DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Two audiotapes purportedly of Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenant were broadcast on Arabic TV stations Tuesday, one taunting President Bush and threatening more attacks on the United States, the other criticizing France’s decision to ban Islamic headscarves in schools.
The tapes, attributed to Ayman al-Zawahri, came as Pakistani forces backed by helicopters searched villages in a remote region between Pakistan and Afghanistan where bin Laden and Taliban suspects are believed hiding. Al-Zawahri, an Egyptian-born physician, is thought to be with bin Laden in the rugged mountains.
In the past, U.S. intelligence officials have noted that some tape releases have been preludes to attacks. On an April 7 tape, a speaker believed to be bin Laden exhorted Muslims to rise up against Saudi Arabia and foreshadowed suicide attacks against U.S. and British interests. Suicide bombers struck Western housing compounds in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on May 12.
The latest audiotapes aired a few hours apart on Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera networks, competing Arabic TV stations based in the Persian Gulf.
Officials at both stations said they broadcast only newsworthy excerpts and that their full recordings were different. Both stations said they received the material Tuesday. Events mentioned in the tapes indicate only that the recordings were made no earlier than last month.
Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera said they were confident the voice was al-Zawahri’s, with Al-Arabiya also saying its confidence in the authenticity stemmed from the source of the tape, which officials would not identify. The voice on both tapes sounded identical, with the tone and rhetoric similar to previous videotapes as well as audiotapes believed to be from al-Zawahri.
“There are rumors these days that the arrest of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri is nearing; (these tapes) are a response to that,” said Mohammed Salah, an expert on radical Islamic groups and the Cairo bureau chief of the pan-Arab daily newspaper Al-Hayat.
Dia’a Rashwan, an expert on radical Islam for Egypt’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said issuing both tapes almost simultaneously “requires logistical ability … and also a central decision.”
“This is not insignificant organizational capabilities,” Rashwan added. “They seem to signal that (Zawahri) is still connected.”
In Al-Jazeera’s tape, the voice believed to be al-Zawahri challenges Bush’s claim to have liberated Iraq and indicates al-Qaida — the group blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States — is still running operations from Afghanistan.
“We remind Bush that the situation is not stable in Afghanistan, or else how do we wage, with God’s support and might, our attacks on your troops and agents?” the tape said.
“We remind Bush that he didn’t destroy two-thirds of al-Qaida. On the contrary, thanks be to God, al-Qaida is still in the holy war battleground raising the banner of Islam.”
In his State of the Union address in January, Bush said “nearly two-thirds” of al-Qaida’s known leaders were captured or killed.
“Bush, fortify your targets, tighten your defense, intensify your security measures,” the tape recording warned, “because the fighting Islamic community — which sent you New York and Washington battalions — has decided to send you one battalion after the other, carrying death and seeking heaven.”
The audiotape aired by Dubai-based al-Arabiya criticized France’s decision to ban religious symbols in public buildings, including headscarves worn by Muslim women. The law is expected to go before the French Senate early next month.
“The decision of the French president to issue a law to prevent Muslim girls from covering their heads in schools is another example of the Crusader’s malice, which Westerners have against Muslims,” the recording said.