A leaked French intelligence memo reporting that Osama bin Laden had died of illness last month caused a flurry of speculation Saturday, but skeptical French, U.S. and Arab officials said they had no information confirming the report.
French President Jacques Chirac told journalists the intelligence report had “by no means been confirmed, not whatsoever.” And a French security official cautioned that the memo was based on uncorroborated intelligence from a single source.
“We are not confirming whatever has been said in this report because we consider it a source among other sources,” said the French security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Our services, like others around the world, don’t use just one source for reaching such a conclusion, they need multiple sources. We don’t think this is a reliable report at this stage.”
The latest rumblings about the elusive Al Qaeda leader came from an unlikely source: a small regional newspaper. L’Est Republicain, based in the eastern city of Nancy, published an article Saturday along with a copy of a confidential Sept. 21 memo from France’s foreign intelligence agency, which is overseen by the Defense Ministry and known by the initials DGSE.
The memo informed the president’s office and the defense minister that Saudi intelligence had “become convinced” that Bin Laden was dead, according to the newspaper.
“The data gathered by the Saudis indicates that the chief of Al Qaeda would have been a victim, while in Pakistan on August 23, 2006, of a very strong attack of typhoid,” the intelligence memo said, according to the paper. “His geographic isolation, caused by his permanent fugitive status, made any medical care impossible. On Sept. 4, the Saudi security services obtained the first intelligence about his death.”
As in Paris, the response in Washington was skeptical and cautious. “We don’t have any confirmation of that report,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.
Two U.S. intelligence officials and a senior official of an Arab country also tracking Bin Laden said much the same thing.
The officials were slightly less skeptical about the possibility that Bin Laden was gravely ill. For years, Bin Laden has been rumored to be suffering from a debilitating kidney disease, perhaps requiring dialysis.
“We’ve been down this road many times before, and there is no reason to think that this one has any more credence than the others,” the U.S. intelligence official said.
Bin Laden was last seen in a videotape released in 2004. His voice was last heard in an audiotape released June 29, in which he mourned the slaying by U.S. forces of Abu Musab Zarqawi, Al Qaeda’s kingpin in Iraq.
Spy agencies have not detected any “chatter” among Al Qaeda operatives or other traditional indicators of a momentous event such as Bin Laden’s death, officials said.
Despite the reservations about its contents, French officials did not question the authenticity of the memo. Chirac said he had ordered an internal investigation of the leak.
French officials said DGSE has good sources in the Arab world, and the Saudis know a lot about Bin Laden, a Saudi native.
But U.S. and Pakistani intelligence services probably would have better information because they are leading the hunt for Bin Laden, a top French anti-terrorism official said. He said he was not aware of any increased talk among international counter-terrorism officials.
“The Pakistanis and the Americans would be more likely to have confirmed it by now,” the official said.
The Arab official was equally skeptical. “If he died a month ago you couldn’t keep it a secret for two days,” the official said. “You’d have to bury the body quickly, and there would be a buzz all over the place, on the Internet and everywhere else.”
If the Saudi government had received hard information about Bin Laden’s death or imminent death, it would have gone immediately to a U.S.-Saudi counter-terrorism center in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, officials said. From there, it would have been sent to Washington within hours, the officials said, adding that no such referrals have taken place.
Intelligence officials are trying to monitor Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan that compose the network’s brain trust, as well as associates worldwide with whom they are most likely to communicate such news about Bin Laden.
“What effect would his death or impending death have on the movement? Will there be a race to see who picks up his mantle? Does [second-in-command] Ayman Zawahiri step into his shoes, or someone else? Would the organization be more fragmented, or less, as his senior associates consolidate? Will recruiting spike, or decline?” said a second U.S. intelligence official, an Al Qaeda expert.
Bin Laden’s death by a serious illness such as typhoid probably would make him as much a martyr in the eyes of Al Qaeda members as being killed in battle, the second official said.
“They would say that Allah has brought this great leader to his reward,” the official said. “That he died a natural death after escaping the biggest manhunt in the world, and without suffering the indignities of being killed or injured by the infidels.”
Rotella reported from Paris and Meyer from Washington.