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Examination of Tape Raises Questions about Osama bin Laden's Health

Is the outlaw lifestyle catching up with the Al Qaeda leader?

ByABC News
January 8, 2009, 8:52 PM

January 15, 2009— -- In the years following the September 11th 2001 attacks, Osama bin Laden seemed very eager to appear on camera releasing numerous Al Qaeda propaganda videos. For the last 18 months, however, his public messages have been audio only, like the tape posted on the internet Wednesday. Between the threats and the rhetoric on this tape, however, one can also hear that bin Laden is quite short of breath for a man who is just 52 years old, suggesting a possible health issue.

"This is the first real indication that we've had of a bin Laden health problem," said John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer and ABC News consultant. "There have been rumors for years, but this is really the first solid evidence that there's some sort of problem with his health."

In 2002, there were widespread rumors and reports that bin Laden had serious kidney problems, but U.S. officials never confirmed his diagnosis. The new audio is an exciting development for analysts that pore over the various messages from the al Qaeda leader looking for some sort of clues as to his whereabouts and condition.

"This indicates to me that something is amiss. Perhaps it is a result of all these years living wherever it is he's living – in a cave, in a series of tunnels, in a mud fort somewhere. Perhaps, his body just can't take the strain of all these years living in the rough," said Kiriakou.

Ill or not, the latest audio release put an end to speculation that bin Laden could be dead. The timing of the release also raises questions for analysts.

"I can guarantee you that there is a team of people listening to the tape and trying to come up with a plausible explanations for why he is wheezing," said Kiriakou. "Second, of all why did he release the tape with the wheezing in it? Is it a chronic condition and he had to release the tape now because he's not going to get any better? Or, was there some other reason for releasing the tape now?"

The last time bin Laden appeared on camera was September 2007, when he seemed to have dyed his hair and beard a dark black.

On Wednesday's tape, in a direct challenge to President-elect Barack Obama, bin Laden questions whether America "is capable to keep fighting us for more years."

A senior U.S. official told, "There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the tape."

"This is part of their ongoing propaganda effort to appear relevant by commenting on current events," the senior US official said in dismissing the significance of the new tape.

National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the tape demonstrates bin Laden's isolation and "continued attempts to remain relevant at a time when Al Qaeda's ideology, mission, and agenda are being questioned and challenged throughout the world." He said it appeared to be a fundraising effort for al Qaeda's propaganda campaign.