OSAMA BIN LADEN - A Dead Man Talking?
December 2001, three months after terrorists have destroyed the Twin Towers and brought America to its knees.
The US is struggling to hold together a fragile coalition for its invasion of Afghanistan.
Questions are being raised about the strength of the evidence against their prime suspect for the 9/11 atrocities.
And the notoriously loudmouthed Al Qaeda chief still hasn't claimed responsibility.
Suddenly a video tape appears from a house in Jalalabad showing a barely recognisable Osama Bin Laden confessing all.
Could this be fortunate timing? Or is the video a fake recording of a man who is already dead?
Bin Laden has been the western world's most wanted man for the best part of a decade.
Well over 6ft tall, sporting a distinctive beard and with an instantly recognisable face the Saudi militant should stand out a mile.
But more than eight years after the 9/11 attacks he is said to have masterminded, Al Qaeda's commander in chief remains on the run.
He could still be sheltering in the mountains and caves of Afghanistan.
He may be hiding in the lawless tribal regions of North West Pakistan.
There is even a chance that he has sought refuge in a Middle Eastern state sympathetic to his fanatical cause.
Amid all of these possibilities there is one which is rarely covered in the mainstream media.
Osama Bin Laden, the Great Satan's staunchest foe, the devil incarnate himself, could well be dead.
With so much money, manpower and murder expended on attempts at capturing him, how can one man continue to elude the most powerful military in human history?
Surely with infinite resources, gadgets that would make James Bond's eyes pop out, and enough explosives to destroy the planet a thousand times over, the US would have found this elderly cleric with a serious kidney ailment by now?
Unless of course, he is no longer there to be found.
His death would certainly not have been announced by the Al Qaeda lieutenants who rely on his iconic status to recruit the deranged youths they need to wage their unholy war.
Nor would it have been trumpeted by the US had they caught wind of his demise.
With Bin Laden's life goes the human face of 9/11, the face that launched a hundred unmanned drones in Pakistan, a thousand F16s in Iraq, tens of thousands of soldiers in the Afghan badlands.
On the history pages Bin Laden's image is destined to sit next to those of Stalin, Pol Pot and Hitler as a case study in evil.
But with conflicting reports about his health, question marks over the authenticity of his videos and rumours about a burial, has he been consigned to those pages already?
The Official Story
Having already failed to blow up the World Trade Centre and been kicked out of his native Saudi Arabia, Osama Bin Laden shot to international notoriety when he ordered simultaneous embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, killing more than 200 people.
From that point onwards Bin Laden has been the world's most wanted terrorist, even before 9/11 the Clinton administration had made his capture a major foreign policy objective and he was recognised as a clear danger.
Attempts to assassinate him were launched by the CIA, but proved unsuccessful as a series of rocket attacks missed the Al Qaeda chief.
But he retained an element of freedom of movement that, post 9/11, seems staggering. Just before Christmas 1998 he met two American journalists who traveled to his tented hideout in Afghanistan to hear the "Sheikh" speak about his Jihad against the US. The transcripts were published in Time Magazine and a video interview broadcast on America's ABC News.
By 2001 Bin Laden had stabilised his terror apparatus, and despite the unwanted attention of the US security services he was using his hideout in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, to put the finishing touches to Al Qaeda's masterpiece.
As the twin towers were destroyed, and with the Pentagon still collapsing around their ears, the US military took no time at all to identify Bin Laden as the prime suspect for the atrocity. He was, in President George W Bush's words, the only man who could have done it.
Just five days after the attacks Bin Laden spoke to deny any involvement, with Al Jazeera broadcasting a rant in which he praised the attacks but insisted he was not responsible.
He made two more televised speeches denying any involvement, a rare move for the egotistical and vainglorious Osama, who often claimed terror attacks as his own, even if they had been planned by others.
It was not until 13 December 2001 that he was pictured speaking with a fellow Sheikh about his involvement in planning 9/11 that Bin Laden finally confessed to the atrocity.
Since then we have heard little from him, the odd televised address, one or two speeches a year, but nothing on the level of his pre-9/11 output.
So what changed, why did Bin Laden confess, and where is he now?
The US authorities would have us believe that he is still at large, having released a tape attacking President Obama in June, and that he retains day to day control of Al Qaeda.
There is even a new American initiative to work with the Pakistani security services to hunt and kill Bin Laden, who they claim is now sheltering over the Pakistan border in southern Waziristan.
Maybe he is, but maybe there is a more sinister explanation.
The most convincing conspiracy theory is that Bin Laden died shortly after the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001.
Even before 9/11 the Al Qaeda chief was widely reported to be in poor health, suffering from a kidney disease and possible hepatitis infection.
In a film released to Al Jazeera in December 2001 but shot in October, he is seen barely moving his left side, and looking pale and drawn. He does not claim responsibility for 9/11, but praises all attacks on the US as the occupier of muslim lands.
Interpretations on his ill health range from suggestions that he had suffered a stroke, to claims from a London-based Arabic newspaper that he was struck in the shoulder by a piece of shrapnel from the US bombardment of his Tora Bora cave complex.
Whatever the reasons for his illness this video certainly seemed to show a man on his last legs.
Professor David Griffin, emeritus professor at California's Claremont School of Theology, claims in his new book - Osama Bin Laden: Dead or Alive? - that the video released on December 13 is the first that features a totally different Bin Laden.
According to Griffin, the "confession tape" has Bin Laden as a weighty man with a black beard, not a grey one, with darker skin, a different shaped nose and thick, workmanlike hands. He looks in good health, unlike the gaunt figure filmed just two months earlier. It also appears to have been made for no apparent reason, other than to be conveniently discovered by CIA agents in a house in Jalalabad following the siege of the Afghan city.
Following the bombing of Tora Bora in November/December 2001, US authorities who felt they had the Al Qaeda boss cornered were suddenly unable to keep tabs on him.
Out of the blue, around 13 December 2001, signals intelligence on Bin Laden ceased and has never been reestablished. Whereas before the US regularly listened in to his conversations, they haven't heard a squeak from him in eight years.
Boston University's Professor of international relations Angelo Codevilla says that there is a simple explanation - he was dead.
He argues: "In the so-called confession video that the CIA found in December, the Osama figure acts like the chief conspirator. Its substance, the celebratory affirmation of a responsibility for 9/11 that Osama had denied, should also have weighed against the video's authenticity. Why would he wait to indict himself until after US forces had secured Afghanistan?"
The theory runs that an ailing Bin Laden, struggling to keep up the dialysis treatments he needed for his kidney disease, succumbed to his ill health and passed away peacefully before being buried within 24 hours in the Afghan mountains.
His "death" was reported in the Pakistan Observer shortly before Christmas 2001, and picked up by Fox and other American news networks on Boxing Day. They quoted an unnamed Taliban commander confirming Bin Laden's death and funeral.
World leaders from Pakistan's President Musharaf to US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld speculated that Bin Laden could be dead.
But within a year another Bin Laden tape surfaced, again showing a different looking and sounding Osama, who theorists claim was an obvious fake used to justify the US War on Terror.
In these videos he spoke less about religion, and appeared with gold rings adorning his fingers, an indulgence banned among Wahhabi followers like Bin Laden.
His speeches also began to come at increasingly convenient times for the American leaders in charge of the hunt for the world's most wanted man.
In February 2003, with the Bush administration failing to produce concrete evidence of Bin Laden's links to Saddam Hussein, a video was handed to Al Jazeera in which Osama claimed he was "in partnership with Iraq".
Then silence once more, until the eve of the 2004 US Presidential election. With President Bush trailing in the polls to Democratic rival Senator John Kerry, Bin Laden appeared as if from nowhere, giving a video address that offered the first full account of his responsibility for 9/11 and helping Bush to steer the debate back towards his tough stance on terror.
Bin Laden again proved a useful political tool to the embattled Bush administration in September 2006, two months before the American mid term congressional elections, appearing in a new video training the 9/11 hijackers in Afghanistan.
The timing of these videos, combined with the physical and philosophical differences apparent in Bin Laden after December 2001, have led theorists to argue that the terror totem has long since ceased to be a live threat.
- Bin Laden clearly looks and sounds very different in the confession tape found by the CIA (dated 9 November 2001) compared to the thin gaunt injured Bin Laden who appeared in the Al Jazeera tape released on 28 December 2001. His confession only served to further US interests after they had failed to conclusively prove he was behind 9/11.
- He speaks differently in tapes after December 2001, using more secular language and altering the tone of his rants. Professor Bruce Lawrence, head of Duke University's religious studies' department argues that later Bin Laden recordings are inconsistent with his strict Islamic code of Wahhabism.
- Two months before 9/11 Bin Laden was reportedly treated for an infection linked to his kidney disease at the American hospital in Dubai. He ordered a mobile dialysis machine to be delivered to Afghanistan, showing that his health had deteriorated badly. It is almost impossible to believe that a kidney patient in need of regular dialysis could survive with intermittent electricity and poor water supply in the remote Pakistan/Afghanistan border region for eight years.
- Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, said in January 2002 that Bin Laden required two different dialysis machines, and added: "I think now, frankly, he is dead for the reason he is a kidney patient." Two other prominent figures echoed this conclusion, the FBI's counter-terrorism chief, Dale Watson, who said he personally believed Osama bin Laden "is no longer with us". And then Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who told CNN: "I have come to believe that bin Laden probably is dead."
- The CIA closed "Alec Station", its dedicated Bin Laden hunting unit in late 2005, lending weight to the suggestion that there was no need to hunt him anymore.
- In November 2007 Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto claimed that bin Laden had been murdered by Omar Sheikh. She named Sheikh as a possible suspect in failed attacks against her and referred to him as "the man who murdered Osama bin Laden." There are suggestions that she misspoke and meant to identify the militant as the man who killed American journalist Daniel Pearl, leading the BBC to edit out her comments when they were broadcast.
- In a video released in September 2006 Bin Laden is seen with two of the 9/11 hijackers as they train for physical combat ahead of their mission. This implies that he was behind the attacks, met with the perpetrators and was alive at least in the summer of 2001.
- Many of the tapes Bin Laden has released have been verified as authentic by the CIA using their voice recognition technology. While fake tapes have been released that doesn't mean all recordings of Bin Laden are fake.
- Al Qaeda continues to plan and execute terror attacks across the globe. It's funding remains steady if unspectacular, and it is able to recruit young men from Britain, America and Pakistan to carry out jihadi strikes in their own countries. While it hasn't produced another 9/11 yet, Bin Laden's empire is alive and well.
It is quite clear that Osama Bin Laden isn't just wanted dead or alive by the US, he is needed dead or alive. His face is the iconic image that lends legitimacy to their war on terror. Without that human connection, that hatred of a single, evil figure, the battle for Afghanistan and the whole concept of the global fight against extremist Islam would be unsellable to the American public. It seems clear from the evidence presented in this blog that the Al Qaeda commander is dead. Whether killed by a rocket attack in the battle of Tora Bora or finally defeated by his kidney disease, Bin Laden is now a myth rather than a mastermind. The fact that his death has been covered up does not mean that he did not plan 9/11, he is still the overwhelming prime suspect in the murder of 3,000 innocent men, women and children. But he will never stand trial, because he is already answering to a higher power. How long the US keeps up this charade, and how many more videos appear depends entirely on how long the ghost of Bin Laden remains of use to the Pentagon. I'd guess that shortly before the last US marines climb aboard the final flight out of Helmand, you'll hear a news report that sounds remarkably similar to one from December 2001 - Osama Bin Laden is dead...