Bin Laden: How Powerful In 2004?

The nation's top counterterrorism and intelligence officials have reassured Congress repeatedly about the significantly diminished capabilities of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Yet outside experts note that bin Laden has evaded capture during almost three years of hot pursuit by U.S. and other forces and remains able to communicate an increasingly sophisticated and targeted message to possible followers worldwide.

"I don't know how marginalized he is," said Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp. research group.

"If you were giving a briefing in bin Laden's headquarters, you could say: 'We have had a difficult 31 months, to be sure. We have lost our training bases in Afghanistan. They have arrested a number of our brothers worldwide, including a number of our most talented operational planners."'

At the same time, Jenkins added: "But you could go on to say: `This is terrific. We have survived 31 months of an intensive global assault by the world's greatest power."'

Bin Laden is believed to have been hiding for months along the rugged, ill-defined border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Military leaders there expressed confidence early this year that they'd get the world's most wanted fugitive by year's end.

Officials at home were more circumspect. Now, even in the region, military officials have backed down from those claims.

Jenkins and other experts say this shows how nimble and elusive bin Laden actually is.

Consider, they say, bin Laden's unusual seven-minute audio message delivered to Arab television networks last week. In it, bin Laden offered European nations "reconciliation" - that is, a truce - if they would pull their forces out of Muslim lands and commit to ending attacks on Muslims or interfering in their affairs. In exchange, al Qaeda would stop operations against them, bin Laden said in the tape. The offer expires in three months.

Inside universities, think tanks and the government, bin Laden observers puzzle over his motives and aims.

One U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. officials think the message may be "a trial balloon of sorts." Unlike previous recordings, this one offers the peace deal with Europe.

Although the message contains tones and phrases often used by Islamic radicals, some who know bin Laden's rhetoric said the message lacks the poetic flourishes and historical references characteristic of many of his previous messages. This one, too, is relatively free of references to Islam, despite the usual militarist Islamic tones.

To show that he remains up on current events, even while apparently hiding out in desolate mountains at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, bin Laden refers in the tape to Israel's March 22 killing of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

Much of the message s focused on contemporary political arguments. For instance, bin Laden refers to opinion polls that indicate Europeans want peace, and he refers to war profits of Halliburton, once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, and to the personal interests of the "White House gang."

U.S. officials contend that the existence of such a tape, with nearly month-old news, doesn't mean that the al Qaeda leader has access to high-tech communications. And that the tape is audio, rather than video, means fewer people and less security were required to produce it.

Nevertheless, it shows he still can communicate, many note.

And he may be trying to display his flexibility, testing to see if he can appeal to a new, broader audience of anti-war constituencies in Europe and the United States, Jenkins said: "Classic left-wing stuff."

"It is a pitch to the streets," Jenkins said. "This is good late '60s imperialist rhetoric."

European leaders, including those of Iraq war opponents France and Germany, rejected bin Laden's overture under the policy of no negotiations with terrorists. Many Europeans said they viewed the tape simply as an attempt to drive a wedge between the United States and its European allies by exploiting differences over Iraq.

Samer Shehata at Georgetown's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies said governments want to avoid being seen as negotiating with al Qaeda.

"I have a hard time accepting the fact that he believes Europeans will view him as anything other than fundamentally bad," Shehata said.

By Katherine Pfleger Shrader