Former assistant director of FBI's counter-terrorism division Dale Watson; former Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf; current Pakistani President Asif Zardari; Afghan President Hamid Karzai; late Benazir Bhutto; Israeli intelligence sources; Pakistani and Afghan sources, including Taliban leaders all have reported Osama bin Laden to be "probably dead" since December 2001.
Several independent experts - including former US foreign intelligence officer Angelo M. Codevilla and renowned bin Laden specialist Professor Bruce Lawrence - agree with this assessment, as reported by the Daily Mail last year. In the words of Codevilla, a professor of international relations at Boston University: "All the evidence suggests Elvis Presley is more alive today than Osama Bin Laden."
From the Mail:
"Prof Codevilla pointed to inconsistencies in the videos and claimed there have been no reputable sightings of Bin Laden for years (for instance, all interceptions by the West of communications made by the Al Qaeda leader suddenly ceased in late 2001).
Prof Codevilla asserted: 'The video and audio tapes alleged to be Osama's never convince the impartial observer,' he asserted. 'The guy just does not look like Osama. Some videos show him with a Semitic, aquiline nose, while others show him with a shorter, broader one. Next to that, differences between the colours and styles of his beard are small stuff.'"
Lawrence, who heads the religious studies department at Duke University and who examined bin Laden's speeches in detail, "argues that the increasingly secular language in the video and audio tapes of Osama (his earliest ones are littered with references to God and the Prophet Mohammed) are inconsistent with his strict Islamic religion, Wahhabism." The Mail reports that "on one video" the famous post-9/11 "confession' one - "Bin Laden wears golden rings on his fingers, an adornment banned among Wahhabi followers."
In summary, most of these reports suggest that bin Laden died by December 2001 in Afghanistan. However, in November 2002, when al-Jazeera aired a new bin Laden audiotape, it was widely reported that he was, in fact, alive and well, and personally planning fresh terrorist attacks. Bush administration officials confirmed that the tape was "almost certainly" authentic on the basis of technical analyses by CIA and NSA experts.
In contrast, Swiss scientists at the Dalle Molle Institute for Perceptual Artificial Intelligence analysed the tape and concluded, after comparing it to 20 previous bin Laden recordings, that its authenticity could not be corroborated. The study found that there was "serious room for doubt, and that it is also difficult to agree with some US officials saying that it is 100% sure that it is bin Laden."
A January 2004 audio tape of bin Laden was described by physicist and US national security consultant Professor Richard Muller of the Berkeley National Laboratory as most likely a fake. Muller did not cite technical evidence, however, but focused on the multiple accounts of bin Laden's death around December 2001, and outlined a plausible technical account of how the tape could have been doctored.
According to computer security consultant Dr Neal Krawetz, the 2007 video of bin Laden has undergone a variety of "visual and audio splices" of low quality. So frequent were the modifications, he concluded that the splicing of words and phrases together and even the use of a vocal imitator could not be ruled out. Yet Krawetz's analysis of the video is disputed by Hany Farid, a digital forensics researcher at Dartmouth College. Farid agrees that there are "quirky" aspects of the video, although he is unconvinced that this proves that it is doctored.
In summary, we cannot know for sure whether bin Laden is dead or alive, although multiple credible sources from the region arguably give strong reason to doubt that he is indeed alive. In any case, at this stage, the audio and video recordings attributed to him over the years are simply too fraught with unresolved anomalies to count as serious proof that he remains alive.
The latest bin Laden tape to emerge on Sunday 24th January arrived just over 48 hours away from President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address. Unlike the Bush administration, which has frequently jumped to confirm the authenticity of previous bin Laden recordings, White House advisor David Axelrod stated that they could not "confirm that (al Qaeda's responsibility for the attack) nor can we confirm the authenticity of the tape."
Given that there is no way to independently confirm the source of the tape, it is difficult to draw any serious conclusions from it. The statements in the tape that have received most attention include the vague claim of responsibility for the attempted but failed Christmas Day crotch-bombing, as well as the focus on the Israel-Palestine conflict: "The message sent to you with the attempt by the hero Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is a confirmation of our previous message conveyed by the heroes of September 11"; and "Our attacks against you will continue as long as U.S. support for Israel continues... It is not fair that Americans should live in peace as long as our brothers in Gaza live in the worst conditions."
Taken at face value, this would indicate firstly a desire to capitalize on what was in fact a spectacular failure by insisting that future attacks are being planned; and secondly a desire to capitalize on the continued and growing entrenched political grievances among Muslims regionally and globally about Israel's ongoing occupation of Palestine, exemplified in the brutal 2008-9 attack. The issue is not simply the continued exploitation of "hollow justifications" to quote the White House spokesman, but the continuing centrality of the Middle East conflict to terrorist recruiting strategies. Israel's siege and subjugation of Gaza, more than ever, is acting as a "recruiting sergeant' for Islamist terrorist networks, and whoever is behind the release of this tape knows it, and wishes to make the most of it.