- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 29, 2001

Government physicians have viewed the latest Osama bin Laden tape and concluded that his deteriorating appearance is not due to illness, but to the stress of the U.S. manhunt to kill him, a senior official said yesterday.
"He definitely does look tired and grayer and thinner than he did in previous tapes, and we are pleased to say we wiped the smile off his face," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The official also said bin Laden's failure to use his left arm on the latest tape, showed on the Arabic Al-Jazeera satellite network Thursday, has stirred speculation that bin Laden suffered an accident or was hit by a U.S. bomb.
"It could be injured, or he could have tripped and fell over something and had an accident," the official said.
Bin Laden, who is left-handed, does not move his left arm throughout the 33-minute tape. In previous home-produced tapes in the mountains of Afghanistan, the terrorist leader frequently gestures with his dominant arm and has been videotaped carrying his Kalashnikov rifle with it.
The Pentagon has targeted a number of compounds thought to hold al Qaeda leadership since the bombing campaign began in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, although they did not have specific intelligence that bin Laden was at any of the targets.
A U.S. bomb killed al Qaeda's No. 2 operative, Mohammed Atef, in a house south of Kabul in November. The Pentagon did not know Atef was there at the time but learned of his death later from intelligence sources.
The U.S. official said it was "possible" bin Laden had been wounded. But the source said that from Thursday's tape alone government physicians cannot tell whether that is the case.
The Bush administration believes the tape was made in early December, about one week before the Pentagon began intensive bombings of caves in the Tora Bora region with the express purpose of killing bin Laden and his al Qaeda fighters. The tape does not shed light on bin Laden's whereabouts today or whether he is still alive.
The tape has raised new questions about his health because of his worsening appearance and past rumors of medical problems.
The last point of comparison is a tape a follower made of bin Laden in early November in a home near the city of Kandahar as he ate and bragged of the September 11 attacks on America. He appeared relatively healthy and well-fed.
Just a month later, in the latest tape, he is much thinner and grayer, his voice low and struggling at times.
"I was absolutely shocked how much older he looks," said Shireen Hunter, director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Added the U.S. official: "[The doctors] don't think he looks inordinately stressed out. He certainly is more fatalistic and quieter and less demonstrative than he's been in some other tapes."
Bin Laden's whereabouts have become the world's No. 1 question. U.S. military and intelligence officials were certain bin Laden was making a last stand with his fighters in mid-December in the Tora Bora region. But when anti-Taliban forces won the battle, bin Laden was not found.
Since then, officials say he is either dead in an Afghanistan cave, still in hiding in eastern Afghanistan or has made his way to friendly tribal areas in Pakistan. There are no credible reports of bin Laden being in a country besides Afghanistan or Pakistan, a senior official said this week. One official said there is no credible intelligence report that bin Laden is dead.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf said last weekend he believes bin Laden is dead.
Gen. Mohammed Fahim, Afghanistan's interim defense minister, told Reuters yesterday that bin Laden is probably in Pakistan's northwestern city of Peshawar, a hotbed of radical Islamic thought. A spokesman for Gen. Fahim previously had said bin Laden was granted safe haven by a radical cleric in Pakistan a charge the cleric denied.
The U.S. military believes they heard bin Laden's voice on a tactical radio in Tora Bora around Dec. 11. After al Qaeda fighters were defeated on Dec. 16, most enemy radio traffic stopped, the Pentagon said.

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