A New Tape Leads To New Fears

Judging from a new message released last week, Osama bin Laden is still alive and plotting. The latest video—the first since October 2004—shows bin Laden looking unnaturally youthful in at least one respect: the robust state of his bushy black beard, which was streaked with gray three years ago. Some intelligence officials wondered, only half in jest, whether the terrorist leader was using Just For Men, a hair dye. Other analysts believed he was wearing a fake beard. If so, that could mean he had shaved to obscure his identity, wherever he's living. Then again, he might be trying to confuse everyone about his whereabouts, which he has done for many years.

In delivering his stern yet calm address, the Qaeda leader appears against a neutral background. He speaks to the "People of America," delivering his take on the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, Vietnam, the evils of warmongering corporations, U.S. politics and global warming. (The footage appears with English subtitles.) "In Egypt alone, there are millions of Christians whom we have not incinerated and shall not incinerate," he says, defending Islam's historical record on human rights. He attacks the Democrats in Congress for failing to stop the war in Iraq ("You elected the Democratic Party for this purpose")and commends the writings of antiwar intellectual Noam Chomsky and Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA's bin Laden-hunting unit. Scheuer, an outspoken critic of U.S. Middle East policy, wasn't flattered. But he told NEWSWEEK: "I wish Americans would read what [bin Laden] says ... You can both understand and hate someone at the same time."

The tape made waves even before it appeared. Shortly after popular jihadist Web sites posted promotional messages about the video, several sites crashed. This was a possible sign of a coordinated cyberattack by Western intelligence agencies or Internet vigilantes, according to Evan Kohlmann, a private contractor who monitors the sites for U.S. agencies. The shutdowns could also have been caused by massive viewer interest, or by the jihadist Web operators themselves in order to coordinate the "official release" of the video to coincide with the September 11, 2001, anniversary. But still, Kohlmann said, "this is pretty unusual."

U.S. intelligence agencies have been warning for months that Al Qaeda is planning a major attack on the West, though they have no tactical details. Still, the FBI is setting up special command posts and taking other precautions for this week's September 11 anniversary in large part because of what one official called a "heightened threat environment." Two plots were busted last week. A big crackdown by German authorities broke up an alleged terror cell with ties to Pakistan and Al Qaeda. A German counterterrorism source, who asked for anonymity when discussing the investigation, said that three suspects arrested in the case—plus up to 10 suspected associates now being sought in Germany, Turkey and Pakistan—were planning to carry out simultaneous bomb attacks on three U.S.-related targets. Hundreds of German police and intelligence agents monitored the suspects for months as they exchanged e-mails about their desire to kill lots of Americans and brainstormed about possible targets, including Frankfurt airport, U.S. military bases in Germany and nightspots.

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Was Al Qaeda Central behind the plot? Two of the three suspects in custody are native-born Germans who converted to Islam; the other is from Turkey. Investigators think at least one of the German suspects may have come into contact with radical jihadists while visiting Saudi Arabia for the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. U.S. and German officials, also requesting anonymity, said all three of the arrested suspects are believed to have visited Pakistan last year for what investigators believe was terror training at "camps" along the Afghan-Pakistani border—run by the Islamic Jihad Union, a Qaeda affiliate set up by extremists from Uzbekistan. What particularly disturbed German authorities was that even after one or more of the plotters was questioned by investigators earlier this year, the suspects continued to make what appeared to be preparations for an attack. These included the purchase of large quantities of hydrogen peroxide, a household chemical (and hair bleach), which can also be used to brew explosives.

Both German and U.S. counterterrorism officials said that despite the latest arrests, spy agencies remain anxious that some kind of big Qaeda attack is still in the works.

A New Tape Leads To New Fears | U.S.