Followers of Osama bin Laden flooded Islamist Web sites Saturday posting messages pledging their devotion to the world's most-wanted man in celebration of his 50th birthday — even as his whereabouts remains a mystery more than five years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Dozens of bin Laden fans posted videos and pictures on the Internet commemorating the elusive al Qaeda leader's life and renewing their allegiance to him and his terrorist network.
One Web site user, who went by the name of Abu Yacoub, posted an old picture of bin Laden wearing a helmet and khaki military uniform while carrying a two-way radio in a deserted location, possibly from bin Laden's fight in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union two decades ago.
"Today ... Osama bin Laden turns 50. God protect our leader, our Sheik Osama bin Laden. God reward him for his words and actions," Abu Yacoub wrote on an Internet site commonly used by insurgents.
Another message titled the "Manhattan invasion" featured old footage of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the wills of the hijackers. Other messages included a poem describing one follower's dedication to bin Laden.
The authenticity of the Islamist Web site messages could not be verified. And like most things involving bin Laden, his exact birth date remains a mystery. GlobalSecurity.org, a Virginia-based think tank, said bin Laden, who was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, was either born on March 10, 1957 or July 30 of the same year. The FBI just lists that he was born in 1957. Attempts to independently confirm bin Laden's date of birth were not successful.
Maj. William Mitchell, a spokesman for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, rejected attempts to celebrate bin Laden's birthday.
"We certainly don't want to celebrate the lives of people who have shown such little regard for the lives of innocent people around the world," Mitchell said.
"Instead of focusing on the anniversary of his birth, people around the world — and particularly the people here in Afghanistan — should take a moment to remember the innocent people who have been killed or injured by terrorist extremists like Osama bin Laden," he added.
Speculation over whether bin Laden is dead or alive has been swirling for years as the most publicized manhunt in history has come up empty.
He is believed to be holed up in the lawless border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the rugged mountains on the border area or inside Afghanistan itself in the remote forested eastern province of Nuristan and Kunar.
The U.S. and other coalition troops have conducted hundreds of search-and-seizure operations in this region, but without known success, while intelligence officials have suggested that the trail for the world's most wanted fugitive have gone cold.
The last time bin Laden appeared in a video tape was Oct. 29, 2004 to warn the American people and administration to stop meddling in Arab and Muslim affairs or they would face a second Sept. 11 attack. In that video, the al Qaeda leader appeared pale and thinner.
A number of bin Laden audio tapes have been posted on Islamic Web sites since then, the latest in June, but his voice has sounded tired, sparking rumors that he is seriously ill. Bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, meanwhile, has become more visual, appearing in four messages since the beginning of this year and more than a dozen last year.
Intelligence experts also believe bin Laden may be choosing to keep a low profile.
"My information says that he is still alive. He is under a microscope and might be in a location that is not safe for him to show up," said Yasser el-Sirri, an Egyptian fundamentalist in exile, who runs the Islamic Observation Center in London.
Bin Laden founded Al Qaeda in 1988 in Afghanistan mainly to fight the Soviet invasion, but its ideology has expanded across the globe with the help of technology and the Internet, inspiring thousands of young fundamentalist Muslims. Many have formed mini-al Qaeda cells that may not have direct contact with the original terror group, but adopt its methods, with many carrying out attacks against Western targets around the world.
Anwar Eshki, the head of Jiddah, Saudi Arabia-based Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies, said that without the Internet and technology including al Qaeda's media production house al-Sahab, the terror network wouldn't have been able to spread its message and rally supporters around the world.
"The body might be damaged, but the leader remains a symbol and its battlefield now is the Internet," Eshki said.