Osama bin Laden will release a video ahead of the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in what would provide the first new images of the terror mastermind in nearly three years, al-Qaida’s media arm announced Thursday.
Analysts noted that al-Qaida tends to mark the Sept. 11 anniversary with a slew of messages, and the Department of Homeland Security said it had no credible information warning of an imminent threat to the United States.
Still, bin Laden’s appearance would be significant. The al-Qaida leader has not appeared in new video footage since October 2004, and he has not put out a new audiotape in more than a year, his longest period without a message.
One difference in his appearance was immediately obvious. The announcement had a still photo from the coming video, showing bin Laden addressing the camera, his beard fully black. In his past videos, bin Laden’s beard was almost entirely gray with dark streaks.
Bin Laden’s beard appears to have been dyed, a popular practice among Arab leaders, said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Institute, a Washington-based group that monitors terror messages.
“I think it works for their (al-Qaida’s) benefit that he looks young, he looks healthy,” Katz said.
The announcement and photo appeared in a banner advertisement on an Islamic militant Web site where al-Qaida’s media arm, Al-Sahab, frequently posts messages.
“Soon, God willing, a videotape from the lion sheik Osama bin Laden, God preserve him,” the advertisement read, signed by Al-Sahab. Such announcements are usually put out one to three days before the video is posted on the Web.
Video expected before 9/11
IntelCenter, which monitors Islamic Web sites and analyzes terror threats, said the video was expected within the next 72 hours, before the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide hijacker attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The anniversary has always been a major media event for al-Qaida — a chance for it to drum up support among extremists, tout itself as the leading militant group and show off its continued survival.
“They’ve always gone out of their way to commemorate it,” said Ben Venzke, chief executive officer of IntelCenter, which is based in Alexandria, Va. “Historically the anniversary of 9/11 has never been drawn to attacks. It’s drawn to video releases.”
But the fact that bin Laden is delivering the message is significant, he said. Whether the message will indicate a potential attack will depend on what bin Laden says.
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said he could not confirm the existence of a tape, “and there is no credible information at this time warning of an imminent threat to the homeland.” But he said increased activity overseas and recent arrests of militants in Germany reinforce the department’s assessment that the country is in a period of increased risk.
First video in nearly 3 years
If bin Laden does appear in new footage, it would be the first images of him since an Oct. 29, 2004, videotape, just before the U.S. presidential elections. In that appearance three years ago, he said America could avoid another 9/11 style attack if it stopped threatening Muslims.
The new video would also end the longest period bin Laden has gone without releasing a message. His last audiotape was on July 1, 2006, in which he welcomed a new leader of al-Qaida in Iraq succeeding the slain Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Bin Laden went silent for a similar long stretch before — from Dec. 28, 2004, to Jan. 19, 2006. That absence sparked widespread speculation he was ill, wounded or dead.
There has been little such speculation since then. U.S. officials have repeatedly said over the past year they believe the al-Qaida leader is alive. He is thought to be hiding in the tribal regions of western Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan.
During bin Laden’s silence, his deputy, Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahri, has been frequently issuing videos and audiotapes.
Al-Zawahri appeared in a 2006 video marking the 9/11 anniversary. An anniversary video in 2003 showed footage of bin Laden and al-Zawahri walking through mountain paths, with voice-over messages from both leaders.