CAIRO, Egypt (Agencies) – Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden accused Pope Benedict XVI of helping in a “new Crusade” against Islam and warned in a new audiotape of a “severe” reaction for Europeans’ publication of cartoons seen by Muslims as insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
The message raised concerns al-Qaeda was plotting new attacks in Europe. Some experts said bin Laden, believed to be in hiding in the Afghan-Pakistan border area, may be unable to organize such an attack himself and instead was trying to fan anger over the cartoons to inspire violence by supporters.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said bin Laden’s accusation that Pope Benedict XVI has played a role in a worldwide campaign against Islam is “baseless.”
Lombardi said the pope on several occasions has criticized the cartoons, first published in several European papers in 2006 then republished in Danish papers in February.
Benedict raised widespread anger in the Muslim world with a 2006 speech in which he cited a medieval text that characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman,” particularly “his command to spread by the sword the faith.” The pope later said he was “deeply sorry” about the reactions his remarks sparked and stressed that they did not reflect his own opinions, and since he has led a public campaign for dialogue with Muslims.
Bin Laden’s audiotape was posted late Wednesday on a militant Web site that has carried al-Qaeda statements in the past and bore the logo of the extremist group’s media wing Al-Sahab. An old, still image of bin Laden aiming with an assault rifle was posted along with the message.
“The response will be what you see and not what you hear and let our mothers bereave us if we do not make victorious our messenger of God,” said a voice believed to be bin Laden’s, without specifying what action would be taken.
“You went overboard in your unbelief and freed yourselves of the etiquettes of dispute and fighting and went to the extent of publishing these insulting drawings,” he said. “This is the greater and more serious tragedy, and reckoning for it will be more severe.”
He said the cartoons “came in the framework of a new Crusade in which the Pope of the Vatican has played a large, lengthy role,” according to a transcript released by the SITE Institute, a U.S. group that monitors terror messages.
The five-minute message, bin Laden’s first this year, made no mention of the fifth anniversary Wednesday of the U.S.-led invasion in Iraq.
It came as the Muslim world marks the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday Thursday and amid the reigniting of a two-year-old controversy over Danish cartoons deemed by Muslims to be insulting.
On Feb. 13, Danish newspapers republished one of the cartoons, which shows Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban, to illustrate their commitment to freedom of speech after police said they had uncovered a plot to kill the artist.
Danish intelligence service said the reprinting of the cartoon had brought “negative attention” to Denmark and may have increased the risk to Danes at home and abroad. The original 12 cartoons first published in a Danish newspaper, then in several papers across Europe, triggered major protests in Muslim countries in 2006. There have been renewed protests in the last month, though not as large or widespread and with little violence. Muslims widely saw the cartoons as an insult, depicting the prophet as violent.
Islamic law generally opposes any depiction of the prophet, even favorable, for fear it could lead to idolatry. Ben Venzke, the head of IntelCenter, a U.S. group that monitors militant messages, called Wednesday’s video a “clear threat against EU member countries and an indicator of a possible upcoming significant attack.”
Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and security analyst, said bin Laden was likely too isolated to organize an attack. But the al- Qaeda leader may be hoping to use anger over the cartoons to inspire violence, he said. “Even if he has not got the capacity (to launch an attack), he will try to infuse hatred. He is trying to whip up the anguish and anger in the Islamic world and capitalize on that. He is lending his support to that movement and saying, ‘We are with you,'” Masood said.
Last year, a U.S. national intelligence estimate warned that al-Qaeda had been able to regroup in Pakistan’s tribal regions after the government hatched peace deals with Taliban militants which later collapsed. slamic extremists have expanded their sway in the past year in the lawless border region with Afghanistan. Taliban militants, some with links to al-Qaeda, are blamed for a growing campaign of violence that has spread from the northwest to major cities nationwide, mostly targeting security forces.
Bin Laden also criticized the “aggressive policies” of President Bush. “How it saddens us that you target our villages with your bombing: those modest mud villages which have collapsed onto our women and children. You do that intentionally, and I am witness to that,” he said, addressing Europeans, according to SITE. “All of this (you do) without right and in conformity with your oppressive ally who, along with his aggressive policies, is about to depart the White House.”
On Wednesday, Bush praised Sunni tribal leaders for rising up against al-Qaeda in Iraq and said that has led to similar uprising across the country. All that, combined with a strategic influx of U.S. troops last year, has “opened the door to a major victory in the broader war on terror,” Bush said.
“Iraq was supposed to be the place where al-Qaeda rallied Arab masses to drive America out,” Bush said. “Instead, Iraq has become the place where Arabs joined with Americans to drive al-Qaeda out. In Iraq, we are witnessing the first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden, his grim ideology.”