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Home --> Rumors of War --> Ill Advised

Ill Advised

Claim:   Osama bin Laden was dying of kidney disease.

Status:   Undetermined.

Origins:   Was Osama bin Laden, the scourge of our age, a sickly man, possibly even one dying of his infirmities? In the world of gossip, scuttlebutt that trivializes a hated enemy by portraying him as less powerful and more piteous often proves highly popular because it helps reduce the perceived threat that person represents to a more manageable level. Such rumbles are routinely kited during times of conflict, and often prove to have little more to them than mere wishful thinking on the part of those looking for reassurance.

Yet that may not have been the case here. Rumors about bin Laden's suffering from kidney-related afflictions had been rampant for years. In March 2000, more than a dozen Pakistani religious students offered to donate kidneys to the leader of the al Qaeda network. That same month, a witness to a meeting among bin Laden and his people reported that the terrorist appeared weak and gaunt, coughed frequently, and seemed to become easily exhausted. He also took milk during the meeting instead of the traditional tea.

This man spoke to a doctor who accompanied bin Laden and was told the leader's ailment was related to his circulation and his blood "not being cleaned in the right way."

Around that same time, an unnamed official in the intelligence community stated bin Laden had kidney failure and "his liver is going." He said the terrorist's followers were trying to find a dialysis machine for their ailing leader. In an interview with Asiaweek, another (or possibly the same) unnamed member of the intelligence community said of bin Laden, "This man is dying."

Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia responded to the rumors by denying them. "His health is good. There is no problem with his kidney or liver," said Ahmad Ullah, a Taliban spokesman in southern Kandahar, in March 2000.

William Safire asserted in a November 2001 New York Times article that in mid-May, 2001, two of Saddam Hussein's secret service agents arrived at the clinic of Dr. Mohammed Khayal, Baghdad's leading kidney specialist. "The doctor hurriedly packed a bag and was escorted to a government car. Three days later, he was returned, and the building was soon abuzz with the word that Saddam's Dr. Khayal had been to Afghanistan where his patient was Osama bin Laden."

In September 2001, it was reported that Moosa Wardak, an Afghan doctor, had traveled to India not long before on a diplomatic passport issued by the Taliban government to buy some medical equipment for bin Laden. Unnamed intelligence sources say a dialysis machine was bought for bin Laden earlier in 2001 and shipped to Kandahar.

Stories about bin Laden's renal problems and treatments that have been sought for them surface in many news articles, each appearing to come from different sources, thus this rumor may have more substance to it than the usual slander of an enemy which, even if voiced through numerous media outlets, ultimately proves to flow from the same wellspring. This multiplicity of sourcing cannot be confirmed, however, because those who provide such accounts do so only under promise that their identities not be revealed. The secrecy of the al Qaeda network and the CIA manhunt for bin Laden made it impossible to ensure that the same person was not telling one reporter after another the same tale, but the diversity of the information provided and that it was been offered up a bit here and a bit there over an extended period of time lent credence to the premise that there was something wrong with the terrorist's kidneys.

A persistent rumor asserts bin Laden received treatment for his ailing kidneys at the American Hospital in Dubai in 2001, arriving on July 4 and leaving on July 14. Among those with him, it is thought, was Dr. Ayman Zawahiri, who as well as being his personal physician is al-Qaeda's second-in-command. In an extension of this particular rumor, a CIA agent purportedly met with the terrorist at that hospital during bin Laden's ten-day course of
treatment.

The CIA has flatly denied the report. Its spokeswoman, Anya Guelsher, said that it was "complete nonsense." Bernard Koval, the director of the hospital, also denied the terrorist had been a patient there, saying "Osama bin Laden has never been here. He's never been a patient and he's never been treated here. We have no idea of his medical condition. This is too small a hospital for someone to be snuck through the backdoor."

Osama bin Laden himself, in a November 2001 interview with a Pakistani newspaper, denied reports he had been hospitalized in Dubai for kidney treatment and said "My kidneys are all right."

Was he ill or was he well? Whom to believe?

The truth of such whispers will be impossible to determine until the body of bin Laden can be examined. (The Contractor's end came in May 2011 when he was killed in a military operation led by the United States in which a small team carried out the attack and took custody of his remains.)

Barbara "final exam" Mikkelson

Last updated:   1 May 2011

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  Sources Sources:

    Gannon, Kathy.   "Witness: bin Laden Seemed Sick at Meeting About Clinton Visit."
    Associated Press.   25 March 2000.


    McGregor, Glen.   "Bin Laden May Be Dying, Reports Say."
    The Ottawa Citizen.   20 September 2001   (p. C5).


    Safire, William.   "Essay; Prague Connection."
    The New York Times.   12 November 2001   (p. A19).


    Sage, Adam.   "Ailing bin Laden 'Treated Secretly for Kidney Disease.'"
    The Times [London].   1 November 2001.


    Agence France Presse.   "Osama bin Laden Denies Kidney Problems."
    10 November 2001.


    Agence France Presse.   "American Hospital in Dubai Denies Treating bin Laden."
    31 October 2001.


    Business Recorder.   "Pak Students Offer Kidneys to Osama."
    23 March 2000.


    Deutsche Presse-Agentur.   "Suspected Saudi Terrorist Osama bin Laden Dying, Magazine Says."
    16 March 2000.