The propaganda and media wing of Al Qaeda said on a militant website that Osama bin Laden, the group's leader and chief organizer of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, will soon appear in a new videotape, the Associated Press reported.
It would be the first new footage of Mr. bin Laden in almost three years and is apparently timed to extract maximum propaganda value from the sixth anniversary of his group's most successful terror attacks.
The announcement and photo appeared in a banner advertisement on an Islamic militant Web site where al-Qaida's media arm, Al-Sahab, frequently posts messages.
One difference in his appearance was immediately obvious. The announcement had a still photo from the coming video, showing bin Laden addressing the camera, his beard fully black. In his past videos, bin Laden's beard was almost entirely gray with dark streaks.
The anniversary has always been a major media event for al-Qaida — a chance for it to drum up support among extremists, tout itself as the leading militant group and show off its continued survival.
"They've always gone out of their way to commemorate it," said Ben Venzke, chief executive officer of IntelCenter, which is based in Alexandria, Va. "Historically the anniversary of 9-11 has never been drawn to attacks. It's drawn to video releases."
The banner ad announcing the scheduled video tape with the picture of bin Laden with what appears to be a dyed beard can be found at lauramansfield.com, the website of an analyst who closely tracks Al Qaeda propaganda. ABC News reports that US officials say they doubt a new videotape will in fact be released.
Federal law enforcement authorities say that another Web site had posted a message on Sept. 2, promising "a special gift to be delivered on the blessed day of the invasion of Manhattan."
But U.S. officials are skeptical the tape will show a new message from bin Laden. One said, "We will believe it when we see it."
Nevertheless many media organizations and outside analysts are taking the claims seriously. Reuters says the video would be notable if it showed that bin Laden remains alive and in good health after years of speculation that he might be ailing.
His long silence has prompted two schools of thought among intelligence officials and security analysts.
Some suspected he was limiting his appearances to maximize their impact, perhaps saving his next one to coincide with a dramatic attack. Others say bin Laden, aged 50 and believed to suffer from a serious kidney ailment, may be too sick or too tightly pinned down in his hiding place to smuggle out a tape
Michael Taarnby, specialist in militant Islamism at the Danish Institute for International Studies, said the new video would be significant as "proof of life" but would probably be more scrutinized for clues to bin Laden's health than for its message.
"I don't think we'll find any major surprises -- the usual threats, the usual diatribes against the West," he said. "Osama bin Laden is an iconic figure now but it doesn't seem he has that much control over actual events or operations."
Evidence of this decentralization of Al Qaeda-linked activity can be found in two plots foiled in Europe in the past week, one in Germany and the other inDenmark. This week, as The Los Angeles Times reported, Germany said it arrested three men, two of them native Germans, who were planning bomb attacks on US military bases and US citizens inside the country. The Danes arrested a Pakistani and an Afghan in Copenhagen and said they'd also seized explosives.
After months of surveillance during which German police secretly replaced a stockpile of bomb chemicals with a weaker mixture, a SWAT team raided a vacation home in a wooded village in central Germany on Tuesday and arrested the trio, two of whom were German converts to Islam. One of the suspects grabbed an officer's gun, shooting him in the hand and suffering a cut on the head during a struggle.
The third suspect arrested was a Turkish Muslim living in Germany. The three allegedly underwent training last year at a terrorist camp in northern Pakistan run by the Islamic Jihad Union, an extremist network that broke away from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a longtime Al Qaeda ally, authorities said.
Although officials did not reveal links between the suspects in Germany and Denmark, both cases feature stockpiles of bombmaking materials and suspected links to Pakistan and Al Qaeda-related figures there.
Middle East Online quotes an expert on Al Qaeda as saying that the European plots appear certainly to be inspired by Al Qaeda, but are unlikely in his opinion to have major operational input from Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan or Afghanistan.
Apparently homegrown Muslim terror plots such as those uncovered in Germany and in neighboring Denmark this week will continue to be hatched for years to come, according to Danish expert Martin Harrow.
The Danish and the German plots appear to be 'homegrown', i.e. "not initiated or planned in the caves of Tora Bora in Afghanistan," said Harrow.
Danish and German security services both said there had been international cooperation in their respective anti-terror operations.
"This makes it plausible there may have been some kind of connection," said Harrow, commenting on speculation that there may have been a link between the Danish and German arrests.