Some See Less Menacing Bin Laden

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Osama bin Laden's message on a new audio recording is certainly vintage -- with equal measures of lecture and threat -- but some analysts sensed much less passion than usual in the 17th message heard from bin Laden since 9/11.

The White House responded by saying al Qaeda's top leaders are under the gun and on the run. Nevertheless, the tape is a stark reminder that the man behind 9/11 is still alive and making threats.

First aired on the Arabic language news channel al-Jazeera, the recording repeats bin Laden's view that U.S. civilians are valid targets.

"The citizens renew their approval of their government action," bin Laden says in Arabic. "They send their youth into the military to kill us and burn our lands."

Bin Laden Doesn't Always Follow Through

But to some, bin Laden seems much less menacing on the newest tape than he has in the past.

"There was a time when we heard a bin Laden tape and assumed an attack would take place shortly thereafter somewhere in the world," said Richard Clarke, the former U.S. anti-terror czar who is now an ABC News consultant. "That hasn't been the case for several years now, and the things he says very often don't happen."

The al-Jazeera network would not say how or when it got the tape. But there are specific mentions by bin Laden of the Israeli incursion into a Palestinian prison last month, an indication the tape was made recently.

As always, the bin Laden tape became a political issue.

On ABC News' "This Week," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said the tape was a reminder of the U.S. failure to stop bin Laden in a key early battle in Afghanistan.

"Osama bin Laden is loose today because we allowed him to escape at Tora Bora," Kerry said. "It's that simple."

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee called the tape effective propaganda for the Islamic world.

"It recognizes that much of this war, this battle that we're fighting, is about winning the hearts and minds of moderate Islam," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., "and they are focused on that. We need to be focused on it."

The strongest language in the new tape may have been bin Laden's call for an economic boycott of the United States.

'Reduced to Being a Commentator'

But it also suggests he may have lost his ability to personally command any of thousands of warriors he once controlled.

"He seems to have been reduced to being a commentator on Islamic news," Clarke said.

Every new tape from bin Laden presents a new opportunity to locate him. A small team of Pakistani and U.S. intelligence agents is tracking the al Qaeda courier network that moves the tapes from bin Laden to outlets such as al Jazeera. There has been some success, but it is thought that as many as 25 couriers are used to move just one tape.

Though the tape suggests bin Laden could be weaker now, U.S. officials point out that he does not necessarily have to be strong to hurt America. For instance, the terror nightmare for U.S. agents is five or six al Qaeda suicide bombers at five or six American shopping malls or train stations.

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