On the Frequency of Fake bin Laden Messages

I’ve noticed that every time there’s a new message from Osama bin Laden, the press very carefully calls into question its authenticity. For example, CNN’s article “Purported bin Laden message: Iraq is ‘perfect base’” opens:

Al-Jazeera broadcast on Thursday an audiotape on which a voice identified as Osama bin Laden declares “Iraq is the perfect base to set up the jihad to liberate Palestine.”


The voice calls on “Muslims in neighboring countries” to “do their best in supporting their mujahedeen brothers in Iraq.”

So I’m wondering, have there been fake messages?

My understanding is that bin Laden’s manner of speaking, his words and phraseology, are quite unusual and hard to capture. What’s more, it doesn’t make sense for his followers to fake messages from him. As a leader who inspires through his words, the authenticity of those words is very important. It doesn’t jibe with my (admittedly limited) understanding to think that anyone would fake a message from him.

I understand that the intelligence community would like us to believe that they’re on the verge of catching him, that he might be dead, and that he can’t get messages out of his base in Pakistan’s Waziristan region.

But why does the media play along? Is there a problem with fake messages, or an expectation that there might be?

12 thoughts on “On the Frequency of Fake bin Laden Messages

  1. I don’t think that the messages are from someone other than Bin Laden, but the content of the messages sure does seem to be from another time. It’s as if the message was recorded after the Danish cartoon controversy first erupted, and the Pope had just planned his visit to Turkey.
    Whether you’d see reviving an old tape and calling it recent as “inauthentic” or not is a matter of perspective, I suppose…

  2. Presumably it is SOPs to call into question all real messages from OBL, so as to shut down the channel. In conflict, the ever-present game is about shutting down ones opponent’s media channel to the poeple, and making sure that “our side’s” channel to the masses is open for our message. Once we see the press not playing our game, by for example analysing OBL messages and not dissing them, we know that “our side” has lost the battle to bend the will of the media to our side. Same thing happens in commerce, it is not a personal or political slight against OBL.

  3. Richard,
    That’s a very interesting question. I’d thought the messages were sort of ‘self-authenticating,’ but that’s obviously not the case.

  4. I might be paranoid, but considering the fact that Osama bin Ladin have been used as a pretext to start a couple of wars that are going rather badly…
    A lot of people have economical and political interest in continuing the Terrorist/Al’queda scare. It’s hard to imagine any better way to keep the scare going than to release a “bin ladin” tape every few months just to remind the world that the scary terrorists are out there.
    My personal guess is that Osama is long since dead and that a number of groups are using his name to spread their messages. Some of those groups want to spread their ideas in the middle east, other groups want to scare the western world. Therefor the interesting mixture of messages supposedly coming from Osama himself.

  5. I think that it is entirely likely that Al Qaeda might want to fake Bin Laden messages, particularly if they have lost contact with him, he is ill or dead.
    There are also cranks who impersonate serial killers for kicks. Excluding heads of state, there is no bigger serial killer around than Bin Laden.
    I don’t give any credibility to the ‘foundation’ theory. Ted Kyzinsky, the unabomber issued similar loonygrams and we can be pretty sure he was not an Azimov fan.
    But the more direct reason is probably that if they claim the message is genuine they are going to get the Rathergate treatment from the likes of Little Green Footballs and similar blogs that dispute any and every factual statement that is politically inconvenient for their party.

  6. Why does the ‘remember personal info’ option never work? Oh well.
    Just took a look at the Guardian piece on the ‘Foundation’ theory. It is way off base because Bin Laden is not the ideological authority in Al Qaeda, that is Al Zawahiri. Bin Laden is simply the money. Al Zawahiri became leader of Islamic Jihad after he was instrumental in the assassination of Sadat. Al Qaeda today is de-facto the merger of Bin Laden’s mujahadein. with the remnants of Islamic Jihad. Zawahiri is not a subordinate to Bin Laden as the press likes to portray him, he is considered a peer.

  7. > What’s more, it doesn’t make sense for his followers to fake messages from him.
    Adam, that’s not quite right. The followers are the ones who have the strongest incentive not to *question* messages from him. That is, as soon as the channel becomes perceived as corrupted, they lose. Think of it as key revocation.
    So you can imagine many third parties putting messages on the channel, so to speak, and the informed followers of Bin Laden having to decide whether the message was damaging enough to cast aspersions on all other previous and future messages.

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