HE HAS been on the run for six years, hiding in some of the most inhospitable parts of the world with a $50m price on his head. But to judge by new pictures of Osama bin Laden, the fugitive terrorist mastermind still has time to trim and dye his beard and make himself presentable for the camera.
For the first time in nearly three years, the new-look bin Laden will be unveiled on television screens across the world when he releases a televised statement to mark the sixth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
An Islamic militant website yesterday posted a still portrait of bin Laden, who turns 50 this year. It said that it would soon be followed by "a videotape from the lion Sheikh Osama bin Laden, God preserve him".
The film should provide a fascinating insight into the fate of the Saudi fugitive, who some suspected was gravely ill or had died in his hideout, thought to be in a remote tribal region on the Afghan-Pakistani border.
A copy of the new film, released by as-Sahab, al-Qa'ida's media arm, was already being studied by American intelligence officers last night, looking for clues into his health.
On the basis of the picture, his face looks more lined than in the last video, released in October 2004. But thanks to his trimmed and dyed beard, bin Laden manages to look younger. In his last appearance his flowing beard had turned almost completely grey. This time it is dark black. But the makeover, possibly evidence of a mid-life crisis for the former millionaire businessman, risks provoking doubts among some of his militant followers, who normally frown on trimmed beards as a sign of vanity.
Wearing a beard is not obligatory for Muslim men and is only "Sunna" or following the lifestyle of Muhammad.
But some radical Islamic sects, particularly bin Laden's allies in the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, consider it compulsory for adult Muslims.
Clean-shaven men, and those who trim their beards, were often punished for the perceived crime.
Until now bin Laden has left his beard long and uncut. Some conservative Muslims henna their beards, but it is rare to dye them black.
Meanwhile, General David Petraeus, US military commander in Iraq, will tell President Bush in a public report on Monday that the "surge" of troops has been successful enough that a "drawdown" of forces can begin next year.
It was reported yesterday that he will recommend that a brigade of 4,000 soldiers can be withdrawn as early as January, but that bigger reductions could take place later in 2008.
Democrats demanding an immediate and substantial withdrawal are on a collision course with Mr Bush, who appears determined to maintain high force levels.
There is disquiet among the Joint Chiefs, the heads of America's armed forces, about the strain of repeated deployments to Iraq and the erosion of the country's ability to deal with other crises.
Several of them are said to view Gen Petraeus's plans as too cautious, a view backed by Pentagon chief Robert Gates who is understood to be lobbying for a major drawdown.
"Based on the progress our forces are achieving, I expect to be able to recommend that some will be redeployed without replacement," Gen Petraeus told the Boston Globe in an email from Baghdad.
"That will reduce the total number of troops in Iraq. The process will take time, but we want to be sure to maintain the security gains that coalition and Iraqi forces have worked so hard to achieve."
The pullout of a brigade could relieve some pressure on the embattled Republican party, though Gen Petraeus is also planning to say that heightened troop levels need to continue in Iraq well into next year.
Gen Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq, are due to testify before Congress on the progress of the 30,000-troop surge on Monday, a report that for months the White House has cited as the definitive assessment of whether there has been progress in Iraq.
Such a modest force reduction as a single brigade will be dismissed by Democrats and moderate Republicans, many of whom are queasy about their electoral prospects during an unpopular war, as insignificant. Troops levels are now 168,000.