- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 24, 2006

LONDON — A leaked intelligence report of Osama bin Laden’s death has met skepticism from Western and Muslim governments, but may increase a clamor from his followers to show himself on video for the first time in nearly two years.

One theory surrounding the mysterious French leak is that it was designed to flush the al Qaeda leader into the open, prompting him to release a new tape that might give a clue to his location and health.

“Western intelligence, the Americans, the Saudis want bin Laden to appear,” said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamist groups at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

“Perhaps they’re trying to agitate him to appear by video to try to fix some information about his real” location.

Mr. Rashwan said expectations of an imminent appearance by bin Laden had mounted among contributors to Islamist Web sites discussing the report of his demise.

The French regional daily L’Est Republicain quoted France’s DGSE foreign-intelligence agency as saying the Saudi secret services were convinced that the al Qaeda leader had died of typhoid in Pakistan in late August.

But France, the United States and Britain all said they were unable to confirm the death of bin Laden. Saudi Arabia said yesterday that it had no evidence he had died and that reports to that effect were “purely speculative.”

Bin Laden’s most recent audiotapes were issued in July, but the al Qaeda leader, thought to suffer from a serious kidney ailment, has not recorded a new message since the eve of the U.S. presidential election in late 2004.

That long absence from view — contrasting with frequent, high-quality videos from his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri — has heightened speculation that he is either too ill to appear or too tightly confined to a secret hiding place.

A new tape would give Western intelligence significant clues to bin Laden’s physical state. And the logistical chain involved in producing and delivering it to a broadcaster such as Al Jazeera could also be vulnerable to investigation.

More likely, perhaps, is that the French leak is just the latest of many speculative and poorly sourced scraps of intelligence on bin Laden, the world’s most famous fugitive.

The latest account said he had died from typhoid. Others have had him expiring from a lung disease or killed by bombing. Despite a statement last year from then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss that he had an “excellent” idea of bin Laden’s whereabouts, the trail appears to be cold.

“The big question is whether his death … would have a demoralizing effect, or if he achieves the status of martyr and becomes a rallying figure,” one U.S. intelligence official said over the weekend.



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