WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has come under pressure to intensify its pursuit of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders because U.S. analysts say that a new audiotape likely contains bin Laden's voice.
The tape, aired this week on the Qatar-based satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera, could foreshadow a major terrorist attack, officials and analysts said. Past attacks against U.S. or allied targets have often followed a public threat from bin Laden or one of his lieutenants.
The broadcast coincided with intelligence reports of increased "noise" among suspected terrorist groups. Concern about a new attack is "as high as it's been since 9/11," a senior State Department official said.
The broadcast and other intelligence prompted the FBI to quietly issue a warning last night to state and local law enforcement agencies, warning of the possibility of "spectacular attacks" in the United States, The New York Times reported.
"In selecting its next targets," the FBI alert said, "sources suggest al-Qaida may favor spectacular attacks that meet several criteria: high symbolic value, mass casualties, severe damage to the U.S. economy and maximum psychological trauma. The highest priority targets remain within the aviation, petroleum and nuclear sectors as well as significant national landmarks."
Before this week, U.S. officials had been divided on whether bin Laden was alive. Some had suspected he was killed during U.S. military strikes against al-Qaida hideouts in eastern Afghanistan. Now, they acknowledge that bin Laden is probably alive and exhorting his followers to launch further attacks.
"I'm troubled that we haven't found bin Laden in all this time," said Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Senate Democratic leader. "I think that it really caused many of us to be concerned about whether or not we are winning the war on terror."
Key al-Qaida elements, Daschle said, "continue to be as great a threat today as they were one and a half years ago. So by what measure can we claim to be successful so far?"
Administration officials responded that the global fight against terror could hardly be more intense than it is. But they said the apparently authentic bin Laden tape underscored that the nation is engaged in a prolonged war.
"There are thousands of killers, in over 60 countries, that hide and run, that want to continue to carry out their evil acts not only on America, but on our friends and allies and the international community," said Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman.
The inability of U.S. intelligence agencies to determine whether bin Laden was alive or dead is bound to sow new doubts about the agencies' capabilities.
If bin Laden is alive, the tape also raises "the question for a lot of people of why we're going after Iraq when bin Laden has 3,000 dead on his account," said Daniel Benjamin of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who is a co-author of The Age of Sacred Terror.
The administration, Benjamin said, made a misstep when it "tied the confrontation on Iraq too tightly to terrorism."
If authentic, the tape marks the first clear indication in many months that the al-Qaida leader is still alive.
Because of bin Laden's long public silence, some officials had come to believe he was dead - perhaps killed by U.S. airstrikes on al-Qaida hide-outs in eastern Pakistan. Dale Watson, who was then the FBI's counterterrorism chief, said last summer that he thought bin Laden was dead.
Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, has also said in recent months that he thought bin Laden was probably dead. Meanwhile, administration officials, reversing their pattern in the first weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, have avoided much mention of bin Laden's name.
"They've not played the game of lionizing him and his power," said Bruce Hoffman of RAND Corp., a research firm that advises the government on national security.
Officials suspect that bin Laden could be hiding in the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Government linguists have concluded that the voice on the tape is bin Laden's, a U.S. official said, but the tape is "still undergoing technical analysis before we can say with reasonable certainty that it's his voice and is authentic."
"We have to make sure it has not been altered in any way or even manufactured," the official said. The analysis is hampered by the poor quality of the tape.
Besides signaling a possible attack, the tape was probably intended to boost morale among bin Laden's followers, officials said, by showing that al-Qaida's leadership still exists.
As for why bin Laden avoided using videotape, officials noted that an audiotape requires fewer people to produce. Bin Laden, they said, might also want to hide a deteriorated physical condition or a change in his appearance.