WASHINGTON -- Osama bin Laden, in his first televised videotape in more than a year, declared yesterday that he ordered the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the United States and warned Americans that their security is not in the hands of either President Bush or Democratic challenger John Kerry.
The video was aired on the Arab channel Al-Jazeera and replayed on U.S. networks four days before the U.S. elections and marked what some terrorism specialists said was an attempt to influence the outcome.
Looking older but healthy, bin Laden accused Bush of "misleading and deluding" Americans three years after the attacks and hiding "the real reason."
He said that "we decided to destroy towers in America," referring to the World Trade Center in New York, because "we want to regain the freedom of our nation."
"Your security is not in the hands of Kerry, Bush or al-Qaida," he told Americans, referring to the network he leads, which over the past three years has become more decentralized but remains potent. "Your security is in your own hands."
"Any state that does not mess with our security has naturally guaranteed its own security."
The tape injected a new rancorous element into the campaign, heightening the debate over which candidate can fight terrorism more effectively.
In their first responses, Bush and Kerry stressed their determination to fight al-Qaida.
Bush, speaking on an airport tarmac in Toledo, Ohio, said the country would not be intimidated and would prevail in its war on terror.
"Let me make this very clear: Americans will not be intimidated or influenced by an enemy of our country. I'm sure Senator Kerry agrees with this," Bush said. "We're at war with these terrorists, and I am confident that we will prevail."
Kerry, in West Palm Beach, Fla., called al-Qaida "barbarians" and said, "Let me just make it clear, crystal clear, that as Americans, we are united in our determination to hunt down and destroy Osama bin Laden and the terrorists."
Kerry also repeated his complaint that Bush missed an opportunity to capture or kill bin Laden during the Afghan war and said, "I believe I can run a more effective war on terror than George Bush."
Kerry has repeatedly criticized the Bush administration for letting U.S. forces rely on local Afghan leaders to attack a suspected bin Laden hideout at Tora Bora, in the mountains of Afghanistan, in mid-December 2001.
Bush retorted, "My opponent continues to say things he knows are not true," adding, "It's especially shameful in light of the new tape from America's enemy."
Bin Laden was widely thought to have escaped into Pakistan during the bloody Tora Bora assault, and U.S. intelligence analysts thought they had intercepted bin Laden's voice transmissions to his fighters. After the battle, U.S. forces and their Afghan allies searched caves, hoping to find bin Laden's body.
On the tape broadcast yesterday, bin Laden appeared to taunt Bush, making an apparent reference to the president's continuing his visit to an elementary school classroom after he was notified about the attack on the World Trade Center.
"I never thought that the supreme leader would leave 50,000 of his people in the two towers to face the terrifying events alone at the time they were in need for him," bin Laden said.
'Alive and well'
A senior U.S. government analyst said the videotape might be significant less for its message than for the capability of bin Laden, the subject of an intense three-year manhunt, of "getting on tape and showing that he's alive and well," still able to rally al-Qaida members three years after he fled American bombs in Afghanistan.
The U.S. government, which learned that the tape existed before it was shown, tried to prevent it from being aired, a State Department official said.
Chase Untermeyer, a longtime Bush family friend who is U.S. ambassador to Qatar, where Al-Jazeera is based, approached the television channel and the government there, and "requested that they not air the tape," the official said.
The request, similar to ones made before, stemmed from concern that the tape could exhort bin Laden followers to commit new acts of violence or include coded messages to al-Qaida cells that might serve as a "triggering device for attacks."
Administration counterterror officials have said for months that they thought al-Qaida leaders hoped to stage an attack that could influence U.S. elections. They first began mentioning those concerns before the summer political conventions.
On the tape, bin Laden railed against U.S. support for Israel, saying, "It had not occurred to our mind to attack the towers, but after our patience ran out and we saw the injustice and inflexibility of the American-Israel alliance toward our people in Palestine and Lebanon, this came to my mind."
He recalled the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which he said the United States allowed, and said that "it sparked in my mind that the tyrant should be punished with the same and that we should destroy towers in America, so that it tastes what we taste and would be deterred from killing our children and women."
The video gave no indication of bin Laden's whereabouts. U.S. and Pakistani officials have said they suspect he is near the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Nor does the video indicate when it was made, although it clearly was produced since Kerry became the presumptive Democratic nominee this year.
The senior U.S. analyst said it is "easy to over-analyze" the timing, which he said could be explained by logistics as much as an effort to influence voters.
But the proximity to Tuesday's election struck Kenneth Katzman, a terrorism specialist at the Congressional Research Service, as a significant sign that bin Laden retains a support infrastructure after three years spent in hiding.
Bin Laden's ability to get the tape to Al-Jazeera "suggests that his network of couriers remains undisrupted," Katzman said.
Also significant was bin Laden's appearance: older and grayer than in previous videos, but apparently healthy. He could move his left arm, which was immobile in a previous video, leading analysts to suspect that he had been badly wounded in the Tora Bora attack.
Supply chain indicated
Unlike previous videos, which showed bin Laden in a cave, this one shows him standing behind a desk and wearing a clean white turban and a white robe covered by a gold cloak. That indicated not only that he is well cared for, but also that he has a supply chain, Katzman said.
Nevertheless, Katzman detected signs in bin Laden's message that he might be feeling pressure from Pakistani or U.S. forces trying to find him.
"He talked about the idea that there was something the U.S. could do to satisfy him and bring an end to the conflict. The fact that he discussed it may indicate he feels under pressure," Katzman said.
President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told him of the bin Laden tape hours before its release while they were aboard Air Force One yesterday morning. White House staffers had informed her by phone.
"Our intelligence community has said they believe it is authentic," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "If there is actionable intelligence on it, we will act."
Bush's spokesman would not say whether he thinks the terrorist leader was trying to influence the election.
Richard Holbrooke, a Kerry adviser, said that bin Laden would draw "no comfort from a Kerry presidency."
"John Kerry has sworn and pledged that his top priority is to pursue him and hunt him down," Holbrooke said.
Sun staff writers David L. Greene, traveling with President Bush, and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, traveling with John Kerry, contributed to this article.