Two years after the 11 September attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, we cannot help thinking back to the events of a day that changed the world. Yet even now, the story of what happened on that day is far from clear, and clouded by competing versions. Questions still abound over such important matters as the identity and motives of the perpetrators. In this article, I hope to shed some light on these issues, using the information that has been disclosed to date.
The most widely accepted version of the events is that which was disseminated by US officials to the world’s media only hours after the attacks. According to this version, the attacks were the work of Bin Laden’s Al-Qa’eda. Though widely accepted, this claim is not above question. In particular, the US administration has yet to file a bill of indictment. We still do not know what legal evidence they have accumulated against the alleged perpetrators, and no arguments have been produced for the courts to challenge. So far, only one person has been put on trial: Zakaria Moussaoui, a Frenchman of Algerian origins. The absence of any more inclusive indictment casts serious doubts on the reliability of the official US version of events.
This stands in sharp contrast to the case of the twin bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on 7 August 1998. In the latter case, Washington — quite rightly — accused Al-Qa’eda of mounting the attacks. After only a few months of investigations, US prosecutors issued a bill of indictment against a number of defendants. The accused were put on trial, and the final guilty verdicts were handed down in summer 2001. The lack of any similar bill of indictment in the case of the September attacks is thus quite bizarre, considering that over the past two years US investigators have collected enormous quantities of evidence and detained hundreds of people on suspicion of working for Al-Qa’eda.
Following the occupation of Afghanistan, Al-Qa’eda’s alleged base, US officials claimed to have seized large quantities of data. Further information was obtained through the unprecedented cooperation of intelligence and security services worldwide. One would imagine that the detention of some 600 suspects in Guantanamo Bay, all of whom are said to be members of either Al-Qa’eda or the Taliban, along with more than 3000 further suspects worldwide, should have helped clarify the case. More to the point, the Americans have also arrested several people who are allegedly key officials in Al-Qa’eda, including Khaled Sheikh Mohamed, Ramzi Ben Al-Shaiba, Abu Zubeida, Abdel-Rahim Al-Nesheiri, Tawfiq Ben Attash, the Indonesian Radwan Isam Al-Din (aka Al- Hanbali), Mounir Al-Motassadeq, and Zakaria Moussaoui. All have presumably provided valuable evidence relating to the case.
Without a bill of indictment, the official US version of events should be regarded as mere "assumptions" that can and should be challenged by individuals who are seeking the truth. My intention here is to answer a specific question: Is there any conclusive evidence that Al-Qa’eda was indeed behind the criminal attacks of September 2001? Unfortunately, I will not have space to address the wider question of who were in fact the true authors of 9/11.
The American "assumptions" have been laid out in some detail, so I have decided to focus on a few specific points which bear in crucial ways on the official version of events. The first point to be made is that, to date, the so-called Al-Qa’eda group (or Qa’edat Al-Jihad) has failed to admit responsibility for the attacks. None of the leaders of the group, including Bin Laden and Ayman El-Zawahri, has issued a statement of any kind claiming responsibility. On the contrary: in many of the statements, press conferences and television announcements which he made prior to early November 2001, Bin Laden explicitly denied that his group was responsible for the attacks.
Since then, officials from the group have begun to praise the attacks, but have still not admitted responsibility. They refer to the 19 men Washington accuses of being behind them as "a squadron of martyrs who gave their lives in the fight against the Great Satan". Surely it is strange that Al-Qa’eda and its leaders have consistently refrained from any clear admission of responsibility for 9/11, even though Washington has launched a relentless war against them, and they have nothing left to lose? When weighing this evidence, we should also bear in mind that Al-Qa’eda has since claimed responsibility for a number of attacks, in Yemen, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and elsewhere.
Even the televised tapes made by some of the alleged perpetrators of the September attacks, including commentaries attributed to Bin Laden, have failed to dissipate the dense fog which still surrounds the case. I provided a critical appraisal of these tapes in an earlier edition of Al-Ahram Weekly (see 25 April, "Footage after the fact"), in which I cast doubt on their authenticity. Among the main points I raised in relation to Ahmed Al-Ghamedi’s tape that was released in April 2002, was the fact that the tape’s "producers" included footage purporting to show Bin Laden and a number of his senior aides, yet none of these figures made any credible reference to the "perpetrators" or in any way claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Nor did Al-Ghamedi provide any confirmation of his affiliation with Al-Qa’eda. Indeed, it remains a mystery why any one should go to all the trouble of producing such a tape without naming the group that mounted the attack. The "perpetrator" does mention Bin Laden twice, in passing. First, he describes him as a leading Muslim scholar who authorises Jihad against America (mentioning seven scholars, among whom he places Bin Laden sixth). Then he mentions Bin Laden as one of five figures who have defended Muslims against aggression, this time placing him last in the list. In the course of this second reference to Bin Laden, the "perpetrator" interestingly adds the caveat: "if he is still alive, may God save him; if he has been killed, the nation can produce a thousand more Bin Ladens." Yet, at the alleged time of the recording in March 2001, there was no doubt whatsoever that Bin Laden was alive. His photograph was all over the media, and his remarks were widely reported. It was only later that his fate and whereabouts would become a mystery.
Despite Bin Laden’s repeated references to the 19 men who allegedly carried out the September attacks, he has conspicuously failed to add any new information about them to what had already been published in the media. One obvious explanation for this would be that Bin Laden himself had obtained his information about the men exclusively from published reports. And indeed, though he does not seem to mind giving the impression that they were acting on his orders, he has always been careful to avoid making such a claim outright. With his media savvy, Bin Laden seems to have realised that allowing the US version of events linking him with the September attacks to predominate could help him in his war against the American enemy. Yet he has still refrained from making any explicit claim of responsibility for himself.
The televised tapes of Bin Laden also contain a number of contradictions which undermine their credibility. For example, the US security services have released a tape showing Bin Laden making fun of some of "his men" who carried out the September attacks, in which he says they did not know that the planes were destined to crash into their target — this information was available only to the leaders of the four groups, who piloted the planes in person. Another tape, however, shows some of those men, who were said to know so little of the detailed plans in which they played a part, holding English-language maps on which the planes’ final targets were clearly marked. On this second tape, the images were accompanied by a commentary in Bin Laden’s voice which described them as preparing for the attacks.
Another point which is central to the official US version of these events concerns the identity of the 19 men and their leaders. The same US security and investigation services which failed to predict the attacks and claimed to have received no specific information about them in advance, only took a few days to present the world with a list of the 19 men involved. They have stuck with this list ever since, neither adding nor removing any names, and without altering the charges against the men in any manner — despite all the additional information they have collected in the two years since the attacks.
I have already commented on this matter of the identity of the attackers (see Al-Ahram Weekly, 20 September 2001, "A war over resources"). In particular, we should bear in mind the age and experience of those accused by the US. These 19 men range in age between 20 and 33; the majority of them had no extremist Islamist background, whether in their countries of origin or in the Western countries where they lived immediately prior to the attacks. None of them had previously been subject to arrest or detention. Almost all of them come from well-to-do families, who had enabled them to go to Europe and the United States to study science and technology at considerable cost. All these factors together would seem to undermine the case that Bin Laden might have recruited them, particularly at a time when his group was under intense external pressure. As we have seen in Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, and Afghanistan, Islamist suicide cadres usually emerge from a totally different set of conditions. The journey from ordinary citizen to potential martyr is not normally the result of intellectual conviction or religious zeal, but is driven by frustration and harsh experience. It is the result either of total despair (as in most of the cases associated with Israeli occupation) or of personal experience of the rigours of jail and torture.
When selecting potential martyrs or suicide bombers, leaders of Islamist groups tend to follow exacting procedures of intellectual, religious, and practical screening and preparation. Bin Laden and his lieutenants could not conceivably have gone through anything like this process with the alleged attackers, most of whom had lived for years in the West, were religiously uncommitted, and had no apparent sympathy with hard-line Islam.
The only Egyptian implicated by the US security services in the attacks was Mohamed Atta. The former architecture student from Hamburg, Germany, has been presented as the leader of the September attacks. Atta’s background, however, raises as many questions as it answers. The first of these concerns the timing and method of his alleged recruitment by Al-Qa’eda. The American authorities have proposed two different stories in this regard, both of them far-fetched. The first is that Atta was recruited in Egypt by Al-Jihad before leaving for Germany in 1992, and that he stayed in touch with this group until moving on to join Al-Qa’eda. This story conflicts with the known fact that until 1998, Al-Jihad focussed its violence exclusively on the "enemy at hand", namely, the Egyptian government. In 1992, Al-Jihad and Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya had just launched an intensive campaign of action in Egypt. It is therefore unlikely that Al-Jihad would have let a promising member such as Atta travel abroad in anticipation of action on a front which had not yet been sanctioned by the group. In fact, we know that at that time Al-Jihad was doing just the opposite, and bringing members back from abroad in order to carry out attacks in Egypt.
The second story is that Atta was recruited to Al-Qa’eda after he arrived in Germany by a Syrian. Again, this rings false. Being an Egyptian, Atta should by rights have been recruited, or at least approved, by Egyptians close to Bin Laden, such as Ayman El-Zawahri, Abu Hafs or Seif El-Adl. Yet the Americans do not cite any of these men as being involved in identifying him, approving his recruitment, or testing his loyalty to Al-Qa’eda. In addition, Atta had never previously been a member of a violent Islamist organisation. He had never served time in prison. This makes it unusual, to say the least, for him to be commissioned by Bin Laden to lead such a gigantic operation.
So we are faced with a picture which makes no sense at all. Atta suddenly erupts on the scene as head of a terrorist unit, and yet we have no clue as to how exactly he was recruited. This vagueness is more reminiscent of secret service operations than of Islamist groups. The Islamist pattern of recruitment is fairly well-established. Islamist groups, whether violent or not, tend to begin by urging their prospective members to learn the tenets of Islam and practice them. The initial phase of recruitment involves turning the prospective member into what is called a "committed brother". This process takes place in a collective rather than an individual framework. Studying the Qur’an and practicing the main forms of worship requires a small group into which the prospective member can be integrated, with all the members of the group generally frequenting the same mosque.
In Atta’s case, there is no evidence for such a preliminary phase of recruitment during the last two years of his stay in Hamburg, let alone before. Yet no Islamist group, violent or not, would ever allow a prospective member to take part in an organised action until this person had been through such an initial period of coopting. Such a phase would normally last for close to a year. In the case of violent groups, members who graduate from the "commitment" phase to clandestine action undergo a further process of mental, religious and physical training, which on average lasts for another year. After that, there is a long period during which the new member is "tested". This rule holds true even for groups which are not as large and sophisticated as Al-Qa’eda. Besides, new members are not allowed to apply to take part in large-scale operations. The process is a gradual one, with phased testing and graded selection. The progress of each member depends on how well he performs at each stage. There is nothing in the available information about Mohamed Atta indicating that he went through any such training process. Instead, he springs onto the stage before us fully-fledged, the master of 19 men, and leader of the most formidable terror attack in history. This pattern might make sense in terms of secret service recruitment procedures, but it does not follow the standard practice of known Islamist groups, including Al-Qa’eda.
To compensate for this flaw in the American version, the security and media services have spread the concept of "sleeper cells". Unfortunately, this concept too has been borrowed from the world of secret service and intelligence operations, and has little to do with the real-life practice of known Islamist groups. The Soviets, for example, were famous for using "sleeper cells" in the West to carry out operations there. Islamist groups, however, whether militant or not, have never operated through anything resembling such "sleeper cells". Rather, these groups place an absolute priority on the conduct of their members, and are very strict on such matters as religious doctrine and practice. The scant details that we have about the conduct of the 19 alleged attackers show that some of them committed what such groups deem grave sins, such as the drinking of alcohol on the night preceding their act of "martyrdom". Some would argue that a major Islamist terrorist group such as Al-Qa’eda might well have been an innovator in this matter. Yet even if this was true, the new approach would certainly have been restricted to seasoned members of the group who had passed through all the early stages of recruitment, and would still have been conditional on their not engaging in any major sins, such as the drinking of alcohol. In this respect, then, the case of the 19 men would still constitute an inexplicable anomaly.
The US version, then, turns Al-Qa’eda into a clone of a Cold War secret service, recruiting without moral vetting and acting without claiming its deeds, even when it mounts its biggest ever operation. This account contrasts sharply with all we know about the nature of Bin Laden and those close to him, and about the group they lead. In the normal course of events, Bin Laden would have claimed responsibility for the attacks that would have been the crowning work of his life, the deadliest blow ever dealt to those whom he sees as the enemies of Islam. The idea that Bin Laden is not claiming the attacks for fear of US retaliation is ridiculous, since he doubtless foresaw the terrible reprisal which has since unfolded. Why should he have risked such vengeance, without the satisfaction of telling the world of his deeds? That he has made no attempt to claim the glory which they would confer should give us food for thought.
The US version is anomalous in another way, for the 19 men allegedly involved in the attack left no trace of their involvement behind them. As US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has admitted, no clues have been found — thus once more, the facts of the case fit the pattern of a secret service operation, rather than that of an Islamist commando. Islamists working for terrorist organisations generally leave behind them as many traces as they wish, for their aim is to declare their responsibility to the Muslims of the world, and to boast of their religious sacrifice.
There are just a few of the details about the September attacks which throw serious doubt on the official American "assumptions" as to how they were carried out. In assessing them, we should remember, too, that the US security services have been severely criticised both at home and throughout the West over their handling of the attack. The former UK Minister Michael Meacher, writing in the Guardian last Saturday, even went so far as to question the slow reactions of the US air defence to the 11 September hijackings, and to ask whether this was due to negligence, ignorance — or a deliberate decision.