CAIRO -- Osama bin Laden allegedly said in an audiotape yesterday that Zacarias Moussaoui -- the only person convicted in the United States for the Sept. 11 attacks -- had nothing to do with the operation.
``He had no connection at all with Sept. 11," the speaker, claiming to be bin Laden, said in the tape posted on the Internet.
``I am the one in charge of the 19 brothers, and I never assigned brother Zacarias to be with them in that mission," he said, referring to the 19 hijackers.
The Al Qaeda chief said the Sept. 11 hijackers were divided into two groups, ``pilots and assistants."
``Since Zacarias Moussaoui was still learning how to fly, he wasn't No. 20 in the group, as your government has claimed," bin Laden said. ``It knows this very well."
Bin Laden said Moussaoui was not a security risk for Al Qaeda, because he did not have knowledge of the plot.
``Brother Moussaoui was arrested two weeks before the events, and if he had known something -- even very little -- about the Sept. 11 group, we would have informed the leader of the operation, Mohammad Atta, and the others . . . to leave America before being discovered," bin Laden said.
Bin Laden said Moussaoui's confession -- that he helped plan the attacks -- was ``void," calling it the result of ``pressures exercised against him during 4 1/2 years" in US prison.
It was not clear which confession bin Laden was referring to by Moussaoui, who frequently trumpeted his claim that he was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. But his defense lawyers cast doubt on his claims, saying he only wanted to be sentenced to death to become a martyr.
Moussaoui, a 37-year-old Frenchman and admitted Al Qaeda member, was sentenced to life in prison earlier this month after a jury ruled that he was responsible for at least one death on Sept. 11.
Two counterterrorism officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said US intelligence is aware of the bin Laden message. One of the officials said there is no reason to doubt its authenticity.
That official said the message is part of bin Laden's continuing effort to demonstrate he is a relevant extremist leader, who is knowledgeable of current events. The official said the message was made for propaganda purposes, and it does not contain any threats.
The audio message, which is less than five minutes long, was transmitted with a still photo of bin Laden.
If authentic, it would be the third by bin Laden this year.