Bush administration admits binladen already dead
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US casts doubt on bin Laden's latest message
By Toby Harnden in Washington
OSAMA BIN LADEN heaped praise on 'the 19 students who shook the American empire' in the September 11 attacks in a chilling video shown in full last night by an Arab television station.
The recording was dismissed by the Bush administration yesterday as sick propaganda possibly designed to mask the fact the al-Qa'eda leader was already dead.
In the full version of the latest tape of the Saudi exile broadcast by the satellite channel al-Jazeera in Qatar, bin Laden called on Muslims to "concentrate on hitting the US economy with every available means" in the hope that "if their economy is finished they will become too busy to enslave oppressed people".
But several inconsistencies undermined claims that the video was shot around Dec 11 or that bin Laden had escaped from the Tora Bora cave complex to Pakistan.
Reacting last night to the contention of the new Afghan defence minister, Gen Rashid Dostum, that bin Laden had fled, Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, said: "We get six, seven, eight, 10, 12 conflicting reports every day. I've stopped chasing them."
He added, to laughter from reporters at a Pentagon briefing: "We do know of certainty that he is in Afghanistan or some other country or dead."
The growing doubts about the tape came as al-Jazeera, which has faithfully shown footage sent to it by the the al-Qa'eda leader, broadcast all 34 minutes of the latest video after showing only excerpts on Wednesday.
Bin Laden was shown hailing the "blessed strikes" of September 11 that were "in response to what is happening in Palestine and Iraq".
The 19 terrorist hijackers hit "the mightiest power", he gloated, and caused losses of "more than a trillion dollars on the New York market and elsewhere".
He said: "They used the enemy's planes and studied at enemy schools without the need for training camps. But God helped them and taught this cruel lesson to those arrogant people."
Bin Laden ended his statement with a poem dedicated to the September 11 suicide bombers. As he recited the words, his voice trembled and his eyes moistened.
Although intended to rally support for bin Laden's jihad against the West and to undermine American morale, the video appeared to have achieved the opposite effect, both because of bin Laden's gaunt, frail appearance and the uncertainty over when it was filmed.
American officials argued that bin Laden's frequent references to US support for Israel were a bogus justification for his terrorism because in the "dinner party" tape of a private conversation, there was no mention of the Middle East.
That tape was released by the Bush administration a fortnight ago.
Bin Laden's voice was detected regularly until two weeks ago by intelligence operatives monitoring radio transmissions in Tora Bora, according to the Pentagon.
Since then, nothing has been heard from the al-Qa'eda leader and President Bush has hinted in private that bin Laden's silence could mean he has been killed.
White House aides said the video could have been made more than a month ago as the only proof of timing was a reference to the damage to a mosque in Khost taking place "a few days ago".
That meant the filming took place after Nov 16, when a stray bomb hit the mosque.
Bin Laden claimed in the video that he was speaking three months after the September 11 attacks but Mr Bush's advisers believe he would have held up a newspaper or other proof of the date had this been the case.
"He could have made the video and then ordered that it be released in the event of his death," said one White House aide.
"The guy is trying to show he's untouched by the US bombing but he looks under pressure to me."
Bin Laden's beard was much whiter than on Nov 3, the last time al-Jazeera broadcast a video of him, and he appeared much older than his 44 years. Lack of sunlight and a poor diet seemed to have taken a toll on him.
There was widespread scepticism in Washington about al-Jazeera's claim that the video was sent by courier from Pakistan and there were suggestions that this could be disinformation designed to trick Americans into thinking he had fled Afghanistan.
Courier services are closely monitored in Pakistan and it is not possible to send parcels anonymously.
Attention was also drawn to bin Laden's left arm, which hung limply by his side while he gesticulated with his right. Bin Laden is left-handed and there was speculation he may have been injured in an American strike.
Mr Bush was not expected to make any public comment on the broadcast.