WASHINGTON - Osama bin Laden contentedly recalled the Sept. 11 attacks against America on a videotape released today by the Pentagon, saying the destruction exceeded his estimates and the events "benefited Islam greatly."
"I was the most optimistic of them all" in calculating the possible destruction, bin Laden said with eerie detachment. He said he had reckoned that burning jet fuel would "melt the iron structure" of the World Trade Center twin towers, but only above the point of impact.
The hijackings were a martyrdom operation, bin Laden said in a conversation with two aides and a Saudi sheik, but those who carried them out didn't know the details until just before they boarded the planes.
The sheik, identified by a U.S. official as Saudi cleric Sheik Sulayman, praised bin Laden for "a great job" and appeared to suggest additional attacks may be planned. "No doubt it is a clear victory ... and he (Allah) will give us blessing and more victory during this holy month of Ramadan," he said.
Most American Muslims will celebrate the ending of Ramadan on Sunday.
Bin Laden, often chuckling and animated, sat with his companions on the floor near the corner of a spare room against a white wall and a light brown wall. He turned mirthful as the discussion turned to dreams uncannily related to the attacks.
The tape, amateurish in quality but chilling nonetheless, was released as part of an administration effort to support claims that bin Laden was the mastermind behind the attacks that killed nearly 3,300 in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. The translation of the Arabic conversation was provided by the administration.
President Bush "has known all along that Osama bin Laden was behind this," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, referring to the terrorist attacks. "It came as no surprise to the president."
The Pentagon issued a separate statement saying it released the tape after balancing "concerns about any additional pain that could be caused by its release against the value of having the world fully appreciate what we are up against in the war against terrorism."
The tape was released as American warplanes intensified bombing runs aimed at members of bin Laden's al-Qaida network struggling for survival in the mountainous terrain of eastern Afghanistan.
Bin Laden's whereabouts is unknown -- a $25 million reward has been posted for information leading to his capture. "We think he's in Afghanistan. We are chasing him. He is hiding. He does not want us to know where he is," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Weeks ago, administration officials appealed to American broadcast outlets not to air videotapes made by bin Laden, fearing they might contain coded messages to his followers to carry out additional attacks.
The tape released during the day had a home quality to it, punctuated by background noises and occasional coughing -- markedly different from the propaganda-style effort prepared by bin Laden's associates earlier.
In it, bin Laden discussed some of the planning that led to the attacks, and recalled tuning in to the radio to hear American news broadcasts of the event.
"They were overjoyed when the first plane hit the building," he said of others listening with him that day. "So I said to them: Be patient."
Administration officials have said the tape was found in a house in Jalalabad after anti-Taliban forces moved in, but declined to provide additional details. It bears a date stamp that says it was made Nov. 9, the day the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif fell to the rebel northern alliance.
On the tape, shortly after bin Laden enters the room, the sheik thanked him. "You have given us weapons, you have given us hope and we thank Allah for you."
"Everybody praises what you did, the great action you did, which was first and foremost by the grace of Allah," the sheik continued. "This is the guidance of Allah and the blessed fruit of Jihad."
"Thanks to Allah," replied bin Laden.
The sheik informed bin Laden that another cleric had delivered a sermon in Saudi Arabia Sept. 11. "He said this was jihad and those people were not innocent victims," the sheik said, apparently referring to the victims of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
References to jihad, or holy war, and Allah run throughout the videotape, with and bin Laden at one point expressing satisfaction that at one location in Holland, "The number of people who accepted Islam during the days that followed the operations were more than ... in the last 11 years."
Moments later, he said, "This event made people think (about true Islam) which benefited Islam greatly."
Bin Laden also went into some detail in discussing some of the events leading up to the suicide hijackings.
"We calculated in advance the number of casualties who would be killed based on the position of the tower," he said.
"We calculated that the floors that would be hit would be three or four floors. I was the most optimistic of them all. ... Due to my experience in this field, I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit, and all the floors above it only. This is all that we had hoped for," he said, gesturing with one hand horizontally striking his other hand, held vertically, as if a plane hitting a building.
As for the men who carried out the attacks, he said, "we did not reveal" the plan until "just before they boarded the planes."
"The brothers who conducted the operation, all they knew was that they have a martyrdom operation and we asked each of them to go to America, but they didn't know anything about the operation, not even one letter," bin Laden said, according to the U.S. translation.
"But they were trained and we did not reveal the operation to them until they are there and just before the boarded the plane," he added.
A man identified in the transcript as Muhammad (Atta) ...was in charge of the group," the transcript quotes bin Laden as saying.
In Cairo, Atta's father, Mohamed al-Amir al-Sayed Awad Atta, angrily disputed that.
He said he had not watched the tape, but said, "All this is a forgery, a fabrication!"