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Tea leaves and videotape

Does a newly released videotape of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden tell us anything about his fate? Does his emaciated image give credence to rumors that he has died of natural causes? Analysis by Michael Moran.

Does a newly released video tape of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden tell us anything about his fate? Does his emaciated image give credence to rumors that he has died of natural causes? And why would the tape contain a new denial of involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks when he clearly admitted prior knowledge in an earlier tape? Intelligence analysts are poring over the new tape to answer these and other questions.

IT WOULD be reasonable for the average person to wonder what the United States could possibly learn from a videotape of bin Laden apparently made at least two weeks ago in a location carefully concealed by a brown cloth backdrop. Yet so intense is the focus on locating the suspected terrorist mastermind - or at least discovering his fate - that even rambling, now outdated images are considered significant. If nothing else, the tape tells intelligence officials this much: bin Laden apparently survived the initial stages of the war and had lived at least until the Dec. 11 third month anniversary of the attacks.

Nothing about that fact conflicts with what U.S. intelligence agencies had suspected before this latest tape was broadcast Thursday by bin Laden’s favorite outlet, the Arabic-language al-Jazeera satellite television news network. But the tape’s appearance at a time when even the most confident American officials are hedging on vows to get him “dead or alive” could lend credence to various theories about bin Laden’s fate.


Unofficial reports about bin Laden’s fate change daily. From the moment bombing began on Oct. 7, a variety of sources began leaking information to Western reporters on the alleged movements of the al-Qaida chief. One said he had slipped into Somalia, another to Iraqi Kurdistan and another to Kashmir. Still others had him in Chechnya.

All through this speculation, American officials took pains to insist the al-Qaida leader remained in hiding within Afghanistan’s borders. During the weekend of Dec. 8-9, U.S. officials said they believed they had bin Laden “penned in” around Tora Bora, and once source reported that the al-Qaida leader had been heard directing troops by radio. “Trapped,” “surrounded” and “end-game’ were used to describe the events that followed. By last week, however, as the Tora Bora bombardments gave way to a search of the caves by local militias, U.S. officials acknowledged they had lost bin Laden’s scent.

Since then, speculation has run rampant, all from suspect sources.

An Islamabad newspaper, Al-Akhbar, carried an unsourced report last week saying bin Laden’s own men had shot him during a retreat from Kandahar to ensure that he became a martyr. The newspaper is pro-Taliban.

Afghanistan’s new Defense Ministry spokesman, a man who would like to be able to tell his forces to stop searching caves and concentrate on rebuilding the nation, suggested on Thursday that bin Laden might now be in Pakistan, sheltered by pro-Taliban groups there.

Pakistan’s ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, understandably hoping to put an early end to bin Laden hunting that has now crossed into his territory, claims he is reasonably sure bin Laden is dead in the rubble of one of Tora Bora’s caves.

Yet another report this week, in the English-language on Christmas Day, quoted an anonymous “Taliban leader” as saying that bin Laden had died of natural causes in mid-December. A diversionary tactic, perhaps?


Given the enormous uncertainty about bin Laden’s whereabouts, American officials were downplaying the importance of the newly released tape. White House spokesman Scott McClellan dismissed it as “nothing more than the same kind of terrorist propaganda we’ve heard before.” U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reminded reporters that “Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida have gotten up day after day since Oct. 7 and told lies about what has been known.”

In effect, the official U.S. position remains that bin Laden’s release of such tapes is a continuing effort to incite violence within the Islamic world. Indeed, the usual rationales were all there — the sanctions against Iraq, U.S. troops on Saudi Arabia’s “holy soil” and Israel. “Our terrorism is against America. Our terrorism is a blessed terrorism to prevent the unjust person from committing injustice and to stop American support for Israel, which kills our sons,” bin Laden said, according to one translation.

Still, intelligence agencies will scrutinize several things about the tape for hints about bin Laden’s fate.

Bin Laden’s health: Bin Laden’s previous videotapes had mostly pictured the terrorist chief from something of a distance — a full body shot or badly lit scene that obscured the minute details of his face. The current video, in contrast, is harshly lit and reveals what some physicians suggest is a very ill man. While primitive lighting can make even the healthiest person look pallid, bin Laden also appeared as if he had lost a great deal of weight.

Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology department at George Washington University, told the NBC News “Today” show that “He really looks quite haggard and, indeed, ill.” This may bolster the theory that he died of cancer in mid-December.

Bin Laden’s motives: At least one intelligence analyst suggested that, even if nothing about bin Laden’s fate is suggested by this new tape, the timing and information in it could be meant as damage control of sorts.

“I don’t think bin Laden expected the war to play out this way,” the analyst said, requesting anonymity, “and the home video needed to be corrected.” The , of course, was the tape of a meeting between bin Laden and aides at which he bragged of having prior knowledge of the attacks. Some in the Islamic world attempted to discredit that tape as a CIA fabrication, but U.S. officials believe the tape was widely accepted as the truth across the world.

Bin Laden’s whereabouts: Nothing in the tape itself suggests a location. Unlike previous tapes, which showed cave walls or a room as the backdrop, this latest tape is filmed against a neutral brown drop cloth. What is known, however, is that the tape itself arrived at al-Jazeera’s headquarters in the Gulf emirate of Qatar via air courier from Pakistan. This could mean the tape was carried by an al-Qaida fighter who, like thousands of others, slipped across the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border in recent weeks and then mailed it to al-Jazeera. But it might also bolster the theory being championed by some that bin Laden is in friendly areas of Pakistan, where both the Taliban and al-Qaida find their most fervent support.

Bin Laden’s plans: Ever since the appearance of the first videotape on Oct. 7, the same day as the start of the American bombardment, American officials have feared that bin Laden’s rambling diatribes might be used as a kind of 21st-century Trojan horse to carry orders to far flung al-Qaida cells. For that reason, U.S. news networks have broadcast only portions of these tapes, and even then have taken pains to review them before they hit the air.

There are hints in this latest videotape that bin Laden may realize that, for whatever reason, his days are numbered. One of the most chilling moments in the latest tape comes when bin Laden, Kalishnikov at his side, states that “with God’s help, the end of America is near ... whether Osama is dead or alive.”

What code words may have been broadcast with those statements? Or, for instance, was the tape made in anticipation of another terrorist act in the meantime? The plot to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami last Saturday was foiled, but if Richard Reid’s sneaker bombs had ignited, this latest and possibly last bin Laden tape might be viewed more gravely.

So far, no one has suggested there is any evidence that secret codes are being transmitted in the tapes, though officials don’t rule that out either. But caution appears to be the watchword. This particular tape may shed no light on his whereabouts. In the final analysis, though, most officials agree finding bin Laden matters a lot less than foiling his next bit of “benign terrorism.”