Doubt over report of bin Laden's death

Memo says head of al-Qaida has died of typhoid

September 24, 2006|By Sebastian Rotella and Josh Meyer | Sebastian Rotella and Josh Meyer,Los Angeles Times

A leaked French intelligence memo reporting that Osama bin Laden had died of illness last month caused a flurry of speculation yesterday, but skeptical French, U.S. and Arab officials said they had no information confirming the report.

French President Jacques Chirac told journalists that the intelligence report "has by no means been confirmed, not whatsoever." A French security official cautioned that the memo was based on uncorroborated intelligence from a single source.

"We are not confirming whatever has been said in this report because we consider it a source among other sources," said the French security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Our services, like others around the world, don't use just one source for reaching such a conclusion; they need multiple sources. We don't think this is a reliable report at this stage."

The latest rumblings about the elusive al-Qaida leader came from a small regional newspaper. L'Est Republicain, based in the eastern city of Nancy, published an article yesterday along with a copy of a confidential Sept. 21 memo from France's foreign intelligence agency, which is overseen by the Defense Ministry.

The memo informed the president's office and the defense minister that Saudi intelligence had "become convinced" that bin Laden was dead, according to the newspaper.

"The data gathered by the Saudis indicates that the chief of al-Qaida would have been a victim, while in Pakistan on Aug. 23, 2006, of a very strong attack of typhoid," the intelligence memo stated, according to the newspaper. "His geographic isolation, caused by his permanent fugitive status, made any medical care impossible. On Sept. 4, the Saudi security services obtained the first intelligence about his death."

As in Paris, the response in Washington was skeptical and cautious.

"We don't have any confirmation of that report," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. Three U.S. intelligence sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said yesterday that they had no information to suggest that the reports of bin Laden's death were any more credible than similar reports in the past that turned out to be false.

But they did say neither the reports of his death nor the possibility that he had died were surprising.

"This is not the first time" there have been reports of bin Laden's death, said one U.S. intelligence official.

The official said that the French intelligence report had not prompted wide notice in the intelligence community. He noted that it was not a topic of discussion at the office Friday.

According to a senior intelligence official, it has been common for information about the demise of an adversary of the United States to be exaggerated, noting that the same thing had happened with Fidel Castro.

Two intelligence officials noted that there has been intelligence suggesting bin Laden has been ill for quite some time with kidney disease, so his death would not be a great surprise, especially because he is considered to be on the run.

One senior intelligence official noted that confirming bin Laden's death is difficult because it would be based largely on the al-Qaida leader's location.

Another top intelligence official said that the involvement of two foreign intelligence services also makes the report more difficult to confirm. Not only would U.S. officials have to vet the foreign intelligence agency reporting, but they would then have to try to gauge the veracity of the original source.

"I would also be worried about disinformation," he said, noting that it is possible that al-Qaida sees some benefit to having the rest of the world believe bin Laden is dead.

The United States has strong intelligence relationships with both France and Saudi Arabia, the official said, describing French intelligence as one of "our strongest partners" in counterterrorism. Saudi Arabia has been much more forthcoming since the al-Qaida bombings in Riyadh in 2003, he added.

If bin Laden has died, this senior official said, there are some possible indicators he would look for. One, he said, would be bin Laden's extended family, which is not considered to be close to the al-Qaida leader but might still go into mourning.

Another, he said, would be some sort of announcement from al-Qaida. They could choose to announce his death by casting it as a result of "the will of Allah" if bin Laden has died of natural causes. But, he added, it might not be entirely in al-Qaida's interest to publicize the death because the longer the world thinks bin Laden is alive, the longer it will tie up United States and allied resources in the hunt for him.

Bin Laden was last seen in a videotape released in 2004. His voice was last heard in an audiotape released June 29, in which he mourned the killing by U.S. forces of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaida's kingpin in Iraq.

Sebastian Rotella and Josh Meyer write for the Los Angeles Times. Sun reporter Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article.

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