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.
Sign of Attack or Plea for Attention?
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.
The FBI is currently leading its Web site with an urgent appeal for help in identifying the mysterious speaker who is covered in a shroud during his 75-minute invective. Some FBI agents believe that he is Adam Gadahn, also known as Adam Pearleman, an American Muslim from Orange County, Calif., who the FBI believes has joined al Qaeda, and who has been missing for more than four years.
Family members have told FBI agents that "Azzam" is not Gadahn. However, the imam at a local mosque who knew Gadahn told news networks on Friday, after listening to the tape, that he believes that the speaker is, in fact, Gadahn.
Law enforcement officials also are trying to determine the identity of a second individual off camera, who is heard on the tape posing several questions to "Azzam." Some officials believe that the questioner may be Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, a former Florida resident and suspected al Qaeda operative who has been the subject a major international manhunt for the past year.
Analysts are concerned that the tape, and its two as-yet unidentified English speakers, may be an indication that al Qaeda has an active cell in the United States, and that the two individuals themselves may be in the United States and ready to act.
Osama's Election Pitch?
Another question under focus is whether the release by al Qaeda of these two tapes in the week before the U.S. elections is intended to influence the elections in one way or another — and if so, how?
On the tape, bin Laden indicates that he sees little distinction between Kerry and Bush. He states, "Your security is not in the hands of Kerry, Bush or al Qaeda."
Much of the tape released by al Jazeera, however, is an attack on President Bush. Bin Laden promotes the Michael Moore argument that the president was more interested in reading about a pet goat to schoolchildren than saving thousands of Americans from death, and that Bush and his father, the former president, stole the 2000 election (a trick, bin Laden asserts, they picked up from their autocratic and royal friends in power in the Middle East). Significant portions of the 18-minute tape that have still not been released by al Jazeera include further attacks on Bush by bin Laden.
Perhaps the most important message of the tape is bin Laden's mere appearance for the first time in three years speaking on camera, a message that appears to be a reminder to the American people that he is still alive and at large despite Bush's global war on terrorism — a message to Americans that they are no safer now than they were four years ago.
Some observers agree that the new tape will remind Americans that Bush has failed to capture bin Laden and may help Kerry, but most U.S. political analysts believe that the appearance of the tape in the days before the election will bring terrorism back to the top of the agenda and therefore will help the president on an issue that, in most opinion polls, he is perceived to be stronger on than Kerry.
What is clear is that as the resources of the intelligence and law enforcement communities are brought to bear on the examination of the two tapes, the unanswered questions and disparate analysis will be further reminders of the continuing shortfall of hard intelligence on the motives, capabilities and intentions of the most dangerous terrorist organization in the world.
Christopher Isham is chief of investigative projects for the ABC News Investigative Unit.