Bin Laden's Beard: Color Us Curious
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Now, to a question prompted by the recent arrival of two new videotapes from Osama bin Laden. There's been a lot of analysis of what the al-Qaida leader says and also discussion of how he looks - specifically why a neatly trimmed inky black beard has replaced his previously graying whiskers.
Here's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: This newly black beard divides bin Laden watchers into two camps: those who believe it's a dye job versus those who suspect glue-on.
Bruce Riedel, who spent years studying Arab world from posts at the CIA and the National Security Council, locates himself squarely in the first camp.
Mr. BRUCE RIEDEL (Former Senior CIA; National Security Staffer in the Clinton Administration): Every senior Arab male, as he gets white in his beard, goes for a dye job. Look at King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Look at President Mubarak of Egypt. Both of them have the same Grecian formula in their hair as bin Laden had in his beard. It's just an indication that like of the rest of us, he's getting older.
KELLY: Okay. So the dye-job camp appears to be in the majority. It also includes Evan Coleman, who runs the Web site globalterroralert.com. Coleman says a red tint would be more common than black in South Asia. But that bin Laden has definitely indulged in a little makeover.
Mr. EVAN COLEMAN (Founder, GlobalTerrorAlert.com): I mean, bin Laden has a huge stake here in making him seem as if he's in good health, as if, you know, he's actually becoming rejuvenated because of his battle with the American.
KELLY: Coleman argues it's not just about vanity.
Mr. COLEMAN: If you show someone in a video like this who looks frail, who looks very elderly, this is really not a very good way of generating support, of helping recruit for the organization.
KELLY: Not so fast, says Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism chief and a firm supporter of the fake-beard theory.
Mr. RICHARD CLARKE (Former White House Counterterrorism Chief): I'm obviously not an expert on beards. But my first reaction in looking at it was it looked like something that a high school boy would paste on so he could play Abraham Lincoln in a play.
KELLY: A paste-on would make sense, Clarke argues, if bin Laden has relocated somewhere where a beard might stand out - Southeast Asia, say, Indonesia, Malaysia - although, bin Laden would still be hard to miss, given reports that he measures 6'6.
Mr. CLARKE: I think he's actually about 6'3. But, yeah, you're right, of course. But let's imagine that you see him passing by in a car or he's seated somewhere. If he has the beard, you might recognize him as bin Laden. If he doesn't have the beard, you might not.
KELLY: Maybe. Although six years after the 9/11 attacks made him the most wanted man on Earth, Bin Laden's face - bearded or no - is one of the most recognizable in the world.
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
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