Al Qaeda's media branch, As-Sahab, released a 40-minute video July 14 featuring several jihadist figures paying tribute to "martyred" militants. Attention to the video, however, is centering on a previously unseen 50-second clip of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who extols the virtues of martyrdom.
Although the bin Laden video is new in that it has not been seen before, it is not new chronologically. In fact, the "new" footage appears to have been taped at the same time as a bin Laden video released by the United Kingdom-based Islamic news agency Al-Ansaar in May 2002. Bin Laden's dress, the camera angle and the setting for both videos are identical. In both tapes, a mountain rises up next to bin Laden's right shoulder, there is a tree to his left and the same bodyguard stands behind him, occasionally visible over his left shoulder.
One other similarity about these two videos is that they both were released under similar circumstances: during a time when there was doubt about bin Laden's well-being.
At the time of the May 2002 video release, there was some doubt that bin Laden had survived the December 2001 U.S. assault on Tora Bora. Al-Ansaar reported that it believed the video had been recorded in March 2002, and that this proved bin Laden had survived the attack. Al Jazeera, however, reported that it had seen the video in early 2002 but did not air it. Al Jazeera further said it believed the video was recorded in October 2001 and that it therefore did not prove bin Laden survived Tora Bora. Later tapes that were deemed authentic new releases, however, did prove bin Laden survived the attack.
Today, the question of whether bin Laden remains alive is being debated again. He has not been seen on video since October 2004 and he has not issued a new audio statement since July 2006. This silence stands in stark contrast to the flurry of audio statements he released in 2006. That series began with a January audiotape, in which he warned Americans that an attack against the U.S. homeland was imminent, and ended with a July 1 message discussing Somalia. Bin Laden's silence also is remarkable when compared to the media activity of his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has issued a number of statements this year, including three audios and a video within the past month.
Al Qaeda has little to gain by keeping bin Laden out of the spotlight. Indeed, it could gain far more by trumpeting his ability to evade the massive U.S.-led manhunt for him. Al Qaeda also is under a great deal of pressure to demonstrate that bin Laden is alive and well, and in command of his organization. These factors suggest there is another reason for bin Laden to maintain a low profile. Perhaps he is dead, although based on al Qaeda's acknowledgement of the death of other senior figures, we would expect the organization to acknowledge such a loss, eulogize its "great martyr" and attempt to gain a public relations advantage out of the situation.
There also have been continuous reports that bin Laden is seriously ill, so al Qaeda might not want to show him in poor health. Indeed, there was much speculation about his health after his last video, when he stood behind a lectern and did not move much. This was in contrast to a 2003 video (aired around the second anniversary of 9/11), in which bin Laden was shown walking with the aid of a cane on a hillside in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. If, indeed, bin Laden is in poor health, his voice might be too weak to come across forcefully on audio.
Although al Qaeda faces an operational security risk related to video messages -- al-Zawahiri has curtailed his video appearances markedly since the October 2006 missile attack in Chingai, Pakistan -- it should not be as concerned with an audio message. Audio equipment is compact, easy to conceal and easy to use without the need for a crew or lighting equipment. Bin Laden, therefore, could easily record his own voice.
There must be another reason for his silence.[Stratfor]
A new al Qaeda tape is circulating; a sort of montage honoring the "fallen martyrs" of the Afghan war. Within the tape is a 50-second clip of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden discussing his thoughts on the subject.
The tape was first released July 14, but now news commentators aplenty are citing the video as proof of al Qaeda's strength in general, and of bin Laden's vitality in particular. However, judging from the camera angle, the clothing and what appears in the video's background, the tape is more than five years old and was filmed on the same reel used to assemble a video released in May 2002.
That means it has been more than a year since al Qaeda released any evidence indicating bin Laden is still alive, and roughly five years since the apex leadership of al Qaeda has been conclusively linked to any attack outside the Middle East or South Asia.
We certainly understand al Qaeda's effort to make its leader loom large; there are few organizations whose need to do something spectacular outweighs that of al Qaeda, and there is arguably no one who needs to prove he is a player more than bin Laden does. But barring a secret plan that, for some as-yet-undisclosed reason, necessitates hiding in Pakistani caves for years, bin Laden is either dead or incapacitated to the point that he cannot speak -- or his condition is such that his handlers prefer he does not.
So, whatever other axes one might have to grind with the U.S. administration -- and these days there seem to be enough to outfit an army of Vikings -- take this for what it is: Bin Laden is probably gone for good, and al Qaeda likely lacks the ability to strike in any strategically meaningful way.
But with the war against al Qaeda now disposed of, what of the other?[Stratfor]