WASHINGTON -- Appearing in a videotaped message for the first time in nearly three years, Osama bin Laden tells the American people to reject their capitalist way of life and embrace Islam or his followers will "escalate the killing and fighting against you."
"This is our duty, and our brothers are carrying it out, and I ask Allah to grant them resolve and victory," the al-Qaida leader said in the video, which aired yesterday on the Internet and TV.
The tape was apparently made by al-Qaida's media arm, As-Sahab, to be released for the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
If the tape is confirmed as authentic, it would be the al-Qaida's leader's first videotaped communique since he surfaced just before the U.S. presidential election in 2004. In that case, bin Laden also offered a veiled threat to the American people, saying they could save themselves from future violence by not supporting a crackdown on his al-Qaida network.
Visiting Australia for the annual summit of Asian Pacific leaders yesterday, President Bush called the tape "a reminder about the dangerous world in which we live."
"I find it interesting that on the tape, Iraq was mentioned, which is a reminder that Iraq is a part of this war against extremists," Bush said after a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. "If al-Qaida bothers to mention Iraq, it's because they want to achieve their objectives in Iraq, which is to drive attacks and develop a safe haven."
Bush said it also remains clear that al-Qaida wants to launch new attacks on the U.S.
"Therefore it's important that we show resolve and determination to protect ourselves, deny al-Qaida safe haven and support young democracies, which will be a major defeat for their ambitions," Bush said.
Bin Laden appears to be healthy in the video, which was being scrutinized yesterday by U.S. government intelligence analysts. He sports a black beard, a sharp contrast to the gray and white facial hair he has had in most public sightings and photographs over the past decade or so.
Initially, some U.S. counterterrorism officials said they were not convinced that the video was of bin Laden, particularly because his beard looked so different. As-Sahab has been known to splice historic footage of the al-Qaida leader into current videotapes and audiotapes.
But late yesterday, one U.S. intelligence official said, "Initial technical analysis suggests the voice is indeed that of Osama bin Laden."
In the 26-minute tape titled The Solution, bin Laden speaks against a spare backdrop that offers no hint of where he might be hiding. His words suggest that the tape was made within the past month: Bin Laden mentions the recent 62nd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, which occurred Aug. 6 and Aug. 8.
Bin Laden offers Americans an alternative to more bloodshed, urging them to reject being controlled by major corporations. He contended that the quest for oil and profits is driving U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is the cause of suffering of millions of Muslims and dispossessed people.
"It has now become clear to you and the entire world the impotence of the democratic system and how it plays with the interests of the peoples and their blood by sacrificing soldiers and populations to achieve the interests of the major corporations," he said, according to a transcript of the tape made by the SITE Institute, a private intelligence-gathering agency.
One senior U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while the tape contains no overt and specific threats of an impending attack, analysts were scrutinizing it to see whether it contained veiled hints of a strike on the homeland or U.S. interests overseas, or other coded messages to al-Qaida's followers.
"It's not in his nature to be that blatant," the senior U.S. official said of bin Laden.
The official also said experts were scrutinizing bin Laden's physical characteristics for clues about his health, after years of unconfirmed rumors that he was ill with some kind of kidney disease and might have died.
In his 2004 tape, the al-Qaida leader appeared to be trying to make the transition from terrorist to political figure, in part by offering conciliatory statements and attempting to justify his group's actions as being in defense of Muslims worldwide.
But then bin Laden disappeared. Though his voice was used in several al-Qaida audiotapes, he was not seen again on any contemporaneous videotapes or public appearances, prompting speculation that he was either dead or gravely ill.
Bin Laden issued an audiotape about a year ago.
In the new tape, bin Laden sharply criticizes the war in Iraq and the continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. He takes potshots not only at Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, but also at the news media, the American public and Democrats in Congress for failing to change the country's course even though a majority of Americans say they oppose the Iraq war.
Bin Laden also criticizes recently elected British and French leaders Gordon Brown and Nicholas Sarkozy. But he saves most of his vitriol for American corporations, calling them "the real tyrannical terrorists."
He also says that because of multinational corporations and the capitalist system, Americans suffer from high interest-related debts, "insane taxes" and mortgages, and global warming.
"So it is imperative that you free yourselves from all of that" and embrace Islam, bin Laden says, portraying the religion as one that over the centuries has fought against violence and protected persecuted Jews and Christians from their oppressors.
Analysts said the most significant aspect of the tape appears to be bin Laden's decision to surface publicly after so long.
"He is saying that six years after 9/11 and the unlimited budget invested in counterterrorism, that everything is business as usual on his end," said Rita Katz, the director and co-founder of the SITE Institute. "He is trying to get attention and to show that he is not as evil a man as described by the U.S. government."
Peter Bergen, a terrorism analyst and author of The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al-Qaida's Leader, said bin Laden simply might have decided he had waited long enough to show the world that he was alive and in charge.
"Bin Laden is in this interesting Catch-22 where he can say nothing and become less relevant or occasionally put out a tape and risk getting caught," Bergen said. "He must have calculated that the risk is worth it."
Josh Meyer writes for the Los Angeles Times.