CAIRO, Egypt—A French intelligence report that says Osama bin Laden may have died of typhoid in Pakistan last month is causing a stir among al-Qaida trackers who'd already raised concerns about why it's been two years since bin Laden has appeared in a video.
President Jacques Chirac confirmed the existence of the report but stressed that the information in it is "in no way whatsoever confirmed." The United States and several allied governments also cast doubt on the authenticity of the claims, which have been made before and proven erroneous.
News of the al-Qaida chief's possible death surfaced Saturday with a French newspaper's publication of a confidential document from the French foreign intelligence service DGSE that relayed the unconfirmed findings of Saudi agents. The report said Saudi security first received word Sept 4 of bin Laden's alleged death. It was said to have occurred on Aug. 23.
"According to a usually reliable source, Saudi security services are now convinced that Osama bin Laden is dead," said the report published Saturday in the regional newspaper l'Est Republicain.
An American intelligence official, who requested anonymity because the issue is highly classified, said U.S. intelligence analysts consider the report bogus. He said there's "no evidence to support or reason to believe" that bin Laden is dead. He added that U.S. officials were aware of the unconfirmed report before it was made public by the newspaper.
Vincent Cannistraro, a former chief of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center, said he was deeply skeptical of the French report.
"There's no confirmation of the report" from U.S. officials Cannistraro said, adding that the sourcing "appears to be very soft."
He said that if bin Laden had died, U.S. intelligence agencies would have picked up "indicators," such as condolence messages from grieving relatives.
"If someone had really died, there are public grievances by relatives and there is no such thing here," he said. "You can hide things among your followers, but not among your relatives."
Yet even before the French report emerged, speculation was mounting among al-Qaida analysts over why it's been two years since the terror chief has appeared in a video message.
While 2006 was a record year for al-Qaida communiques—with more than three times the number of videos from any previous year— none of the tapes showed bin Laden. Several audiotapes purportedly by bin Laden have aired, and the CIA has confirmed their authenticity, but some scholars who closely monitor bin Laden suspect they're old recordings spliced to sound as if they're related to current events.
"I'm not convinced any of the tapes we heard in 2006 are new," said Bruce Lawrence, a Duke University professor and author of the book, "Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden."
Lawrence, who's been described as one of the world's leading al-Qaida archivists, added that "there's something staged and strange" about the wording and style of some of the recently released tapes.
Bin Laden's last video appearance was in October 2004, when the al Jazeera satellite TV channel aired footage of him appealing directly to Americans just before the presidential election.
Lawrence said rumors abounded that bin Laden suffered from kidney trouble and other ailments, but noted that reliable information was scarce.
"He's been living a very rugged life for 15 years, and it's probably taken a toll on him," Lawrence said. "(But) if you're an intelligence person and your target is al-Qaida and bin Laden is one of the most important people you track, the question now becomes: Why haven't we seen bin Laden in two years?"
Lawrence said it would be "disastrous" for the Bush administration to focus on bin Laden's absence, only to have the al-Qaida leader issue a new tape to prove he's alive and still eluding a massive manhunt.
"It doesn't serve the government to say bin Laden is dead unless someone can take credit for killing him," Lawrence said. "Suppose all this speculation is wrong and bin Laden is just on sabbatical?"
Even if the reports are true, U.S. and foreign analysts say, bin Laden's death is unlikely to dent the global jihadist movement he helped create. Through the years, al-Qaida has metastasized into a loose confederation of groups inspired—but not directed—by him and his second-in-command, the Egyptian-born Ayman al Zawahiri.
Al Zawahiri has emerged as the most visible al-Qaida leader in the past two years, but even he hasn't been directing attacks such as those in Bali, Madrid and London, according to two senior U.S. counterterrorism officials.
Two American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the matter involves classified information, said bin Laden's death, if true, would do U.S. interests little good.
"The sorry truth is that if bin Laden is dead, he's now a very large martyr in what a lot of Muslims have come to believe is a war against Islam," one of the officials said.
Chirac announced a probe to find out how the document was leaked to l'Est Republicain, a regional newspaper known for its investigative reports on security matters.
The DGSE, or Direction Generale des Services Exterieurs, sent the document to Chirac and other top French intelligence officials, according to the published account. The claim of bin Laden's death came from a single source, the DSGE document indicated. It said that Saudi agents were pursuing more detailed information, including the location of bin Laden's alleged burial site,
"The chief of al-Qaida was a victim of a severe typhoid crisis while in Pakistan on August 23, 2006," the newspaper quoted the intelligence document as stating. His remote location made medical assistance impossible, the French report said, adding that his lower limbs were partially paralyzed.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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