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From bin Laden, fresh style, same message

In his latest videotape, Osama bin Laden traded religious rhetoric and combat fatigues in favor of a polished, nuanced direct appeal to the U.S. public, one that invoked messages consistent with those of the past.
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Gone were the guerrilla fatigues, the rambling religious rhetoric and scenes from his remote mountain hideout. Instead, Osama bin Laden wore a white turban and gold-colored robe as he stood behind a lectern and spoke softly to the camera, looking more like an elected official than the most wanted terrorist in the world.

The imagery and style were different, but bin Laden's message to "the people of America" was the same: You still don't understand why we are at war with each other.

"This is the message which I sought to communicate to you in word and deed, repeatedly, for years before September 11th," the fugitive al-Qaida leader said in a videotape aired around the world on Oct. 29. "But I am amazed at you. Even though we are in the fourth year after the events of September 11th . . . the reasons are still there for a repeat of what occurred."

Eight years after he issued a written declaration of war against the United States, the theme of bin Laden's speech was disbelief that he had failed to make his point with the American people, even after the deaths of nearly 3,000 people on U.S. soil and a succession of bombings, beheadings and other forms of bloodshed around the world.

‘To prevent another Manhattan’"This talk of mine is for you and concerns the ideal way to prevent another Manhattan, and deals with the war and its causes and results," he said, in what are believed to be his first videotaped comments in three years.

An examination of bin Laden's speeches over the years shows that the underlying message has remained consistent: Americans have repeatedly humiliated Muslims with a foreign policy that has propped up corrupt governments in the Middle East and perpetuated conflict in the region. Until you prevail on your government to stop, we will strike back.

He did not quote the Koran during his latest, 13-minute speech, and he also avoided the obscure historical references that peppered his previous statements. Instead, he justified his embrace of terrorism in layman's language, explaining his tactics as a logical response to what he depicted as U.S. aggression.

"Should a man be blamed for defending his sanctuary?" he said, speaking in a composed manner and using formal Arabic. "Is defending oneself and punishing the aggressor in kind objectionable terrorism? If it is such, then it is unavoidable for us."

A polished presentation
Analysts who have been studying the nuances of bin Laden's most recent speech said it was carefully staged and worded to present him as a polished statesman and the voice of a broad movement, instead of a terrorism-obsessed religious fanatic.

"Usually he gives religious statements, but this was a political statement," said Mustafa Alani, director of the security and terrorism studies program at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. "There was no rhetoric. It was straightforward. He never cited the Koran, which for him is very, very unusual."

Bin Laden looked healthy and very much in control of his surroundings, unlike the last time he spoke publicly on video.

In that appearance, in December 2001, bin Laden appeared physically weak and he spoke openly about his mortality. "Regardless if Osama is killed or survives," he said then, "the awakening has started, praise be God." That tape was recorded with an old home video camera around the time of the battle of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan and prompted speculation that bin Laden had been wounded or was sick.

"In that one, he looked quite ill. He seemed like he had a pre-sentiment of death," said Jerrold M. Post, a former CIA profiler who is now a professor of psychiatry at George Washington University. "To the extent that a picture is worth a thousand words, this one . . . reflects an apparent upturn in his health."

‘Very PR-minded’Intelligence analysts and other experts said the newest tape was of professional quality, with sophisticated lighting, a hallmark of al-Qaida productions before Sept. 11. Part of the intent, they surmised, was to communicate the impression that bin Laden remained in firm control of his organization and was not a man on the run.

"It seemed to be a reminder that 'I am still here, and I'm still actively directing my cause, and do not forget the role I am playing in this conflict,' " Post said. "He clearly is very PR-minded. There has been a consistency over the years. He is acutely aware of his image."

Although bin Laden has consistently charged that the United States oppresses Muslims, the examples he cites have changed over the years.

In 1996, when he issued his declaration of war against American interests, the primary offense he mentioned was the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. They had used military bases in the kingdom during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and remained there afterward at the request of the Saudi royal family. Having "Crusader warriors" near the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina was a grave insult to all Muslims, bin Laden and other conservative members of the faith complained.

U.S. troops largely withdrew from the kingdom by September 2003, but their departure did not end al-Qaida operations in the region. Instead, sympathizers of the group have since increased their attacks on interests of the United States and others they consider to be enemies in the kingdom.

Politician's instinctsBin Laden has continued to list U.S. support of the Saudi royal family — which he regards as corrupt and beholden to outside interests — as one of his biggest grievances. But he has also displayed a politician's instinct by tapping into two other issues that have inflamed public opinion in the Middle East more recently: the war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In his videotaped speech last month, bin Laden said he drew the inspiration for the Sept. 11 attacks from his memories of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the bombardment that began the following year of targets in that country by a U.S. battleship. Another factor was the U.S.-led embargo of Iraq after the Gulf War, which he claimed led to "the greatest mass slaughter of children mankind has ever known."

"With these images and their like as their background, the events of September 11th came as a reply to those great wrongs," he said. "It confirmed to me that oppression and the intentional killing of women and children is a deliberate American policy."

In a report published last week, the Congressional Research Service said that al-Qaida "has displayed a pragmatic willingness to adapt its statements to changing circumstances while remaining a messianic commitment to its ideological agenda." Bin Laden, it added, "continues to see himself and his followers as the vanguard of an international Islamic movement."

A European intelligence official said bin Laden's strategy has always been to cast himself as a leader of a larger cause and to show that Muslims can successfully stand up to the United States.

"He's trying to pose as a politician," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If you look back at his old speeches and videotapes, he always sees himself as being on an eye level with the American president. He's trying to show that he's a force to be reckoned with."

Faith in democracy?
While bin Laden has made a name for himself as a sworn enemy of the United States, he also presents himself as a believer in the power of democracy.

By addressing the American people directly, the al-Qaida leader was serving notice that he held them accountable for electing their leaders and, indirectly, for shaping their country's policy toward the Islamic world, said Maha Azzam, an al-Qaida expert and fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

Azzam noted that bin Laden took a similar approach in an audiotape he released in April warning European countries that they had three months to withdraw their support of the U.S. occupation of Iraq or face more terrorist attacks like the bombings on March 11 of four commuter trains in Madrid, in which 190 people were killed and more than 1,800 were injured.

"My reading is that there is a belief on the part of bin Laden as well as other Islamists that democracy works and that voters in the U.S. and Europe can influence foreign policy decisions," Azzam said. "On the one hand, they attack the West. On the other hand, there is recognition that in a democracy, people can hold its leaders accountable. He believes that democracy is a system that can deliver on behalf of its people."

In his last videotape, for instance, bin Laden repeatedly mocked President Bush as an ineffective leader who had failed to serve the interests of the American people.

Getting personalHe made fun of Bush for reading "My Pet Goat" to Florida schoolchildren while hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center. He said that al-Qaida planners assumed they would have at most 20 minutes to carry out the attacks but that it took the Bush administration almost a full hour to respond.

He also compared the Bush family to the royal House of Saud, saying that both ruling clans were "characterized by pride, arrogance, greed and misappropriation of wealth." The war in Iraq, he said, was fought to benefit the U.S. oil industry and companies such as Halliburton but had left the U.S. economy in shambles and the federal government with a huge budget deficit.

The point, bin Laden added, was not that the Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry, would be a better choice. Rather, he said, it was that the American people were responsible for the actions of their leaders and that they would face the consequences for U.S. actions in the Middle East.

Toward the end of his speech, he urged Americans "to reflect on the last wills and testaments of the thousands who left you on the 11th as they gestured in despair," a reference to what he claimed the victims of the attacks were thinking as they died.

"It is as if they were telling you, the people of America, 'Hold to account those who have caused us to be killed, and happy is he who learns from others' mistakes,' " bin Laden said.