Footage after the fact

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In the midst of the Washington-backed war of extermination that Israeli forces are waging against the Palestinian people, Al-Jazeera and some other satellite stations have aired a new video featuring Osama Bin Laden. The tape was purported to be the last will and testament of one of the perpetrators of the attacks against New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. The timing of the release of this tape, the way it was presented and its substance were a flagrant attempt to link the events of 11 September to the Palestinian cause in general, and to the suicide operations undertaken by Palestinian freedom fighters in particular. In view of the numerous and obviously deliberate visual and textual associations in the tape, one cannot but doubt its authenticity. We must suspect that it was the fabrication of a group or government whose interests are served by public opinion making such a connection at this time.

With regard to form, none of the Islamist groups or organisations, especially those associated with Bin Laden, are known to have videotaped their own members if they have undertaken suicide missions of any scale. Egypt’s Jihad, initially led by Ayman El- Zawahri and later allied and then merged with Bin Laden’s Al-Qa’eda, never used videos to claim responsibility for such operations. No such tapes were in evidence after their assassination attempt on the former Egyptian minister of interior in 1993, or their bombing of the Egyptian Embassy in Pakistan in 1995. Another good example is the International Islamic Front to Fight Jews and Crusaders. It was formed by Bin Laden and El-Zawahri in February 1998 and used suicide bombers to blow up the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and then again to blow up the US Destroyer Cole in Aden in October 2000. But it declared its responsibility for these operations through written statements, never through pre- recorded video footage of the perpetrators.

Conversely, it is known that the first organisation to send out video recordings of the last testimonies of its martyrs was Hizbullah. The Lebanese resistance organisation first began making such recordings in the early 1980s, when it started its suicide operations against the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon. By the 1990s, the use of taped testimonies had spread to all factions of the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance — Islamist and non-Islamist alike — whose members found no other course but martyrdom to respond to the aggression and repression of the Israeli military machine. Herein, it seems, resides one way in which the fabricators of the recently released video attempted to manipulate the public mind. By presenting the alleged “will and testament” of one of the “perpetrators” of the 11 September attacks, they sought to conjure the image of Palestinian suicide bombers in the public mind. After all, the use of tapes of that nature has become commonly associated with martyrdom in the cause of anti- Israeli resistance.

In order to drive this subtext more forcefully home, the alleged 11 September suicide hijacker appeared in the video wearing the Palestinian kufiya — the unique black and white shawl that has become the universally known symbol of the Palestinian resistance. In real life, the headgear of well- known Islamist radicals could not be more different. The most obvious example was right next to the alleged attacker: it can be seen in the head coverings of Bin Laden, Ayman El-Zawahri and Suleiman Abu Gheith who appear in the same video.

Similarly, the beard of the Palestinian kufiya-clad martyr is a far cut from the customary long, thick beards of militant Islamic radicals — Bin Laden, Ayman El-Zawahri and Suleiman Abu Gheith above all. His is the short, trimmed beard of the Palestinian freedom fighter. Such beards have become familiar to television viewers over recent years from the many earlier video tapes of martyrs — from the various Palestinian factions — reciting their last testimonies to the camera before blowing themselves up.

The substance of the tape was even more insidious in its attempt to foster the association between the Palestinian cause and Bin Laden and the 11 September attacks. The visual and textual connections build up with a sinister logic. The scenes in the video switch back and forth between the alleged martyr-to-be and images of Bin Laden and his senior aides. Yet neither acknowledges the other’s presence with respect to their involvement in the forthcoming attacks on New York and Washington.

The man reciting his will, for example, says nothing about his involvement with Al- Qa’eda organisation accused of those attacks. Nor do Bin Laden and his aides make any reference to the young man who is about to go to his death. They do not make the slightest allusion to bearing responsibility for the 11 September attacks.

The “perpetrator” mentions Bin Laden only twice. Firstly, his name comes up as one of seven religious leaders who decreed the need to wage holy war against the US. Among these, the Saudi dissident was listed sixth. Secondly, Bin Laden is mentioned as a defender of the Muslim Nation against foreign aggression. In this respect the alleged attacker lists five names, Bin Laden’s last of all.

Significantly, the “perpetrator” preceded his second mention of Bin Laden with the remark, “…if he is still alive, may God protect him.” He added:”or dead, (in which case) the Nation has a thousand Bin Ladens.” Perhaps the young man had overlooked the fact that he was ostensibly recording this video in March 2001 — just over a year ago — when there was no doubt at all about the Saudi dissident’s well being, as photographs and reports about him, which proliferated in the international media at the time, demonstrated beyond doubt.

Apparently by coincidence, the four other names preceding Bin Laden as “defenders of the Muslim Nation” were intimately associated with Palestine. The first two are historical symbols, Khaled Ibn Al-Walid and Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi, known in the West as Saladin. The second two were contemporary figures, both Palestinian: Abdullah Azzam, the famous leader of the Afghanistan jihad against Soviet occupation, and Yehia Ayyash, a well-known Hamas leader assassinated several years ago by Israel’s Mossad.

The Palestinian connection was made more explicit in the protagonist’s will, however. It is made to appear that the Palestinian cause was virtually the man’s sole motive for undertaking his suicide mission in the US. In justifying his forthcoming attack, he mentions only two causes, speaking at length on the Palestinian cause and then devoting a couple of brief sentences to Kashmir. While proclaiming the need to avenge the death of “our martyrs in Palestine who were killed by the Jews,” he makes no reference to other “martyrs” associated with any number of other causes in the Islamic world.

This intense focus on the Palestinian cause in the tape is deeply suspect, in view of the broader ideological perspective of the Saudi dissident. From all the speeches and documents issued by Bin Laden since the 1990s, it is clear that Palestine is only one of three primary reasons for his antagonism towards the US. The other two, equally important, are US policy towards Iraq and the US presence in the Arabian peninsula.

Other causes — Kashmir, Chechnya and Bosnia — have also figured in his speeches, albeit with lesser emphasis. It is also noteworthy that an Al-Qa’eda statement issued on 9 April, specifically to address the Palestinian issue, made mention of several other issues — further illustrating the diversity of the Bin Laden-Al-Qa’eda outlook.

The film-makers’ coup de grace, however, was delivered through the inflammatory curse, “The Jews are the descendants of apes and pigs.” The line was scripted twice for the suicide bomber and once again for the programme’s presenter. No one in Al- Qa’eda, including Bin Laden himself, has ever used such an expression before. But the producers of this tendentious video know that this fact will make little difference to the western audiences. For them, the statement will instantaneously constitute yet another affirmation that the Arabs and Muslims have an ancient, deep-seated hatred for the Jews, rather than a hatred for 20th century Zionists or Israelis bred from the contemporary record of Zionist territorial expansionism, aggression and oppression.

At the end of the tape, to round off the picture of the bloodthirsty Palestinian-Arab- Muslim ogre, the video has its “martyr” spew such nonsense as: “The victory of my Lord will not be won until after blood flows and limbs fly;” and, to the American people, on three separate occasions, “Dig your graves and get your coffins ready!”

The film’s form and content was tailor- made to target Western audiences at a time when Western public opinion has begun to sympathise ever more vocally and, for the first time, practically, with the Palestinian people in their latest plight. It was certainly no coincidence that this video was aired for the first time on the day after Zionist groups launched their counter-offensive to this wave of pro-Palestinian sympathy, by staging the largest ever pro-Israeli demonstration held in Washington.

Marching at the head of that demonstration was former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, dispatched by current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to spearhead the campaign. The aim and message of this Zionist media offensive and the tape are twofold. First of all, to brand Palestinian resistance fighters as terrorists, no different to those who attacked New York and Washington on 11 September. Second, to market the brutal Israeli military assaults against the Palestinian people as part of the broader US-led war against international terrorism.

Is there any way to corroborate our suspicions about the film? After all, its star martyr died in the events of 11 September — or perhaps not. To date, US authorities have not confirmed that the man was involved in those attacks.

Furthermore, a cloud of confusion hovers over his true identity. The FBI picture of him released in the days after 11 September, bearing the suicide bomber’s name, along with his age and date of entrance into the US, is not of the man we saw in the video reading his will.

The family of the video star has stated that he left Saudi Arabia for Chechnya two years before the attacks on the US and that he never returned home. FBI information, on the other hand, says that a man bearing his name entered the US on a visa issued in Saudi Arabia. It may well be, therefore, that the alleged “perpetrator” is still alive and now in the hands of some persons or agency who got a hold of him in Chechnya, Afghanistan or elsewhere — and used him to make this notorious video to blacken the Palestinian cause.

It is not difficult to imagine whose interests those persons or agency are serving. The US defence secretary’s comments following the release of the video, for example, point us in the right direction. Rumsfeld said that the film seemed old, spliced together, and of little value. His words do not serve Washington’s need for evidence confirming its allegations against Bin Laden and the Al-Qa’eda, and justifying its on-going wars against terrorism.

So the agency that manufactured the film did not let its friends in Washington into the secret, in spite of their special relations and mutual interests. Washington, for its part, can breathe a sigh of relief here; it will not stand accused of making a film of such crude quality and containing so many inconsistencies.

The writer is an expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and managing editor of the annual State of Religion in Egypt Report.

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