The release of the new Osama bin Laden videotape to the Arabic news channel al Jazeera on Friday, and the release one week earlier to ABC News of a tape from a man described as an American member of al Qaeda called "Azzam the American," are clearly designed to send a message to all Americans immediately before the U.S. elections.
The Bush administration decided not to raise the terrorism alert color code to orange on Saturday but warned state and local officials across the country to be alert to a possible terrorist attack in the wake of the new bin Laden videotape.
On his tape, "Azzam" delivers a harsh denunciation of American policies, pronounces all Americans guilty and rants that our "streets will run with blood."
Bin Laden also attacks U.S. policies and President Bush, and he defends terrorism as a response to American injustice, but he stops short of issuing an explicit threat. Some of bin Laden's statements could even be viewed as conciliatory and his demeanor is quite measured in comparison to previous appearances. He has abandoned his military fatigues and the AK-47 at his side for a more formal podium that seems designed to portray him as a statesman, rather than a terrorist commander.
Side by side, the two tapes have a bad-cop, good-cop aspect to them.
The principal question intelligence analysts are working on is whether the tapes constitute a sign that another major terrorist attack in the United States is imminent, perhaps before the elections or on Election Day.
History is inconsistent. Some of bin Laden's statements have been followed by major terrorist attacks. His May 1998 interview with ABC News was followed on Aug. 7, 1998, by the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Some of his statements, however, have been followed by no such attacks.
At present, the United States has no credible intelligence that such an attack is in the works.
Over the summer, the CIA received intelligence from two sources that al Qaeda was planning an attack in the United States before the Nov. 2 elections. However, one of those sources, a detainee, has since been discredited after failing a polygraph examination. The other source is of untested credibility. Neither source has been able to provide any specifics of such a plot.
Analysts also believe that arrests in August of cells in Pakistan and the United Kingdom did substantial damage to al Qaeda's operational capability, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the network to launch large-scale attacks in the United States.
Following this line of thought, some analysts believe that bin Laden's "cleaned up" appearance in the new tape and the absence of an explicit threat represent an admission that al Qaeda does not have the capability to attack now and therefore must resort to an elaborate propaganda play.
Some analysts, however, believe that the "Azzam the American" tape constitutes a strong message to the U.S. intelligence community that there is much about al Qaeda that remains unknown, and more importantly, effective.
Since Tuesday, the position of U.S. intelligence officials was that the tape "could not be authenticated" because the speaker could not be identified. With the emergence of the bin Laden tape on Friday, and its identical graphic markings, however, U.S. efforts to identify "Azzam" have escalated.