Osama bin Laden wanted to talk to his followers. This time the U.S. government was only too happy to help. Within a day of hearing the scratchy audiocassette of the al-Qaeda leader praising the recent bombings in Bali and the Moscow theater assault, intelligence sources tell TIME, U.S. agents paid a visit to one of bin Laden's senior operatives, Ramzi Binalshibh, held for interrogation at a safe house somewhere overseas. They played the 3-minute tape for Binalshibh, who has begun to spill secrets about al-Qaeda's inner workings since he was picked up last September in Pakistan. After listening to his old master pray for vengeance upon the U.S. and its allies, the terrorist let his guards know that what they had was authentic, a proof of life.
An ocean away, other intelligence officials were playing the tape to some of the several hundred lesser-ranking al-Qaeda detainees held in pens at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And the reaction they got was even scarier: a senior U.S. official told TIME that detainees said some passages could be a call to action. That interpretation, along with reports from informants and intercepted communications flooding CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., sent waves of anxiety through the intelligence community.
It was an in-your-face reminder from the master terrorist that he is still in business and the U.S. can't find him. The full impact of the new tape reached the public when the FBI issued a stark bulletin containing a new vocabulary of alarm warning of "spectacular" terrorist attacks to come. Over the weekend, London's Sunday Times reported three North Africans had been arrested after British intelligence foiled their alleged plot to release gas, possibly cyanide, in the London Underground. Also over the weekend, a London journalist for the Qatar satellite channel al-Jazeera said he had received a six-page unsigned statement that appeared to come from al-Qaeda, threatening more attacks against Washington and New York City.
Bin Laden broke cover at a particularly awkward time for President Bush, raising doubts about the success of phase one of Bush's antiterrorism war just when he's pushing to launch phase two against Saddam Hussein. The news was rushed to him not long after experts at the CIA's bin Laden unit at Langley reviewed the audiocast on al-Jazeera, the network regularly used by al-Qaeda to deliver its messages. At around 8 p.m. that day, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice called Bush with the bad news while he was in the shower. Experts were almost certain they were hearing the voice of bin Laden for the first time since U.S. agents thought they picked up a radio message from him in Tora Bora almost a year ago. When the President walked into his staff meeting the next morning, a staff member says, "he was very intense." After all, this is a President who keeps a copy of the faces of key al-Qaeda leaders in his desk and crosses them out as they are killed or captured.