DUBAI (Reuters) – The release of an old video showing Osama bin Laden has revived speculation about the fate of the world’s most wanted man who has not offered foes or followers any proof he is alive for more than a year.
Although some Taliban leaders have said the Saudi-born is alive and well, nothing has been heard from him since July 2006 when an audio message was posted on an Islamist Web site indicating that he was alive a few weeks before.
“May God reward you and bless you for reminding us of the statements of the Sheikh (bin Laden),” one Islamist commented on a Web site which posted an old video this month showing bin Laden preaching martyrdom.
“We hope the Sheikh appears in a new tape,” wrote another.
CNN, which said it intercepted the video before it was to appear on radical Islamist Web sites, said it contained old clips but concluded it had been compiled in the past four weeks.
Many experts say that if the millionaire militant is dead, it is unlikely that al Qaeda would keep his demise secret for long.
Some experts believe the 50-year-old cleric is keeping a low profile to avoid capture, and others say he might be sick or dying. Bin Laden is rumored to have been suffering from kidney ailments and receiving dialysis treatment.
His top aide Ayman al-Zawahri has made many statements stating al Qaeda policy on regional issues while bin Laden has been silent.
“The fact that Zawahri took over the show suggests that the man is inaccessible … either for security or health reasons,” said Mamoun Fandy, director of the Middle East program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Zawahri has a public relations role but neither he nor bin Laden was believed to be much involved in day-to-day operational planning, a Western counter-terrorism official told Reuters.
The Egyptian cleric made four audio and video statements in the past month alone and another militant, Abu Yahya al-Libi, became a regular speaker for the group, which was behind the September 11 suicide airliner attacks on U.S. cities in 2001.
Libi, who is believed to be one of four al Qaeda militants who broke out from a U.S. jail in Afghanistan last year, made at least four statements since October.
Washington has doubled the bounty on bin Laden’s head to $50 million.
Bin Laden was based in Afghanistan until Taliban rule was overthrown by U.S.-led forces after the September 11 attacks. Since then, U.S. and Pakistani officials have said they believe he and Zawahri are hiding somewhere on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
“It does not matter if bin Laden is dead, alive, sick or captured … Al Qaeda now is an ideology not a hierarchy. It takes someone like bin Laden to create it but any of his aides can run it now,” an Arab diplomat said.
“His death or capture might be a blow to the organization but it is the ideology that needs to be fought, not the person.”
Since the group started with a few dozen Sunni Muslim Arab fighters joining Afghans in their fight against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, it has grown into an international network.
It is believed to operate a group of active and sleeper cells in several parts of the world and has carried out bombings in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Arab world. An affiliated organization is waging a high-profile bloody campaign in Iraq against U.S.-led forces and Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government.
Al Qaeda says it seeks to punish Washington and its allies for bias toward Israel at the expense of Muslim interests and their “crusades” in Muslim countries.