebels and the Arab-dominated central government has caused about 180,000 deaths — most from disease and hunger — and displaced 2 million people.
The United Nations has described the conflict as the world’s gravest humanitarian crisis. The United States has described it as genocide.
Peace deal by month's end?
Negotiators are trying to broker a peace deal between warring factions by an April 30 deadline. Members of the African Union have agreed in principle to hand over peacekeeping duties to the United Nations beginning Sept. 30.
“I call on mujahedeen and their supporters, especially in Sudan and the Arab peninsula, to prepare for long war again the crusader plunderers in Western Sudan. Our goal is not defending the Khartoum government but to defend Islam, its land and its people,” bin Laden purportedly said.
“I urge holy warriors to be acquainted with the land and the tribes in Darfur.”
Al-Qaida has targeted Western forces in Africa before — including its attacks against U.S. troops trying to bring peace to Somalia in 1993.
Al-Jazeera apparently had the tape long enough to make significant edits, with its news reader providing substantial transition and background comments between excerpts from bin Laden.
Last tape offered truce
It was the first purported new message from bin Laden since Jan. 19. In that audiotape, he warned that his fighters were preparing new attacks in the United States but offered the American people a “long-term truce” without specifying the conditions.
That tape was posted in full on a Web site a month later and included a vow by the terrorist chieftain never to be captured alive.
“I have sworn to only live free. Even if I find bitter the taste of death, I don’t want to die humiliated or deceived,” bin Laden said in that previous 11-minute, 26-second tape.
In the message broadcast Sunday, bin Laden also called for a global Muslim boycott of American goods similar to the recent boycott of Danish products, after publication there of caricatures of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.
He also said the artists who drew those offending cartoons should be handed over to him for trial and punishment.
The Al-Jazeera news reader said bin Laden, in a portion of the tape not aired by the Qatar-based broadcaster, scoffed at Saudi King Abdullah for his calls for a “dialogue among civilizations” and blasted liberal-minded Arab writers for taking part in the Western cultural invasion of Muslim lands.