Do the global terror links reach even as far as Sesame Street? Is Bert the Muppet a henchman of terrorist mastermind Usama bin Laden?
The answer is clearly no, but puzzled newspaper readers are still wondering how the Sesame Street icon ended up in a news service photograph of a pro-bin Laden protest in Bangladesh. The pictures showed demonstrators holding up a large poster in which bin Laden and Bert are standing next to each other.
The picture quickly began making the e-mail rounds Wednesday morning, astonishing people and provoking laughter from Los Angeles to Switzerland to South Korea.
The poster is a collage of pictures of bin Laden in white robes or in camouflage fatigues and sometimes lecturing with a microphone in his hand, all ringing a large portrait of the bearded Saudi exile. Along the bottom is printed "Usama." On the right side of the picture, just past the right shoulder of the large portrait, is irascible Bert, bosom buddy of Ernie.
The photographs do not appear to have been doctored. They were taken by news photographers covering at least two different demonstrations from different angles on at least two separate days.
The first known Bert-bin Laden posters appeared on Oct. 5 in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, and photographs of them were printed by the Dutch news service Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau and the Associated Press and Reuters news services. At least one other photograph including the posters was taken at another location by Reuters photographer Rafiqur Rahman on Oct. 9.
Reuters spokeswoman Felicia Cosby said the photos were authentic.
"We've just noticed it ourselves, since you queried, that there is Bert on that poster," she said. "I don't know if they're mass-producing these posters, but what I can say is that it is definitely our policy not to doctor photographs."
Associated Press spokesman Jack Stokes said the AP photographs were also untouched.
"We haven't changed the photo at all," he said. "We have very strict editing guidelines."
The AP photographs were taken by Pavel Rahman. Stokes said he did not know if Rahman was another name for, or related to, Rafiqur Rahman.
Cosby said Rafiqur Rahman, a native Bangladeshi, did not know that he was photographing a Muppet when he covered a prayer demonstration for bin Laden's health Oct. 9.
"The photographer is as bemused as we are," she said. "He didn't know what that furry creature was."
Rahman is going to a local marketplace to hunt down more Bert-bin Laden posters Wednesday, Cosby said.
The creator of a parody Web site dedicated to "Evil Bert" said he had a theory about how an associate of Kermit the Frog, Big Bird and Snuffleupagus had been recruited into the Al Qaeda cause.
For several years, Dino Ignacio, 27, a San Francisco 3-D animator, had been maintaining a humor Web site that purported to "prove" that the bad-tempered, banana-shaped Jim Henson creation was connected to evil causes from Hitler and the JFK assassination to the stolen Pamela Anderson sex tapes and Kevin Costner movies. But he stopped maintaining the site when he lost interest in 1998.
A week after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, someone e-mailed him an altered picture of bin Laden standing next to Bert wearing a trenchcoat and looking very angry. Ignacio didn't post the picture on his site out of respect for victims of the terror attack, but the picture began showing up on Bert fan sites and in other odd corners of the Internet.
"What I'm thinking is that [someone there] has access to the Internet, got this picture to pop up off of Alta Vista or Google and put together this collage," he said.
Of course, the other explanation might be that Bert has finally ditched Ernie, canceled his account at Mr. Hooper's shop and taken his Kalashnikov to the other side of the war.
Sesame Workshop issued a statement saying it was very unhappy with the sudden connection between a lovable character with a penchant for pigeons and bottlecaps and the most wanted man in the world.
"Sesame Street has always stood for mutual respect and understanding," a spokeswoman said. "We're outraged that our characters would be used in this unfortunate and distasteful manner. This is not at all humorous.The people responsible for this should be ashamed of themselves. We are exploring all legal options to stop this abuse and any similar abuses in the future."
When asked about Bert's current whereabouts, however, the spokeswoman replied: "No comment."
Regardless of the explanation, Ignacio said he doesn't find his "Evil Bert" idea very funny right now.
"It's weirding me out," he said. "It's like reality imitating the Web, but it's taking something that I did so much further. I don't want to get into this one because it's too real."