Osama bin Laden appeared for the first time in three years in a video Friday released ahead of the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, telling Americans they should convert to Islam if they want the war in Iraq to end.
American officials said the U.S. government had obtained a copy even though the video had not been posted yet by al-Qaeda — and intelligence agencies were studying the video to determine whether it was authentic and looking for clues about bin Laden's health.
The 30-minute video was obtained by the SITE Institute, a Washington-based group that monitors terrorist messages, and provided to the Associated Press.
The footage gives a rare look at the al-Qaeda leader, who has likely avoided appearing in videos as a security measure. His emergence comes at a time when terrorism experts believe his terror network is regrouping in the lawless Pakistan-Afghanistan border region — and it underlines the US failure to catch him.
In the video, a short excerpt of which was broadcast to the Arab world by Al-Jazeera television, bin Laden wears a white robe, a white circular cap and a beige cloak seated behind a table while reading an address to the American people from papers in front of him.
His trimmed beard is shorter than in his last video, in 2004, and is fully black — apparently dyed, since in past videos it was mostly gray. He speaks softly, as he usually does, and has dark bags under his eyes, but his appearance dispelled rumors that he had died.
US President George W. Bush made the rare move of speaking about an al-Qaida video. The tape is "a reminder about the dangerous world in which we live, he told reporters on the sidelines of a summit of Pacific Rim nations in Sydney, Australia.
"It's important that we show resolve and determination to protect ourselves, deny al-Qaeda safe haven and support young democracies," Bush said.
In the video, Bin Laden makes no overt threats and does not directly call for attacks.
Instead, he addresses Americans, lecturing them on the failures of their leaders to stop the war in Iraq despite growing public opposition in the US.
He says there were two solutions to stopping the Iraq war. "One is from our side, and it is to escalate the fighting and killing against you. This is our duty, and our brothers are carrying it out," bin Laden said.
"The second solution is from your side. ... I invite you to embrace Islam," he said.
One result of that, bin Laden said, would be an end to the Iraq war. He said "warmongering owners of the major corporations" would rush to appease voters who showed they are looking for an alternative, "and this alternative is Islam."
He derided Bush, saying events in Iraq have gotten "out of control" and the American leader "is like the one who plows and sows the sea: He harvests nothing but failure."
Bin Laden frequently criticized capitalism, calling its leaders the real terrorists and threats to human freedom.
"This is why I tell you: as you liberated yourselves before from the slavery of monks, kings and feudalism, you should liberate yourselves from the deception, shackles and attrition of the capitalist system," he said.
Bin Laden's attacks in the video on capitalism, multinational corporations and globalization led several current and former government officials to believe an American — 28-year-old Adam Gadahn — may have written at least part of the speech.
Gadahn, who has been charged with treason and supporting terrorism for serving as an al-Qaida propagandist, has appeared in several past al-Qaeda-produced videos, lecturing against capitalism and globalization and making insider references to American culture.
"It has Adam Gadahn written all over it," one former senior intelligence official said of bin Laden's tape, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The video appeared to have been recently made. At one point, bin Laden mentions that "several days ago" Japan marked the 62nd anniversary of the Aug. 6, 1945, atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. He also refers to the Democratic Party's congressional victory in last fall's election and to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was elected in May.
He also shows a grasp of current events, dropping mentions of global warming and saying Americans are "reeling under the burdens" of a mortgage crisis.
And he praises author Noam Chomsky, an early critic of the Iraq war, as well as Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit, who has said poor US leadership was losing the war against terrorist groups.
Bin Laden "knows Bush has low approval ratings, knows the significance of a growing awareness of global warming," said Thomas Sanderson, deputy director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "He's trying to capitalize on what he sees as a shift back to the middle in American politics."
Al-Qaeda annually uses the anniversary of the Sept. 11 suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as a propaganda opportunity, issuing videotapes to rally supporters and mock the United States.
But the appearance of bin Laden this year makes a bigger splash. The al-Qaeda leader had not appeared in new video footage since October 2004, and he had not put out an audiotape in more than a year, his longest period without a message.
His deputy, Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahri, has issued numerous videos and audiotapes in the meantime as al-Qaeda has increased the sophistication and speed of its media operations.
'Al-Qaeda leadership has managed to regroup'Seth Jones, a terrorism expert at the RAND think tank, said that while the anniversary gives the pretext for the tape, it also comes at a time when the main al-Qaeda leadership has managed to regroup.
"There clearly has been a resurgence of core al-Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan" along the frontier with Afghanistan since 2005, Jones said.
He said sympathy in that region for the Taliban has made it more receptive to militant Sunni groups, including al-Qaeda. "It's really created a sanctuary," Jones said.
Rita Katz, director of the SITE Institute, said she believes "strongly that al-Qaeda has regrouped" but that its core bases are more scattered than previously, comprising several training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She said it was likely bin Laden is hidden in a more secure location, away from any of those sites.
During the video, bin Laden's image moves for only a total of about 3 1/2 minutes in two segments, staying frozen the rest of the time while his remarks continue.
A former senior US intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it might have resulted from a technical glitch while al-Qaeda passed the video through a variety of computer sites to mask its cyber trail.
The United States intercepted the video before it was released on Islamic Web sites where al-Qaeda usually posts its messages, a US counterterrorism official said in Washington. US officials had analyzed the video for hours before transcripts and videos were leaked, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The official said analysts were studying bin Laden's physical characteristics — for clues about his health after unconfirmed rumors earlier this year that he had died of kidney disease.
Soon after word emerged that the United States had the video, Islamic militant Web sites that usually carry statements from al-Qaeda went down and were inaccessible.
Hours later, the sites were back up, but by late Friday, the video still had not been released on the militant Web sites.
The reason for the shutdown was not immediately known. Evan H. Kohlmann, a terrorism expert at globalterroralert.com, said he suspected it was the work of al-Qaeda itself, trying to find how the video leaked to US officials.