PARIS â€” He has not issued any public statement all year. Speculation has grown over his influence, health and even possible death. Where is the Western world’s most wanted man, Osama Ben Laden?
The Al Qaeda leader’s period of silence is the longest since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, offering no clues to the whereabouts or fate of a man who this year appears to have quietly slipped off the radar.
Ben Laden has not been heard of since a Dec. 27, 2004 audiotape in which he anointed Abu Mussab Al Zarqawi, Iraq’s most wanted man, as Al Qaeda’s leader in the war-torn country.
Just before, on Dec. 16, 2004, a video surfaced where he also called on his fighters to strike Gulf oil supplies and warned Saudi leaders they risked a popular uprising.
Since then â€” silence. Regular interventions by Al-Qaeda’s number two Ayman Al Zawahiri, seen as the ideological brains of the network, has only served to feed feverish speculation on what has happened to Ben Laden.
Zawahiri claimed in a videotape released in September that Ben Laden was still alive and leading â€œjihadâ€ or holy war against the West.
â€œAl Qaeda for holy war is still, thanks to God, a base for jihad. Its prince Osama Ben Laden, may God protect him, still leads the jihad,â€ said Zawahiri.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said recently he did not know whether Ben Laden was dead or alive, adding that he would not like to speculate over his fate.
The commander of US troops in Afghanistan, General Karl Eikenberry, has insisted that Ben Laden was still considered alive, and that US forces continue their hunt for him.
Seemingly more candid was CIA Director Porter Goss, who recently told ABC news channel that Ben Laden’s hideout was known and implied that the CIA knew more than it could reveal.
The total eclipse of Ben Laden also gave rise to various speculation on Islamist websites, with some admirers of the terror chief already contemplating that he might be dead.
â€œBen Laden, tracked by the intelligence services who are on his heels, is hiding somewhere along the mountain frontiers between Pakistan and Afghanistan,â€ opined one blogger.
Another claimed that â€œAbu Abdullah (Ben Laden) has deliberately decided to stop all communications to avoid being located by gigantic US surveillance devices.â€
â€œO my beloved. I know that you are mortal. No body can oppose the will of God. But the thought of seeing you taken captive fills me with fear,â€ said another in a â€œletter of affectionâ€ addressed online to Ben Laden, following a rumour claiming that Al Qaeda chief had perished in the Oct. 8 earthquake which ravaged Pakistan.
But the editor of the Islamabad-based â€œMediawatch,â€ Yaqoub McLintock, who is also an expert on Al-Qaeda, appeared confident as to Ben Laden’s safety.
â€œI think he is alive and well. Admittedly, Ben Laden is not in great health, but he is not at the point of death. All that we hear about his fate is nothing but media speculation. His death would certainly be announced by Al Qaeda, in conformity with Sharia (Islamic law),â€ he told AFP.
He also claimed that Ben Laden avoids making any appearance â€œas a safety measure, knowing that he is being traced by intelligence services.â€
Abdul Bari Atwan, the editor-in-chief of the London-based daily Al Quds Al Arabi, agreed.
â€œBen Laden has said it all and has nothing to add,â€ he said.
â€œThe man could well be preparing a large-scale operation in the United States,â€ added Atwan, the first Arab journalist to interview Ben Laden, who has a $25-million bounty on his head.
â€œDead or not? This is not the question,â€ said Yasser Sirri, the director of the London-based Islamic Observatory.
â€œAdmittedly, Ben Laden is a strategic symbol, but Al-Qaeda is now a decentralised multi-national jihadist (movement) capable of generating thousands of Ben Laden,â€ he said.