Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Indian Muslims, Internet gurus, television anchors, and at least one prime minister have said that [Osama] bin Laden has kidney trouble.

So where is the evidence? In short, there is no evidence, just a lot of chatter.

There is only one presumably well-informed source who has gone on the record to say that bin Laden was on dialysis: Pakistani Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf. And he later changed his mind.

At first, Gen. Pervez Musharraf seemed to strongly endorse the notion, in January 2002. “I think now, frankly, he is dead for the reason he is a patient, he is a kidney patient,” he told CNN. Gen. Musharraf added, “Pakistan knew bin Laden took two dialysis machines into Afghanistan. One was specifically for his own personal use.”

Over the next few years, bin Laden would appear alive and well in a string of audio and video tapes. In December 2004, when Gen. Musharraf again sat down with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, he all but reversed himself.

In fact, there is a mountain of evidence that bin Laden is not on dialysis.

No medical report has been produced that shows bin Laden is on dialysis. No reporter who has actually met bin Laden has seen the archterrorist hooked up to a dialysis machine or heard him talk about it. Robert Fisk, the only Western journalist to interview bin Laden three times, makes no mention of dialysis.

Peter Bergen led a CNN team into Afghanistan to interview bin Laden in 1997. Bin Laden appeared healthy and strong; neither the reporters nor bin Laden mentioned dialysis or kidney trouble.

Even bin Laden’s longtime associates dispute the kidney ailment meme. Saudi newspaper editor Khaled Batarfi has known bin Laden for two decades, ever since the two were neighbors in the Saudi port city of Jeddah. He told the Sunday Tasmanian, an Australian newspaper, that bin Laden “does not suffer from kidney disease.”

Foreign government officials who have met bin Laden also insist that he has no problems with his kidneys. Bin Laden lived in Sudan from 1991 to May 1996. I interviewed political leaders and intelligence officials there who knew him. Gutbi al-Mahdi, Sudan’s former intelligence chief, told me bin Laden had no health problems during his time in Sudan. In fact, every Sudanese I spoke with denied that bin Laden had any health problems, let alone a kidney ailment requiring dialysis.

Bin Laden himself is of the same opinion. Hamid Mir, an intrepid Pakistani journalist who writes for the Pakistani daily Dawn, landed one of the only two authentic post?September 11 interviews with the world’s most wanted man.

In the course of the wide-ranging interview, Mr. Mir asked bin Laden about his kidneys: “A French newspaper has claimed that you have a kidney problem and have secretly gone to Dubai for treatment last year [2000]. Is that correct?”

Bin Laden responded: “My kidneys are all right. I did not go to Dubai last year. One British newspaper has published an imaginary interview with an Islamabad dateline with one of my sons in Saudi Arabia. All this is false.”

Perhaps the definitive account comes from bin Laden’s doctor, who was arrested on October 21, 2002, in Pakistan and held incommunicado for a full month. “It was a very extensive investigation, eight hours a day,” he said. “It went on and on.” He added, “I was not physically tortured; there was just mental anguish.”

Dr. Amer Aziz, a British citizen born in Pakistan, was interrogated by eight CIA and FBI agents, as well as by Pakistani intelligence officers. Strongly sympathetic to radical Islam, Aziz had treated bin Laden for years. He reportedly admitted to visiting bin Laden after the September 11 attacks. Upon his release, he talked freely to Paul Haven of the Associated Press in November 2002. The doctor said he had given bin Laden a “complete physical” in 1999 and treated him for back injuries after bin Laden was thrown from a horse. “His kidneys were fine,” the doctor told Mr. Haven. He said “If you’re on dialysis, you have a special look. I didn’t see any of that,” and added that bin Laden “was walking. He was healthy.” Aziz was emphatic: “I did not see any evidence of kidney disease; I didn’t see any evidence of dialysis.”

Aziz later discussed the dialysis issue with the New York Times. “When I hear these reports, I laugh. I did not see any evidence.”

He has good reason to laugh — legions of Westerners have bought the story that bin Laden is on dialysis, with no proof at all.

Richard Miniter is the author of two New York Times bestselling books, “Losing bin Laden” and “Shadow War,” and is an internationally recognized expert on terrorism.

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