The Photofit image of an older, greying Al-Qaeda leader bore a striking resemblance to the left-wing politician Gaspar Llamazares, a member of Spain’s Communist party and a critic of the US “war on terror”.
It turned out Llamazares’s grey hair, jaw line and forehead had been simply cut and pasted from an old campaign photograph by an FBI technician.
The FBI originally claimed it used “cutting edge” technology to come up with new images of terrorist suspects for the State Department’s Rewards for Justice website.
However, Ken Hoffman, an FBI spokesman, admitted yesterday that the agency had used a picture of Llamazares taken from Google Images to update the Photofit.
He told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo: “The forensic artist was unable to find suitable features among the reference photographs and obtained those features, in part, from a photograph he found on the internet.”
The US government had previously been using a 1998 photo of Bin Laden, including on a wanted poster that offered a reward of up to $25m (now worth £15m) for information leading to his capture or killing.
Llamazares, former leader of the United Left party, was elected to Spain’s parliament in 2000. He said he would no longer feel safe travelling to the United States. “I was surprised and angered because it’s the most shameless use of a real person to make up the image of a terrorist,” he said.
“It’s almost like out of a comedy, if it didn’t deal with matters as serious as Bin Laden and citizens’ security.”
Llamazares intends to ask the US government for an explanation and is considering legal action. He said he has “no similarity, physically or ideologically, to Bin Laden”.
They do share one trait: they are both 52.
Bin Laden, who is wanted for the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 1998 US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, is believed to be hiding in the lawless Pakistan frontier region bordering Afghanistan.
His exact whereabouts have been unknown since late 2001, when he and some bodyguards slipped out of the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan, evading airstrikes, special forces and Afghan militias.