Intelligence analysts believe that the latest taped message from Osama bin Laden is the signal for al-Qaeda operatives to launch a major attack against the United States. As Britain and the US yesterday confirmed that the voice on the tape was that of the fugitive al-Qaeda leader, one US-based intelligence group warned that an examination of the timing of previous taped messages and subsequent attacks indicated a strong possibility of an outrage before the middle of next month.
The warning came amid the introduction of further strict security measures in the US, including the fingerprinting and photographing of most visitors entering the country through ports and airports, and the delayed take-off of British Airways’ flight 223 from Heathrow to Washington DC for a third day running due to terrorism fears.
In the latest audio tape, broadcast at the weekend, bin Laden claimed the war in Iraq was the beginning of the occupation of Gulf states and urged Muslims to “continue the jihad [holy war] to check the conspiracies that are hatched against the Islamic nation”.
He added: “My message is to incite you against the conspiracies, especially those uncovered by the occupation of the crusaders in Baghdad under the pretext of weapons of mass destruction, and also the situation in [Jerusalem] under the deceptions of the road map and the Geneva initiative.”
Intelligence analysts who have compared the timing of previous taped messages and attacks attributed to al-Qaeda yesterday warned that the message indicated there was a serious threat of a major attack on US territory within the next six weeks.
Ben Venzk, the chief executive of IntelCenter, a private sector intelligence company specialising in terrorism and other national security threats for government agencies and major US companies, said the release of bin Laden’s messages appeared to be a significant indicator of imminent attacks.
He added that the latest tape, combined with other current threat reporting, indicated a significant risk of a major al-Qaeda attack occurring sometime before the middle of February.
“We would say, looking at the release of audio tapes, that if the past is any record of a trend, we would expect a higher likelihood of an attack in the next 43 days,” he said.
“Combined with the other threat information, there is an extremely great risk.
“There is more concern about an attack on the US at this time than at any other point in the last two years.”
Professor Paul Wilkinson, of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University, said he also believed the messages could be linked to future al-Qaeda attacks.
“I would anticipate an attack in the near future,” he said. “I think the US is right to be on a heightened state of alert. Al-Qaeda are desperate to show that they can still attack the US homeland, but they can also attack US targets abroad and that is complicating things.”
The US, which has already imposed restrictions on flights over its territory and demanded the introduction of armed sky marshals on some aircraft, yesterday began fingerprinting and photographing visitors in a controversial programme to try to prevent potential terrorists from entering the country.
The programme was launched at 115 airports and 14 cruise ship ports across the country, but not yet at land borders, which account for a large part of traffic into the US.
Tourists and business travellers on short visits from 27 mostly European nations – including Britain – are exempt from the new measures, as are Canadians. Some foreign nationals have complained of discrimination and Brazil last week began fingerprinting and photographing all arriving US citizens.
Tom Ridge, the US Department of Homeland Security secretary, argued the measures would tighten security without causing undue inconvenience. “It is easy for travellers to use, but hard for terrorists to avoid.”
Earlier, the CIA said that its analysis of the audio tape indicated that it was probably the voice of the al-Qaeda leader.
“After conducting a technical analysis, the CIA’s assessment is that it is likely bin Laden’s voice,” said an official.
And Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said it was safe to assume that the tape was genuine.
“There is no question that the al-Qaeda organisation and its networks are still around. And so far as we know, Osama bin Laden is still alive,” he said.
“It is possible still today, despite all the benefits of technology, for an individual, if he’s well resourced as Osama bin Laden unquestionably is and supported by some groups, to be effectively hidden for quite a period.”
The continuing fears over security prompted another delay to flight BA223 to Washington yesterday. About 200 passengers were left to sit in the aircraft at Heathrow while BA waited for clearance for the flight from the US authorities.
The flight, one of three which BA operates to the US capital daily, was cancelled on 1 and 2 January, and took off about three hours late on 3 and 4 January.
The US authorities have cited specific terrorism threats as the reason for the continued disruption to this particular service. The delay came as concern grew over the US insistence of the use of armed sky marshals on some transatlantic flights.
One UK holiday airline, Thomas Cook Airlines, said it would refuse to operate flights if sky marshals were put on board. British Airways has already voiced its opposition to the use of sky marshals, saying it would rather cancel a flight than have guns on board.