A man identifying himself as Osama bin Laden offered a “truce” in an audiotape Thursday to European countries that withdraw from Muslim countries. The CIA said a preliminary analysis of the recording, which was broadcast on Arab satellite networks, indicated that the voice “likely” was that of bin Laden, the Saudi-born fugitive leader of the al-Qaida terror network.
The offer, an apparent effort to drive a wedge between the United States and its European allies, was quickly spurned by Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain and the European Union.
“How can you make a deal with somebody who would murder innocent people at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or innocent people in a field in Pennsylvania or innocent people on a train going into Madrid?” Secretary of State Colin Powell asked in an interview on Italian state-owned RAI television.
The tape, which ran more than seven minutes, vowed revenge against the United States for Israel’s assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the leader of the militant Palestinian Hamas movement, and denounced the United States as using the Iraq war for corporate profiteering.
“I announce a truce with the European countries that do not attack Muslim countries,” the voice on the tape said as the stations showed an old still photograph of bin Laden. “The door to a truce is open for three months.”
That time frame, the voice said, could be extended. “The truce will begin when the last soldier leaves our countries,” the speaker said without elaborating.
Intelligence officials believe tape is authentic
A spokesman for the CIA told NBC News that a preliminary analysis of the tape indicated that it was authentic. If verified, the tape would indicate that bin Laden was alive as recently as March 21 because of the reference to the assassination of Yassin.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News that they were operating under the assumption that the speaker was bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“We are looking at the tape, but there has never been a tape that they claimed to be authentic that wasn’t," said one of the officials, who, like the others, spoke on condition of anonymity.
The officials said the message appeared to reflect a new tack by the al-Qaida leadership aimed at driving a wedge between the United States and its allies.
The message addressed the Europeans as “our neighbors north of the Mediterranean,” a deviation from previous bin Laden messages lumping them in with the United States as part of the “Crusader-Jewish alliance,” they noted.
“Al-Qaida’s signature tactic is divide-and-conquer,” an Israeli intelligence source told Reuters. “Al-Qaida wants to erode the Western coalition against terror from within by playing the allies off against each other. It already worked in Madrid,” where a Socialist ticket ousted the U.S.-allied Spanish government in elections held shortly after a series of train bombs killed 191 people.
U.S. officials told NBC News that non-essential diplomatic personnel and all dependents would be ordered to leave Saudi Arabia, bin Laden’s homeland, after intelligence indicated that al-Qaida was planning a series of imminent against U.S. and other foreign personnel there.
Although it was not immediately clear whether the decision was directly related to bin Laden’s offer, news of the deliberations became public only hours after the audiotape surfaced.
Europeans reject ‘truce’ offer
But the initial reaction from U.S. allies in Europe to the offer was negative.
Among the countries rejecting the overture was Spain, whose incoming Socialist government has pledged to withdraw its troops from Iraq unless the United Nations takes charge there by June 30.
U.S. officials said that there was no evidence that bin Laden ordered the Madrid bombing but that by claiming responsibility, he could bolster his profile as a political threat able to influence elections.
Spain’s incoming foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, said on Spanish television: “Bin Laden is the enemy of all of us who seek peace, democracy and freedom. Therefore, we must not listen to him or pay attention to him.”
Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, while not responding directly to the tape, vowed a hard line on international terrorism in a speech in Parliament. “The government I lead will have as its first objective the fight without quarter against terrorism, against any terrorism, against all terrorism,” he said.
The tape specifically mentioned the train bombings March 11 in Madrid. “What happened on September 11 and March 11 are your goods returned to you so that you know security is a necessity for all,” it said. Islamic militants who claimed to have ties to al-Qaida have taken responsibility for the attacks.
German intelligence officials told NBC News that the tape was worrying and that they did not put much trust in the “truce.” If the three-month ultimatum is not met, European countries could face a new wave of terror, they said.
A German government spokesman ruled out cooperating with bin Laden. “There can be no negotiations with terrorists and serious criminals like Osama bin Laden,” he said.
Other European leaders agreed:
- “We can’t negotiate with al-Qaida,” the British Foreign Office said. “Their attacks are against the very idea of coexistence. ... The right response is to continue to confront terrorism, not give in to its demands.”
- Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in Rome that “it’s unthinkable that we may open a negotiation with bin Laden. Everybody understands this.”
- European Commission President Romano Prodi also said there would be no negotiating under a “terrorist threat.”
Obtained from ‘sources’
Ayman Gaballah, editor of Al-Arabiya, said only that the pan-Arab television network received the tape from “our sources.” He would not say whether the tape was received at its headquarters in the United Arab Emirates or in a bureau elsewhere, such as Pakistan or Afghanistan. “From the voice, it seems it is bin Laden, but we are not experts to confirm it,” Gaballah said.
Al-Jazeera, a Qatar-based satellite station, also aired the tape in full. Its chief editor was not available for comment.
Several audio and video tapes of al-Qaida’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, have been released in recent months, but Thursday’s tape was the first purportedly from bin Laden since January. In that tape, a speaker believed to be bin Laden said the U.S.-led war in Iraq was the beginning of the “occupation” of Persian Gulf states for their oil and called on Muslims to keep fighting a holy war in the Middle East.
On other parts of the tape, the voice defended the methods used by al-Qaida, which is presumed to have been responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.
“They say that we kill for the sake of killing, but reality shows that they lie,” the speaker said.
Russians, he said, were killed only after they attacked Afghanistan in the 1980s and Chechnya. Other Europeans were not attacked until after they invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Americans were struck in New York only after “supporting the Jews in Palestine and their invasion of the Arabian Peninsula.”
“Stop spilling our blood so we can stop spilling your blood,” the message added. “This is a difficult but easy equation.”
Message cites polls, Halliburton
This truce, the message said, was to deny “the war mongers” further opportunities. It said polls had shown that “most of the European peoples want reconciliation” with the Islamic world.
“Security is a need for all humans, and we could not let you have a monopoly on it for yourselves,” the voice added. “People who are aware would not let their politicians jeopardize their security.”
The message also vowed revenge for Israel’s killing of Yassin, founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, whose formal name is the Islamic Resistance Movement. “We vow before God to take revenge for him from America for this, God willing,” the speaker said.
The message said U.S. policy ignored the “real problem,” which is “the occupation of all of Palestine.”
It denounced the U.S. war on Iraq, saying it was making “billions of dollars” for companies, “whether those that make weapons or those that take part in reconstruction,” specifically naming the U.S. firm Halliburton.
“This war brings billions of dollars to big companies, either to those that manufacture weapons or those who reconstruct Iraq, like Halliburton and its sister companies,” the speaker said. “And from here it becomes clear who benefits from the outbreak of wars and bloodshed: war traders and vampires who administer world politics from behind the curtain.”