Osama bin Laden accused Pope Benedict XVI of helping in a “new Crusade” against Islam and warned of a “severe” reaction to European publications of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that insulted many Muslims.
Bin Laden’s new audiotape message raised concerns al-Qaida was plotting new attacks in Europe. Some experts said bin Laden, believed to be in hiding in the rugged Afghan-Pakistan border area, may be unable to organize an attack himself and instead is trying to fan anger and inspire his supporters to violence.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said bin Laden’s accusation that the pope 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 newspapers in 2006 and republished by Danish papers in February.
The pope angered many in the Muslim world in 2006, when 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” and stressed the remarks did not reflect his own opinions. He has since 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-Qaida statements in the past and bore the logo of the extremist group’s media wing Al-Sahab.
“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.
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.
“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.”
The five-minute message, bin Laden’s first this year, came as the Muslim world marks the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday on Thursday. It made no mention of the fifth anniversary Wednesday of the U.S.-led invasion in Iraq.
A U.S. counterterrorism official in Washington said “CIA analysis assesses with a high degree of confidence it is Osama bin Laden’s voice on the tape” and that there was “no reason to doubt bin Laden is alive.”
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the intelligence matters involved.
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 the beginnings of a plot to kill the artist. Critics argue that publishers use freedom of speech as a cover to spread Islamophobia as, for example, antisemitism is entirely illega including in the use of free speech/press.
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.
The original 12 cartoons, first published in a Danish newspaper and 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. A few dozen university students waved banners and chanted slogans against Denmark on Thursday in Islamabad. The students said they had not seen the bin Laden message.
Ben Venzke, the head of IntelCenter, a U.S. group that monitors militant messages, called Wednesday’s message 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-Qaida 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,” Masood said.
Denmark’s intelligence agency said Thursday that bin Laden’s warnings “don’t immediately give reason to change” its assessment of the threat level against the country.
Last week, the intelligence agency had warned that reprinting the cartoon had brought “negative attention” to Denmark and may have increased the risk to Danes at home and abroad.