Osama bin Laden's psychological operations campaign against the United States took a surprising turn yesterday with the release of an audio message that is modern, tactical and nearly diplomatic in tone, and that addresses Europeans rather than Muslim devotees, counterterrorism experts and intelligence officials said.
In doing so, experts who have analyzed his previous audiotapes and videotapes said bin Laden is employing a powerful weapon in psychological warfare: an adaptable propaganda machine that understands the nature of Western democracies, seeks to exploit political dissent and knows how to disseminate its message worldwide without being caught.
The seven-minute audiotape that surfaced yesterday is the latest in a stream of bin Laden recordings released to Arab news outlets since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It offered "a truce with the European countries that do not attack Muslim countries" and that do not "interfere in their affairs." European leaders quickly dismissed the offer.
The contemporary nature of the message was a new twist for bin Laden. It included references to Israel's killing on March 22 of "old, handicapped" Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, and to "the billions of dollars in profit" being made in Iraq by Halliburton and other companies. He described leaders of those corporations as people with "narrow personal interest and subservience to the White House gang."
"Clearly, he's monitoring the news and is taking advantage" of the growing debate in Europe over the U.S.-instigated war in Iraq, said one U.S. counterterrorism official who would comment only on the condition of anonymity.
"He's watching the calendar," the official said, noting that the 90-day deadline bin Laden set for countries to meet his demands would come near the June 30 date set by the United States for handing over sovereignty to Iraqis. "Although he has shown no need in the past to give anyone one last chance, his statement had a kinder, gentler face on it."
The adaptation, said al Qaeda experts, is classic bin Laden, and a key to maintaining successful terrorist groups in the face of counterterrorism operations by the United States and other countries.
'Destroy the United States'
"Terrorism in general is psy-ops," said Winston P. Wiley, former director of the CIA's analytical branch and counterterrorism center, using the military term for psychological operations. "The damage he's inflicting is disproportionate to the physical damage he's causing. It's all part of his campaign to destroy the United States."
Bin Laden analysts at the CIA and other counterterrorism specialists here and abroad spent much of the day poring over every word and phrase. They looked for clues embedded in the statement — phrases and rhetoric that could indicate his mental and physical state, or the status of his finances or manpower, or code words that might trigger an operation.
"It might also be a message to sleeper cells in Europe to wake up," one European intelligence official said.
The statement differed markedly from his previous messages — he did not refer to the Koran, for example — but U.S. intelligence officials said they based their belief in its authenticity on a technical analysis that matches voice intonation and other cues with his known voice qualities.
Bin Laden and other top al Qaeda leaders have long recognized the value of a well-run communications operation. Among al Qaeda's four operational committees before Sept. 11, 2001, was one labeled "Media and Publicity," Rohan Gunaratna wrote in "Inside Al Qaeda."
Part of its function was to be familiar with Western culture and politics — many top leaders studied at U.S. universities — and to construct speeches that would terrify Westerners and secular Arabs in addition to soliciting Muslim followers and potential recruits. The network also has had the capacity to stage, tape, edit and distribute audiotapes and videotapes that are unusually high in quality for such an outlawed, underground group.
'Almost too blatant'
"All his videotapes are carefully orchestrated," said terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, who called al Qaeda proficient in "strategic communications."
In demanding a pullout in exchange for a truce, however, bin Laden may have overreached, said another U.S. counterterrorism official. "It's almost too blatant," he said.
Although the tape ostensibly offered European leaders a truce if they remove forces from Iraq, U.S. counterterrorism officials said they believe its true target is the European public. Bin Laden refers to demonstrations in Europe as "positive interaction" and mentions "opinion polls, which indicate that most European peoples want peace."
The underlying threat by bin Laden remained the same as always, though: The United States, Israel, Jews and their allies will suffer their due.
The train bombings in Madrid last month, and the political upset in national elections immediately after them, bin Laden said, were "your commodity that was returned to you. . . . Injustice is inflicted on us and on you by your politicians, who send your sons, although you are opposed to this, to our countries to kill and get killed."
A foundation of this oft-repeated threat can be found in a book written in late November 2001 by Ayman Zawahiri, bin Laden's No. 2 man, while he was on the run from U.S. Army forces in the mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Zawahiri said jihadists should not attack U.S. armed forces who had invaded Afghanistan. Rather, they should strike "at the Americans and the Jews in our countries," meaning the secular countries where other jihadists came from — Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.
Zawahiri's message was a call to rally the Muslim populace, terrorism experts said. Yesterday's message was similarly directed at a local populace, but this time at a European one.
Research editor Margot Williams contributed to this article.