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With almost certain confirmation that bin Laden is alive, the discussion turns back to how serious a threat he is and why he can't be caught. In a TIME/CNN poll, a sizable portion, 42%, of Americans surveyed said the tape made them more worried about impending terrorist attacks, although 56% remained at the same level of anxiety. The voice on the tape calmly and chillingly predicts that al-Qaeda's enemies "will be killed just as you kill and will be bombed just as you bomb. And expect more that will further distress you." While there's no real pattern in forewarnings from al-Qaeda, intelligence analysts take the words at face value. A recorded al-Jazeera broadcast from bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri in early October was followed by the deadly bombing in Bali that killed more than 180. The voice's condemnation of key allies in the U.S. antiterrorism war Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Canada and Australia put foreign governments on alert for another major hit. Bin Laden also named Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld he calls them "the White House gangsters" and that has counterterrorism experts worried those officials might be personally targeted.
So the bin Laden tape provided a chilling context for the steady stream of intelligence chatter that the CIA has picked up in the past three weeks, much like what it saw before Sept. 11, 2001. More suspicious phone calls and more reports from field agents suggested al-Qaeda suspects appeared to be on the move. "There's more activity on the communications circuits used by dirty guys," says a senior U.S. intelligence official. "There are more cryptic conversations by people making plans to travel." The FBI's graphic warning of "spectacular" attacks causing "mass casualties, severe damage to the U.S. economy and maximum psychological trauma" raised anxiety even as agents acknowledged they had no idea when, where or how the terrorists might strike. While the Administration did not raise the national alert level from yellow to orange, officials are bracing for the worst and operating on a hair trigger regarding any suspicious activity. Before 9/11, the FBI preferred to keep its targets under surveillance until agents acquired hard evidence of a specific plot. Today the mission is disruption first.