Over the weekend, the Department of Defense released soundless video clips of what appear to be previously unpublished “outtakes” from Osama Bin Laden video messages. The clips were reportedly discovered among materials seized at the compound in Abottabad, Pakistan, that was raided by American forces last week. Citing administration sources, media reports have dated the outtakes to 2010 at the earliest.
Some commentators have speculated that the Obama administration released the clips as indirect proof that American forces got the right man in Abottabad and in lieu of the death shots demanded by administration critics. But if this was the intention, the clips raise more questions than they resolve.
The Osama Bin Laden in the “outtakes” is clearly the same man as the Osama Bin Laden in a 2007 video message bearing the logo of As-Sahab, the media arm of Al-Qaeda. Not only are the facial features the same, but so too are the man’s clothing and both the color and length of his beard. Indeed, the cut and color of the beard are so similar in one of the clips that the footage would seem to have been recorded not in 2010, but at or around the same time as the 2007 release.
The 2007 clip, however, has hitherto been widely dismissed as fake, including by academic specialists and in mainstream media reports. (See, for instance, the NBC report here.) Whereas the audio track contains numerous allusions to what were in 2007 highly topical matters, all of these allusions occur in a portion of the clip during which the video has in fact been frozen. This peculiarity led analysts to conclude that the video images were likely recorded earlier and then spliced together in 2007 with unrelated audio. (The full video is available in three parts here, here, and here. The entire running time is nearly 27 minutes, but the image is frozen for all but three and a half minutes.)
The apparent “postdating” of older footage contributed to speculation that Bin Laden was dead. According to one hypothesis that was widely held prior to the Abottabad raid, he had in fact already died in December 2001, either from injuries sustained in the Battle of Tora Bora or from natural causes related to his well-known kidney problems. (For a classic statement of this line of argument, see Angelo M. Codevilla’s 2009 article “Osama Bin Elvis” in The American Spectator.) On this view, none of the post-Tora Bora video or audio messages attributed to Bin Laden are authentic.
But it was not only the freeze frame and the added audio in the 2007 release that sent up red flags. Bin Laden’s appearance also gave analysts cause to pause. The most obvious anomaly was the black beard. In the last known authentic images of Osama Bin Laden from before the Battle of Tora Bora, his beard was largely grey.
An unnamed “senior intelligence official” cited in the New York Times slyly pointed to the black beard in the DOD footage as a sign of the late Al-Qaeda leader’s vanity, suggesting that it was dyed. But whereas aging Islamic fundamentalists are known to dye their beards, they typically do so with henna. This leaves the beard orange or red, not black. The use of henna appears to conform to instructions laid out in the Hadith. Indeed, according to one hadith (Sahih Muslim Book 024, Hadith Number 5244), Mohammad forbade dying grey hair black.
As it so happens, pre-Tora Bora images of Bin Laden include at least one picture in which his beard has clearly been dyed. (See photo below.) But the dyed parts of the beard are a reddish orange, indicating that it has been dyed with henna per Islamic custom. (In the “new” footage made available by the Obama administration, the beard, although dark, likewise seems in fact to have a somewhat reddish hue. But since the eyebrows have the same reddish hue, this appears to be a matter of image adjustment.)
In any case, as commentators already pointed out vis-à-vis the 2007 release, although the beard represents the most obvious physical anomaly, it is by no means the only one. Whereas “blackbeard” Osama’s facial features bear a resemblance to those of the pre-Tora Bora Osama, his appearance is, nonetheless, startlingly different. Readers may judge for themselves in comparing the photos in the two sets below.
Could the effects of aging or perhaps “mood” account for the difference? The Osama in the DOD footage is clearly nervous, even seemingly frightened. As compared to the serene and confident Osama of pre-Tora Bora footage, this too represents a jarring contrast.