CAIRO, Egypt — Osama bin Laden, addressing the American public ahead of presidential elections, said in a video aired Friday that the United States can avoid another Sept. 11 attack if it stops threatening the security of Muslims.
Reading a statement, the al-Qaida leader refrained from threats of new attacks and instead appealed to Americans.
"Your security is not in the hands of Kerry, Bush or al-Qaida. Your security is in your own hands," bin Laden said, referring to the president and his Democratic opponent. "Each state that does not mess with our security, has naturally guaranteed its own security."
Admitting for the first time that he ordered the Sept. 11 attacks, bin Laden said he did so because of injustices against the Lebanese and Palestinians by Israel and the United States.
It was the first footage in more than a year of the fugitive al-Qaida leader, thought to be hiding in the mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The video, broadcast on Al-Jazeera television, showed bin Laden with a long gray beard, wearing traditional white robes, a turban and a golden cloak, standing behind a table with papers and in front of a plain, brown curtain.
He gestured and his hands were steady as he spoke.
The FBI and Justice Department had no immediate assessment of the tape. Officials said one part of their analysis will be to discern whether there may be hidden messages or clues about a possible future attack against the United States. But they said it was too early to know that yet.
There was no way to determine when the tape was made — but it offered evidence that bin Laden was alive and actively following events. Sen. John Kerry emerged as the Democratic candidate in the spring.
Bin Laden said he wanted to explain why he ordered the suicide airline hijackings that hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon so Americans would know how to avoid "another disaster."
"To the U.S. people, my talk is to you about the best way to avoid another disaster," he said. "I tell you: security is an important element of human life and free people do not give up their security."
He accused President Bush of misleading Americans by saying the attack was carried out because al-Qaida "hates freedom." Bin Laden said his followers have left alone countries that do not threaten Muslims.
"We fought you because we are free .... and want to regain freedom for our nation. As you undermine our security we undermine yours," he said.
He said he was first inspired to attack the United States by the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon in which towers and buildings in Beirut were destroyed in the siege of the capital.
"While I was looking at these destroyed towers in Lebanon, it sparked in my mind that the tyrant should be punished with the same and that we should destroy towers in America, so that it tastes what we taste and would be deterred from killing our children and women," he said.
"God knows that it had not occurred to our mind to attack the towers, but after our patience ran out and we saw the injustice and inflexibility of the American-Israeli alliance toward our people in Palestine and Lebanon, this came to my mind," he said.
Bin Laden suggested Bush was slow to react to the Sept. 11 attacks, giving the hijackers more time than they expected. At the time of the attacks, the president was listening to schoolchildren in Florida reading a book.
"It never occurred to us that the commander-in-chief of the American armed forces would leave 50,000 of his citizens in the two towers to face these horrors alone," he said, referring to the number of people who worked at the World Trade Center.
"It appeared to him (Bush) that a little girl's talk about her goat and its butting was more important than the planes and their butting of the skyscrapers. That gave us three times the required time to carry out the operations, thank God," he said.
In planning the attacks, bin Laden said he told Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers, that the strikes had to be carried out "within 20 minutes before Bush and his administration noticed."
The image of bin Laden reading a statement was dramatically different from the few other videos of the al-Qaida leader that have emerged since the Sept. 11 attacks.
In the last videotape, issued Sept. 10, 2003, bin Laden is seen walking through rocky terrain with his top deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, both carrying automatic rifles. In a taped message issued at the same time, bin Laden praises the "great damage to the enemy" on Sept. 11 and mentions five hijackers by name.
In December 2001, the Pentagon released a videotape in which bin Laden is shown at a dinner with associates in Afghanistan on Nov. 9, 2001, saying the destruction of the Sept. 11 attacks exceeded even his "optimistic" calculations.
But in none of his previous messages, audio or video, did bin Laden directly state that he ordered the attacks.
U.S. authorities have long said they believe bin Laden is hiding in a rugged, mountainous tribal region of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan, but there has been no firm evidence of his whereabouts for three years.
The last audiotape purportedly from bin Laden came in April. The speaker on the tape, which CIA analysts said likely was the al-Qaida leader, offered a truce to European nations if they pull troops out of Muslim countries. The tape referred to the March 22 assassination by Israel of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin.
Al-Zawahri, bin Laden's Egyptian deputy, has spoken on three recent audiotapes that emerged on June 11, Sept. 9 and Oct. 1 this year. In the latest, he called on young Muslims to strike the United States and its allies.