DUBAI Osama bin Laden defied the United States with a new tape praising the "19 champions" who carried out the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings, on the day America remembered the nearly 3,000 people who died.
In a tape released on Tuesday to mark the sixth anniversary of the attacks, bin Laden's voice can be heard introducing the video testament of Waleed al-Shehri, one of two Saudi brothers who helped Mohamed Atta slam the first hijacked plane into New York's World Trade Center.
Al-Shehri was a magnificent young man "who personally penetrated the most extreme degrees of danger and is a rarity among men: one of the 19 champions", the al Qaeda leader said, referring to the number of hijackers.
The tape -- issued four days after bin Laden urged Americans to convert to Islam in his first new video for nearly three years -- followed an al Qaeda pattern of issuing statements and testaments to mark the Sept. 11 attacks and remind Americans that their author is still alive and at large.
"Bin Laden's video tapes (are) aimed to keep the wounds of 9/11 bleeding, to reassure followers that al Qaeda's operational ability has not been degraded by the war on terror, and to incite further attacks on their perceived enemies," said the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a think-tank based in London.
"Al Qaeda is now the strongest that it has been since 9/11," it added in a briefing paper, saying bin Laden's network had managed to regroup in Pakistan and train new recruits.
Bin Laden has long been suspected of hiding somewhere in the virtually impenetrable mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, but Afghanistan's foreign minister told Reuters he was no longer in the country whose former Taliban rulers provided him with sanctuary until 2001.
"I know that he is not in Afghanistan, but I don't have information where he is," Rangeen Dadfar Spanta told Reuters in an interview.
"(Given) the enmity between him and the Afghan population ... because he was the main creator of a terrorist and dictatorship regime against the population of Afghanistan, it is impossible that he can find support among the civilians of Afghanistan."
Nearly 3,000 people died in the hijacked jetliner attacks of 2001 that destroyed the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon and crashed a plane into a Pennsylvania field. The anniversary is often a time of heightened security alerts.
In Turkey, which suffered al Qaeda-backed attacks in 2003 that killed more than 60 people, police said they foiled a bomb attack in the capital Ankara on Tuesday by discovering a van packed with explosives near a multi-storey car park. The city's governor said it was too early to say who was behind it.
In Germany, police and American forces mounted a large operation to secure a U.S. air base after it received a telephoned bomb threat on Monday evening.
BIN LADEN "IMPOTENT"
The new al Qaeda tape did not feature moving images of bin Laden but showed a still photo of him with raised finger, apparently taken from last week's video.
A U.S. intelligence official said the voice appeared genuinely to be that of bin Laden.
While some security analysts say bin Laden's videos may be coded calls for new attacks, White House homeland security adviser Fran Townsend rejected that view and called the al Qaeda leader "virtually impotent".
Hijacker al-Shehri was shown wearing white robes in the video by the network's production arm as-Sahab, which superimposed him on a backdrop featuring a model airplane and an image of New York's burning Twin Towers.
In his testament, he quoted part of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, which he believes commands Muslims to fight infidels.
"The difference between us and you -- O cowards -- is that you fear death and are frightened by it, whereas we hope for it and seek it in God's path."
(additional reporting by Simon Gardner in Kabul and Washington bureau)