When al-Qaida’s media arm released its first Osama Bin Laden video in nearly three years, most of the media attention was focused on Bin Laden's beard. It appeared either dyed — or perhaps even pasted on. He was ridiculed and a variety of theories were offered to explain it.
But now, there is a running debate among video analysts about whether al-Qaida faked the video altogether —that rather than being new, the September 7 message may have been something recorded at the same time as his last video in October 2004 (and then released with new audio).
The point of departure for the debate is something not noted at the time: that of the 25 minutes of video tape, only three and a half minutes, were moving video. The rest was covered by a still image or a frozen still. Moreover, the still covered the only time references on the 25 minute of tape— references to political developments in Iraq, Britain and France. This lead to the suspicion that the video is not new, but disguised to appear as new.
A senior U.S. intelligence official says they believe the message is authentic, adding “it remains our view that the September 7 Bin Laden video is, in fact, new… interesting but not compelling.”
The leading proponent of the theory is a computer scientist and self-described hacker Dr. Neal Krawetz of Colorado. Krawetz, who makes his living a computer security consultant, tells NBC News in interviews and e-mails that the similarities between the October 29, 2004 tape and the September 7, 2007 tape are too great to be coincidental.
“Here is Bin Laden in the same clothing, same studio, same studio setup, and same desk THREE YEARS LATER,” wrote Krawetz in his blog, hackerfactor.org, and in an interview with NBC News. “In fact, his stack of papers that he reads are moved between the exact same stacks. If you overlay the 2007 video with the 2004 video, his face has not changed in three years -- only his beard is darker.”
What’s his theory on the beard color? “The contrast on the picture has been adjusted.” He notes it’s not the just the beard that is darker. Bin Laden’s eye sockets are darker as well. Krawetz does not think that the beard color has been digitally manipulated however. According to his e-mail: “As far as my tools can detect, there has been no image manipulation of the Bin Laden portion of the image beyond contrast adjustment. His beard really does appear to be that color.”
”What are the chances of nothing changing (except his beard) in three years? Virtually zero. The clips appear to have been recorded three years ago,” adds Krawetz.
Krawetz does not believe that al-Qaida used the exact same video it did in 2004. Instead, he suspects that al-Qaida had recorded much more video than it released in 2004. There may have even been two sittings. “The main thing I am getting at: I am not saying that they are the same recording,” he said. “I believe they recorded a speech, changed a little, and then recorded some more. (Under this same theory, they may have done it many times and AQ just has not released other videos yet).”
“I am saying the two videos were likely made either on the same day or within days of each other.”
There are indeed slight differences but Krawetz says they are easily explained.
“The ‘graybeard’ (video) had the yellow tunic unzipped (unbuttoned?) while ‘blackbeard’ is zipped up at the bottom. This actually makes sense under the theory that these are two different recordings taking on the same day (or within the same few days),” Krawetz wrote in an e-mail.
For Krawetz, Bin Laden's clothing says a lot. “If you were on the run through mountains on foot, would you be carrying around unnecessary clothing? No. You would only take the essentials. A fancy shirt and yellow (tunic) are not essential for mountain life on the run. If, in the future, you find that you need a nice shirt and sweater, you would get new ones!”
Hany Farid, a digital forensics researcher at Dartmouth College, did his own analysis of the videos for NBC News and disagrees with Krawetz. He suggests that while there are “quirky” aspects to the video, he doesn’t think there is a clear case that the two videos were made at the same time and are certainly not the same video used twice.
“I think it's extremely unlikely these are actually the same video,” says Farid. “I know that there's people out there who are saying that it's probably a copy, but I think in what we have seen so far, that is probably not the case. There are just too many differences between the videos, both at the visual level and at sort of a mathematical level.”
“We haven't done a complete analysis, but our initial analysis says that this is probably just simply one long video that has been edited down,” referring to the 2007 video.
And Farid does agree with Krawetz that there has been no digital manipulation of Bin Laden’s beard color, but has no explanation for it.
“There has been a lot of talk about that, and the answer is no, we did not find any manipulation there.” Said Farid, “From a purely digital forensics point of view, we don't have any problem with that part of video.”
The key for Farid is not the beard, but the audio. There would be audio differences if they were recorded at different points in time, and Farid says his analysis didn’t detect that.
“In our initial investigation, it seems that the acoustic background that we hear is actually consistent throughout the tape, so it doesn't sound like it actually was spliced together from different audio recordings.”
Farid does admit without intelligence information, there are things he does not understand.
“The 2007 video that just was released is a little quirky,” he said. “You see the video start for few minutes— he's talking, he's moving a little bit and then the video freezes, you see a still frame for a good 10, 15 minutes. He moves again a little bit, and then it's a still frame.”
“It has been argued that the only time there are mentions of current events are during still frames, when Bin Laden is not actually moving. To suggest that he is perhaps dead — and this video is actually a fake— I don't think that you can necessarily draw that conclusion from the video. I suspect that there are simpler arguments, like when you're editing video, you often have to make cuts and breaks. Or they could have had only one shot at the shoot.”
Mo Chen consults and participates in digital forensics research at Binghamton University in New York. He says the discussion is technically limited by the bad quality of the 2004 video and he is unwilling to support either side in the debate.
“If we only look at the videos, it's possible that 2007 video is captured from before the 2004 videos. Our problem right now is that the 2004 Bin Laden video quality is too poor. So this limits our research,” said Chen.
Chen adds that the lack of any clear “fingerprint” from a digital camera on the video is a major problem. He agrees that this may not be accidental.
“There might be due to the technical reason, but it is true that it might be intentional— [that] they don't want people to find any trace [of the ‘fingerprint’] from the videos.”
The CIA will not say what it thinks about the possibility, but a senior U.S. intelligence official tells NBC News the U.S. believes the tape is new. He would not discuss the reasons why intelligence analysts feel that way. Another even more senior intelligence official dismissed the possibility that that beard is fake, but would not discuss the reason for the darkened beard.
Despite the debate over the most recent Bin Laden video, there is no debate among private analysts or intelligence officials about the increasing use of digital editing, in some cases sophisticated editing in the videos released by al-Qaida.
Krawetz said there is no evidence of video editing on the scale seen in the videos of his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri.
Krawetz noted in one recent video, Zawahiri was featured in what appeared to be a library, complete with a desk, a banner, a bookshelf and even a toy cannon mounted on the bookshelf.
All of it, Krawetz said, was created digitally using software like 3DStudio. Even the lettering on the banner was added separately. The software permits the creation of wire frame images that can be inserted over a green screen.
“They use multiple overlays,” said Krawetz. “I suspect they have a portable green screen or black fabric they use for the shoot, then edit the video with multiple overlays,” all of which can be seen in a forensic analysis of the video.
“You can tell the number of times it was layered and the order in which the layers were added,” Krawetz added. And a close examination can even determine whether the “green screen” has wrinkles in it. Krawetz said he has noticed the same wrinkle in several Zawahiri videos.
None of the software they use is particularly expensive, says Krawetz. The most basic software, from Adobe or Microsoft, can yield the required effects. (Evan Kohlmann, the NBC News counter terrorism analyst, says most of the software is probably pirated, that every major jihadi site has a download section filled with software from companies as big as Microsoft or Adobe.) Nor is the editing time-consuming, especially since digital editing is now so common in al-Qaida videos.
Why the subterfuge? Some of it may just be for production value… making what would be a boring background more interesting. But in the case of Bin Laden and Zawahiri, showing them in stable office-like locations has propaganda value. They’re not living in caves or even mud huts, but comfortably, in well-appointed surroundings.