Face-off

Those hunting for Osama bin-Laden think he has changed his appearance and have given him a makeover to try to flush him out.

January 09, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Pentagon shaved off Osama bin Laden's beard and added a moustache. It took off the camouflage and put him in a cheap suit. It plucked him from the caves and turned his scowl into a grin.

And the end result was this: Osama bin Laden, prom date.

In a computer-altered image of bin Laden airdropped over Afghanistan, bin Laden looks less like the world's most-wanted man and more like the high-school senior who hopes his palms aren't too sweaty. He brings to mind a disco king a la Saturday Night Fever or a Vegas lounge lizard, not a terrorist whose capture carries a $25 million reward.

Whomever bin Laden resembles in a composite photograph created recently by the Department of Defense, the last person he looks like is himself. The Pentagon says the picture of a disguised bin Laden is intended to alert the world of the makeover he may have adopted to escape capture.

Such bin Laden photographs look phony enough to create more chuckles than leads, but dozens now are circulating around the world, aimed at assisting the hunt for the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The TV show America's Most Wanted has created composites featuring the al-Qaida operative in a variety of styles. In one he sports a spiky punk hairdo. In another, a jaunty fedora. He has short hair, long hair, turbans, dreadlocks. In one more, he seems to be wearing Ray-Bans.

But no composite has drawn more attention than the one distributed by the U.S. military. Although the Pentagon is reluctant to say as much, most military analysts believe this image is not as much an elaborate police sketch as it is a propaganda tool intended to divide bin Laden's ranks and supporters in the Islamic world.

After days of concentrated U.S. airstrikes on Afghanistan's Tora Bora region, U.S. airplanes last month dropped 500,000 leaflets over that mountainous area. The pamphlets feature photos of what appear to be slain al-Qaida fighters next to the image of bin Laden in a beige business suit.

"The murderer and coward has abandoned you," the leaflet says. The pamphlets, printed in English and Pashtu, urge Taliban fighters to surrender. Next to the text is the doctored image of a Westernized bin Laden - posing without the beard worn by devout Muslims - but nothing explaining that the photograph is a fake.

Veterans of psychological warfare give the pamphlet mixed reviews. As a means of capturing bin Laden, they say, it is all but worthless. Who in the Afghan countryside would really expect to see bin Laden walk by in a suit? But as a propaganda effort to create mistrust, they say, it works.

"There's an old saying - all's fair in love and war," says Chad Spawr, a co-founder of the Psychological Operations Veterans Association who worked on propaganda in Vietnam. "We're not fighting a civilized war, and so the rules kind of go out the door. With psychological warfare, we're trying to use whatever tools we have to drive a wedge into bin Laden's remaining forces. If that involves a little trickery and deceit, I'm OK with that."

But such a strategy could backfire. Anyone inclined to sympathize with bin Laden - the same people who accused the United States of manipulating a videotape to frame bin Laden for the attacks - could point to the pictures as proof that the United States is not to be trusted and will lie in order to divide Muslims.

Some experts in Islamic culture argue that the audience for whom such propaganda is targeted would never believe it anyway.

"What is the psychology of bin Laden - would he actually shave off the beard, the symbol for him of piety?" asks Akbar Ahmed, who chairs the Islamic studies department at American University in Washington. "I see that as a problem. There are a lot of people who are skeptical and will say, `The U.S. doctors photographs.' They'll simply dismiss this."

The Army's psychological operations group at Fort Bragg, N.C., created the pamphlets using the PhotoShop software responsible for photos like the one of bin Laden posing with Bert, the Muppet from Sesame Street.

"I think it was as simple as taking Osama bin Laden's head and placing it on some other body," says Army Col. Rick Thomas, a spokesman at the military's U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. He describes the look as "non-al Qaida."

"We based it on law-enforcement practices [used] for finding, as an example, a kidnapped child, where they alter photographs and try to portray what [the child] might look like as they aged," he says. "Our simple intent was to show the lengths he might go to save himself."

Sylvie Lariviere, an artist who specializes in composites, calls the bin Laden renderings 85 percent accurate but admits that there is plenty of guesswork when it comes to re-creating his face, since the beard he has worn through his adulthood has obscured his jawline and the shape of his lips.

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