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Context of 'December 26, 2001: Bin Laden Allegedly Dies of Lung Problems'

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November 16, 2001: Tora Bora Battle Begins

A US airstrike in the Tora Bora region.A US airstrike in the Tora Bora region. [Source: Gary Bernsten]Heavy US bombing of Tora Bora, the Taliban and al-Qaeda mountainous stronghold near the Pakistani border, begins. A large convoy containing bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders arrived in Tora Bora about three day earlier. The son of a tribal elder later recalls, “At first, we thought that the US military was trying to frighten the Arabs out, since they were only bombing from one side.” Rather than send in US ground forces in large numbers, the US chooses to supply two local warlords and have their fighters do most of the fighting while heavy bombing continues. Within days, a small number of US special forces are brought in to assist the local warlords. One of the warlords chosen, Haji Zaman Ghamsharik, was actually living in exile in France and has to be flown to Afghanistan. He is “known to many as a ruthless player in the regional smuggling business.” Between 1,500 to 2,000 of bin Laden’s fighters are in Tora Bora when the battle begins. [Christian Science Monitor, 3/4/2002; Knight Ridder, 10/20/2002] There are two main mountain passes out of Tora Bora and into Pakistan. From the beginning on this day, eyewitnesses report that the US bombs only one pass. [Newsweek, 8/11/2002] The fighting and bombing will continue through early December (see December 5-17, 2001) while bin Laden and most of his forces escape via the other pass (see November 28-30, 2001).

Entity Tags: United States, Al-Qaeda, Haji Zaman Ghamsharik, Osama bin Laden, Taliban

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

US Special Forces unloading equipment in the Tora Bora region.US Special Forces unloading equipment in the Tora Bora region. [Source: Banded Artists Productions] (click image to enlarge)Around December 5, 2001, about three-dozen US special forces position themselves at strategic spots in the Tora Bora region to observe the fighting. Using hand-held laser target designators, they “paint” targets to bomb. Immediately the US bombing becomes more accurate. With this improved system in place, the ground battle for Tora Bora begins in earnest. However, as the Christian Science Monitor later notes, “The battle was joined, but anything approaching a ‘siege’ of Tora Bora never materialized.” No other US troops take part, and US-allied afghans fight unenthusiastically and sometimes even fight for the other side (see Mid-November 2001-Mid-December 2001). [Christian Science Monitor, 3/4/2002] The Tora Bora battle will end with a victory for the US-allied forces by December 17, 2001 (see December 17, 2001). However, the Daily Telegraph will later report, “In retrospect, and with the benefit of dozens of accounts from the participants, the battle for Tora Bora looks more like a grand charade.” Eyewitnesses express shock that the US pinned in Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, thought to contain many high leaders, on three sides only, leaving the route to Pakistan open. An intelligence chief in Afghanistan’s new government says, “The border with Pakistan was the key, but no one paid any attention to it. In addition, there were plenty of landing areas for helicopters had the Americans acted decisively. Al-Qaeda escaped right out from under their feet.” [Daily Telegraph, 2/23/2002]

Entity Tags: Taliban, Al-Qaeda, US Department of Defense, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

British special forces soldiers from the Special Air Service (SAS) and the Special Boat Service (SBS) pursue Osama bin Laden as he flees the battle of Tora Bora (see November 16, 2001 and December 5-17, 2001). According to author Michael Smith, at one point they are “20 minutes” behind bin Laden, but they are “pulled off to allow US troops to go in for the kill.” However, it takes hours for the Americans to arrive, by which time bin Laden has escaped. [London Times, 2/12/2007]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Special Boat Service, Special Air Service

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

The media reports that Osama bin Laden died of lung problems in the mountains of Tora Bora in mid-December. The report, which quotes a Taliban leader who allegedly attended bin Laden’s funeral, is originally published in the Pakistan Observer, and then picked up by Fox News. According to the Taliban leader, bin Laden was suffering from a serious lung complication and succumbed to the disease. He also claims bin Laden was laid to rest honorably near where he died and his grave was made as per his Wahabi belief. About 30 close associates of bin Laden, including his most trusted and personal bodyguards, his family members, and some “Taliban friends,” attended the funeral. A volley of bullets was also fired to pay final tribute to him. The Taliban leader claims to have seen bin Laden’s face before the burial and says, “he looked pale… but calm, relaxed, and confident.” When asked where bin Laden was buried, the leader says, “I am sure that like other places in Tora Bora, that particular place too must have vanished.” [Fox News, 12/26/2001] A man thought to be bin Laden will continue to issue media statements after his alleged death (see, for example, November 12, 2002). At the time this report becomes public, other accounts suggest bin Laden is alive, has just escaped from the battle of Tora Bora, and is fleeing pursuers (see December 8-14, 2001).

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, Taliban

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

A truck bomb kills 19 people, mostly German tourists, at a synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia. It is later claimed that al-Qaeda is behind the attack, and that the suspected bomber speaks with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) by phone about three hours before the attack. [Associated Press, 8/24/2002] In June 2002, al-Qaeda spokesperson Suliman abu Ghaith will say that al-Qaeda was behind the bombing (see June 22, 2002).

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Suliman abu Ghaith

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

October 6, 2002: Al-Qaeda Attacks Oil Tanker

The Limburg after the attack.The Limburg after the attack. [Source: NAVSEA]Al-Qaeda conducts a suicide bombing against a French oil tanker, the Limburg. The attack takes places in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Yemen. One crew member is killed and over 90,000 barrels of oil leak into the sea. The attack is similar to the one on the USS Cole almost two years before (see October 12, 2000) and is planned by one of the same people, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. [BBC, 10/16/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 153]

Entity Tags: Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

An explosion lights up the sky on the island of Bali, Indonesia.An explosion lights up the sky on the island of Bali, Indonesia. [Source: Agence France-Presse]A car bomb detonates in front of a discotheque at Kuta Beach, on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, starting a fire that rages through a dozen buildings. A backpack-mounted device carried by a suicide bomber explodes in another Kuta Beach discotheque. 202 people are killed and 209 are injured. Eighty-eight of those killed are Australian, while most of the rest are Indonesian. A much smaller device explodes outside the US consulate in nearby Denpasar, causing only minor damage and no casualties. No group claims responsibility, but Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), al-Qaeda’s main affiliate in Southeast Asia, is believed to be behind the bombings. [New York Times, 10/13/2002; New York Times, 10/14/2002; BBC, 2/19/2003] Hambali, a key leader in both al-Qaeda and JI, is said to have been involved. He will be arrested in 2003 and taken into US custody (see August 12, 2003). [Chicago Tribune, 12/7/2003] Three alleged JI operatives, Ali Gufron (a.k.a. Mukhlas), Imam Samudra, and Amrozi bin Nurhasyim, will be arrested in Indonesia and sentenced to death in 2003 for their roles in the Bali bombings. Ali Imron, brother to both Gufron and Amrozi, will be sentenced to life in prison. [New York Times, 9/19/2003; New York Times, 10/3/2003] JI operatives Dulmatin, Azhari Husin, and Noordin Mohammed Top also are said to have major roles in the bombings. Husin will be killed in a police shootout in 2005, while Dulmatin and Top remain at large (see October 6, 2005 and After). It will later turn out that the US was given a “stunningly explicit and specific” advanced warning that Hambali and JI were planning to attack nightclubs in Bali (see August 21, 2002).

Entity Tags: Ali Gufron, Azhari Husin, Dulmatin, Amrozi bin Nurhasyim, Imam Samudra, Ali Imron, Hambali, Noordin Mohammed Top, Jemaah Islamiyah

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Following six attacks by different radical Islamic groups in Tunisia (see April 11, 2002), Pakistan, Yemen (see October 6, 2002), Kuwait, Bali (see October 12, 2002), and Moscow, a new audio message is released by a man said by some to be Osama bin Laden, although the identity of the speaker will be disputed (see November 29, 2002). The voice on the tape outlines a principle he says he and his allies are using: reciprocity. He comments: “If it pains you to see your victims and your allies’ victims in Tunisia, Karachi, Failaka, and Oman, then remember that our children are murdered daily in Palestine and Iraq… If it pains you to see your victims in Moscow, then remember ours in Chechnya. How long will fear, killing, destruction, displacement, orphaning, and widowing be our sole destiny, while security, stability, and happiness is yours? This is injustice. The time has come to settle accounts. Just as you kill, so you shall be killed; just as you bomb, so you shall be bombed. And there will be more to come.” [Laden, 2005, pp. 173-5]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The release of an audio message by a man thought to be Osama bin Laden (see November 12, 2002) sparks several publications to run stories about the authentication of the voice on the tape. These articles make several points about voice analysis of apparent bin Laden recordings:
bullet Machine analysis: Some aspects of voice identification are done my machine. Voice authentication software measures the acoustic qualities of a person’s voice, such as pitch, loudness, basic resonances, frequency, and amplitude. [New Scientist, 11/13/2002; Slate, 11/15/2002] This produces spectrographic information and can also be used to look for specific features of a voice, such as a nasal quality. In addition, every person creates the same sounds using a slightly different set of basic pitches, so the set of frequencies in bin Laden’s vowels, like those in “ea” from “fear,” will be marginally different from anyone else’s. By examining this frequency detail for every vowel and comparing them to previous examples, a machine analysis can tell if they are the same and were all said by him. [Slate, 11/15/2002] However, “People hardly ever pronounce the same word the same way twice, even in the same utterance,” says Robert Berkovitz, a speech analyst with Sensimetrics Corp. [CBS News, 11/13/2002]
bullet Human analysis: Some aspects of voice identification are done by humans, who are, according to Slate, “very good at doing the kind of thing most people do subconsciously—telling if someone comes from a particular region by recognizing basic vowel and consonant qualities.” For example, a human analyst can tell whether the “Ye” sound in “Yemen” is of the right length and stress for bin Laden’s dialect. [Slate, 11/15/2002] Experts listen to previous recordings of bin Laden, and compare them syllable by syllable. [New Scientist, 11/13/2002; Slate, 11/15/2002] Experts can also verify whether words on a tape generally match those uttered by someone of bin Laden’s age and educational background. [Slate, 11/15/2002]
bullet Quality of tape: According to Slate, the November tape is “allegedly very noisy and possibly went down a phone line at some point.” [Slate, 11/15/2002] However, the New Scientist reports, “Voice analysis experts say the quality of the recording appears good enough to determine if the recording is genuine.” It also quotes Steve Cain of Forensic Tape Analysis, a company that received snippets of the tape from US media, who says, “It seems like it is at least clear enough and there’s enough amplitude of that unknown speaker’s voice that if you had a known sample of bin Laden it would be possible.” [New Scientist, 11/13/2002]
bullet Splicing: Analysis can determine whether a tape is spliced together. Potential red flags include hitches in timing and rhythm, removal of background noise, and different pitch to accommodate for differences in background noise. [Slate, 11/15/2002]
bullet It makes no difference to voice analysis what language a recording is in. [CBS News, 11/13/2002]
bullet Uncertainty: The New Scientist quotes Tomi Kinnunnen, an expert in computer analysis of speech at the University of Joensuu, Finland, as saying: “There is always the possibility of error.… But if you have a clean sample with little noise, you can quite reliably say [who it is].” [New Scientist, 11/13/2002] However, according to Slate, human and machine analyses can be “formidable,” but “neither type of analysis can say with 100 percent certainty that the speaker on the tape is bin Laden or anyone else.” [Slate, 11/15/2002] CBS finds that intelligence analysts are convinced the tape is from bin Laden, but “they will never be sure,” because “Computer voice analysis lacks the accuracy of fingerprint or DNA identification and can be hamstrung by a skilled impersonator or low-quality recording.” “You can say with some probability, but you can never be sure,” says Kenneth Stevens, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology expert on speech analysis and synthesis. “Where there’s a combination of strong motivation and relatively weak science, there’s an opportunity for deception,” adds Berkovitz. “You can’t put the voice in a slot and have it come out saying, ‘This is Joe Smith.’” [CBS News, 11/13/2002]
bullet One analyst, Matsumi Suzuki of Japan Acoustic Lab, Tokyo, says that, although the recording seems genuine, the speaker sounds ill. [New Scientist, 11/13/2002]

Entity Tags: Matsumi Suzuki, Al-Qaeda, Forensic Tape Analysis, Tomi Kinnunnen, Japan Acoustic Lab, Sensimetrics Corp, Robert Berkovitz, Osama bin Laden, Steve Cain

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The authenticity of a new audio tape purportedly made by bin Laden, in which he praises recent attacks in Bali, Kuwait, Yemen and Moscow (see November 12, 2002), is disputed by Swiss voice analysts. US officials believe the voice is “almost certainly” bin Laden, but the Dalle Molle Institute for Perceptual Artificial Intelligence in Switzerland, one of the world’s leading voice-recognition institutes, is 95 percent certain the tape is a forgery. [BBC, 11/13/2002; BBC, 11/18/2002; BBC, 11/29/2002; Toronto Star, 12/16/2002] Two weeks after it was broadcast, a British newspaper publishes the complete text of a “letter to the American people,” purportedly written by bin Laden. [Observer, 11/25/2002] However, “diplomats [are] skeptical about the authenticity of the document.” [Guardian, 10/15/2002] The institute will not continue to analyse bin Laden’s speeches (see February 12, 2003).

Entity Tags: Dalle Molle Institute, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Secretary of State Colin Powell obtains an advance transcript of a new audio tape thought to be from Osama bin Laden before it is broadcast on Al Jazeera, but misrepresents the contents to a US Senate panel, implying it shows a partnership between al-Qaeda and Iraq. [CNN, 2/12/2003] Following Powell’s initial claim the tape exists, Al Jazeera says that it has no such tape and dismisses Powell’s statement as a rumor. [Associated Press, 2/12/2003] However, later in the day Al Jazeera says that it does have the tape. [Reuters, 2/12/2003] It is unclear how Powell obtains the advance copy, and Counterpunch even jokes, “Maybe the CIA gave Powell the tape before they delivered it to Al Jazeera?” [CounterPunch, 2/13/2003] In his testimony to the Senate Budget Committee Powell says, “[Bin Laden] speaks to the people of Iraq and talks about their struggle and how he is in partnership with Iraq.” [CNN, 2/12/2003] Powell’s spokesperson, Richard Boucher, says that the recording proves “that bin Laden and Saddam Hussein seem to find common ground.” [Reuters, 2/11/2003; New York Times, 2/12/2003; Washington Post, 11/12/2003] However, although bin Laden tells his supporters in Iraq they may fight alongside the Saddam Hussein, if the country is invaded by the US (see November 12, 2002), he does not express any direct support for the current regime in Iraq, which he describes as “pagan.” [CNN, 2/12/2003] A senior editor for Al Jazeera says the tape offers no evidence of ties between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. “When you hear it, it doesn’t prove any relation between bin Laden or al-Qaeda group and the Iraqi regime,” he argues. [ABC News, 2/12/2003] Several news reports also challenge Powell and Boucher’s interpretation. For example, CNN reveals that the voice had criticized Saddam’s regime, declaring that “the socialists and the rulers [had] lost their legitimacy a long time ago, and the socialists are infidels regardless of where they are, whether in Baghdad or in Aden.” [CNN, 2/11/2003; New York Times, 11/12/2003] Similarly, a report published by Reuters notes that the voice “did not express support for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein—it said Muslims should support the Iraqi people rather than the country’s government.” [Reuters, 2/11/2003]

Entity Tags: Colin Powell, Richard A. Boucher, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Al Jazeera

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

Popular Science magazine carries a rare interview with Tom Owen, a voice analyst who has worked on identifying Osama bin Laden in recordings allegedly released by the al-Qaeda leader. Owen worked for US media on the identification of bin Laden’s voice in a November 2002 recording (see November 12, 2002), assisted by a captain of the Saudi Interior Ministry’s forensics department he had apparently been teaching at the time. Owen, one of only eight forensic voice analysts certified by the American Board of Recorded Evidence, and other US experts identified the voice as bin Laden’s, although a Swiss facility disagreed (see November 29, 2002). The interview describes Owen’s lab and how he works, pivoting off the November recording. Owen criticizes the Swiss analysis, saying that the advanced biometrics software the Swiss used cannot work with the noise on the tape, as it is “designed to work with perfect samples.” Cleaning up the tape would not help, as this would remove the high and low frequencies a biometric system needs to make its identification.
Voice Identification Methodology - To identify voices, Owen uses a spectrograph, which produces spectrograms—“a kind of graphic speech rendering that has changed little since the 1940s”—that are then compared. His favorite tool for analyses is a “piece of vintage equipment—a reel-to-reel Voice Identification 700 spectrograph built in 1973,” which “differs little from the analog machines US Army intelligence officers built to identify and track German radio operators during World War II.” When analyzing a new recording thought to be from bin Laden, Owen compares the spectrograms it produces with spectrograms from a known bin Laden interview, such as one he granted to ABC in 1998 (see May 28, 1998). According to the magazine, there are “only a half-dozen words in common between the November tape and the ABC interview,” although the standards of the American Board of Recorded Evidence demand 20 identical words, preferably spoken in the same order.
Listening for 'Quirky Mannerisms' - However, Owen also listens for “the multitude of quirky mannerisms and pronunciation foibles peculiar to each voice,” because a trained ear can detect “the subtle whistle caused by a missing tooth, a person’s tendency to swallow in the middle of a sentence, even the way someone sets his or her jaw when speaking.” Owen plays the reporter what he calls a short-term memory tape, apparently a crucial tool in aural voice identifications. The spliced tape toggles between 2.5-second segments of bin Laden’s ABC interview and the November tape; Owen uses the tape to listen for peculiarities in a voice, especially when vowels are spoken. According to Owen, who says bin Laden’s voice is what the magazine calls “plenty peculiar,” the tape proves it is the “same guy” on the November tape and in the 1998 interview. However, the reporter comments: “To my untrained ear, it could be Darth Vader behind the static.… This is the sort of gray area that tends to make legal observers worry about the state of forensic science.”
Comments on NSA - According to the magazine, Owen’s technology is similar to that which the NSA probably uses to analyze voices, although Owen thinks the NSA has samples of bin Laden’s voice he does not. However, he does not think it has made biometric breakthroughs in analysis despite its advanced technology, which is “mostly devoted to listening.” [Popular Science, 2/24/2003]

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Tom Owen, National Security Agency, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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