Osama bin Laden appearances flatlined for the last three years, going back to his video message shortly before the 2004 presidential election. (He'd also turned up before the 2002 election.) There he was in his 2004 appearance with that characteristic whitening beard of his, the darkened, droopy eyes, the brownish background.
Or rather, silence from bin Laden, and much noise from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor and al-Qaeda's second in command, whose bloodthirstiness exceeds even that of bin Laden: It was al-Zawahiri who, when bin Laden was teetering on the brink of quitting al-Qaeda during his oddly pastoral years in the Sudan in the early 1990s, convinced bin Laden to stay on and ratchet up the fight. It was also al-Zawahiri who masterminded the bloodbath at Luxor on Nov. 17, 1997, when six men dressed in black attacked tourists visiting the famous site in Upper Egypt. Sixty-two men, women and children were killed. Zawahiri blamed it on the tourists for being there: "The young men," he abstractly told tourists after the attack, referring to the four killers, "are saying that this is our country and not a place for frolicking and enjoyment, especially for you."
No wonder it isn't just bin Laden who has a $25 million bounty on his head. The FBI is offering $25 million for al-Zawahiri, too. (The next-biggest bounty on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list is $1 million. That fugitive, James Bulger, is an American mobster.)
This week we're back to what looks like the Osama show: two videos in less than a week. The first has bin Laden in that same brownish setting as the 2004 performance, except that the snowy beard has been replaced by a jet-black version, as if bin Laden had just discovered vanity's redeeming possibilities. Not quite what you'd expect from a fundamentalist Muslim who describes his calling as "the call of Islam that was revealed to Mohammed." I have my doubts about this incarnation.
The second video doesn't actually show more than an image of bin Laden. We hear his voice. But he speaks in generalities about one of the 9/11 hijackers. The thing could have been produced two years ago, maybe even longer, despite its mention of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who briefly led "al-Qaida in Mesopotamia" until American forces killed him in June 2006.
Difficult to say whether he's dead or alive, it's just as tricky to decide whether this is a profile or an obituary: either way, here's a shotgun biography of bin Laden in its essentials, the last chapter yet to be written.