I originally wrote this piece in the run up of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and it was subsequently published on the IRCNL website in September 2011.
At the end of August 2011, the BBC reported that “[t]en years on from the attacks which killed nearly 3,000 people [on 11 September 2001], conspiracy theories have continued to evolve. They now question every aspect of the official account, despite the fact that every year has provided more witnesses and evidence to bolster the official explanation”. Serious commentators at reputable news providers the world over wonder aloud how it is that so many people persist in believing mumbo jumbo explanations of the terrorist attacks that have determined the course of the 21stcentury. On the other hand, looking at the available information, it seems to me that it is rather surprising that public opinion at large has been so docile in accepting the official line . . . arguably.
The starting point of any conspiracy theory regarding 9/11, worth its salt, has to be the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and its prescriptions made in 2010. In particular, I am referring to the now infamous document Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century, published 2010. The PNAC, as a Neo-Con think tank, was trying to figure out how America could again become the primary power in the world, but deemed such a development unlikely “absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event like a new Pearl Harbor” . . . a phrase that has by now become emblematic of George W. Bush’s War on Terror and the doctrine of pre-emption in the minds of critics of the U.S. and its foreign policy under Bush (and Obama). There are those who say that it was no coincidence that the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were hit, suspecting that the PNAC and the Bush administration had prior knowledge of the plot, or were even involved in the planning and execution of the attacks. The U.S. authorities have since then employed the events of 11 September to justify the imposition of the Patriot Act to curtail the public’s freedom domestically and to wage a global war on terror, personified in the figure of the now-defunct Usamah bin Laden (variously spelled and abbreviated as OBL) and a shadowy organisation known as Al Qaeda (the base in Arabic). Military attacks and drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen are still explained in terms of President Obama’s alliterative mantra that the U.S. is fighting to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda”, even though its supposed kingpin Bin Laden has now been taken care of in a targeted assassination.
Last year, when Bin Laden was still very much alive and a lively object of discussion worldwide, the Turkish journalist Timur Demirtaş wrote in the daily Taraf on 20 January that Usamah bin Laden might have been inspired by the work of the “legendary Science-Fiction writer Isaac Asimov” in devising his terrorist assault on the U.S. Even though the Turkish journalist does not reveal his sources, sufficing to indicate that this find was the product of his online surfing habits, he nevertheless points to the Russian scientist Dimitri Gusev as the first one to have detected this odd link between art and reality. Alerted to this rather interesting link, I set out to re-do Demirtaş’s surfing trip, and immediately came across an article written by Giles Foden in The Guardian: “What is the origin of the name al-Qaida?”, published on 24 August 2002. The paper’s deputy literary editor Giles Foden (1995-2006) wrote that “[i]n October , an item appeared on an authoritative Russian studies website that soon had the science-fiction community buzzing with speculative excitement. The piece asserted that Isaac Asimov’s 1951 classic Foundation was translated into Arabic under the title “al-Qaida”. And it seemed the evidence to back up these claims was at hand. “This peculiar coincidence would be of little interest if not for abundant parallels between the plot of Asimov’s book and the events unfolding now’, wrote Dimitri Gusev, the scientist who posted the article. He was referring to apparent similarities between the plot of Foundation and the pursuit of the organisation we have come to know, perhaps erroneously, as al-Qaida”. Foden mused that “[o]n the surface, the most improbable explanation of the name is that Bin Laden was somehow inspired by a Russian-born writer who lived most of his life in the US and was once the world’s most prolific sci-fi novelist (born in 1920 in Smolensk, Asimov died in New York in 1992). But the deeper you dig, the more plausible it seems that al-Qaida’s founders may have borrowed some rhetoric from Foundation and its successors (it became a series) and possibly from other science fiction material”.
Another strand of conspiracy reasoning has it that Bin Laden was but a straw man to deflect attention from even murkier truths. Already in 2004, the British filmmaker and writer Adam Curtis suggested in his documentary The Power of Nightmares that al-Qaeda as an international terrorist network was basically an American invention to secure the prosecution and conviction of guilty parties and individuals in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Curtis maintains that a Sudanese individual named Jamal al-Fadl played a crucial role in devising Al Qaeda, as the new enemy of the West. In particular, Curtis refers to al-Fadl’s testimony during a trial in New York in January 2001, where he was accused with three other men of complicity in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in east Africa. The U.S wanted to prosecute Usamah bin Laden in his absence under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), Curtis explained. In order to be able to do this successfully under American law, the prosecutors were in need of evidence of a criminal organisation. The existence of such an organisation would allow the U.S. to prosecute the leader, even if he could not be linked directly to the crime. Jamal al-Fadl was taken on as a key prosecution witness, who, along with a number of other individuals, claimed that Usamah bin Laden was the leader of a large international terrorist organisation which was called “al-Qaeda”.
But, somewhat undermining the argument developed by Curtis, the Irish writer and academic Fred Halliday, in his book Two Hours that Shook the World (2001), gives more detailed background information on the story of how the organisation known as Al Qaeda came about: “[t]he existence of this organization was announced on 23 February 1998, as part of a World Islamic Front comprising groups from Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The term has no apparent antecedents in Islamic or Arabic political history . . . [but he adds that the name could be a reference] to the title of a 1951 Isaac Asimov novel, The Foundation, which was translated into Arabic as al-Qaeda”. But, looking at the actual text of 1998 fatwa promulgated by the World Islamic Front, and printed in the London-based, Arabic-language paper Al-Quds al-Arabi (23 February 1998), the name Al Qaeda is never mentioned. Instead, the declaration exhorts jihad as a defensive means against the enemies of Islam – “in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim” – but nevertheless ends in encouraging wanton murder and plunder of Americans: “We — with Allah’s help — call on every Muslim who believes in Allah and wishes to be rewarded to comply with Allah’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it”. The name Al Qaeda does not feature however. As a result, how unreasonable would it be for conspiracy-minded and/or plain sceptical individuals to argue that the name Al Qaeda was invented in 2001 due to the good offices of Jamal al-Fadl, a former militant and close buddy of OBL.
In fact, scrutinising the actions of Usamah bin Laden in the aftermath of 9/11, one comes across a little-known interview he gave to the Urdu-language Pakistani daily Ummat on 28 September 2001, professing his innocence: “I have already said that I am not involved in the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. As a Muslim, I try my best to avoid telling a lie. I had no knowledge of these attacks, nor do I consider the killing of innocent women, children and other humans as an appreciable act. Islam strictly forbids causing harm to innocent women, children and other people. Such a practice is forbidden even in the course of a battle. … Whoever committed the acts of Sept. 11 are not the friends of the American people. I have already said that we are against the American system, not against its people, whereas in these attacks, common American people have been killed”. Was Bin Laden sincere or merely trying to construct an alibi? Prior to the interview, then-President George W. Bush had been busy pointing his finger at the Saudi-born Muslim then residing in Afghanistan. In doing so, he was following the lead of his predecessor Bill Clinton. Following the 1998 African U.S. embassy attacks, then-president Bill Clinton had singled out the Saudi exile as the face of evil bent on killing Americans and destroying the West. At the time, the BBC nevertheless reported that “Mr Bin Ladan [sic] said he had ‘no hand in the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania’, which killed more than 200 people”. Unperturbed, President Clinton ordered retaliatory air strikes on targets in Sudan and in Afghanistan, thereby arguably deflecting attention from Monica Lewinsky and other domestic woes. In the 21st century, President Barrack Obama famously said the following upon entering the White House: “Al Qaeda is still a threat. We cannot pretend somehow that because Barack Hussein Obama got elected as president, suddenly everything is going to be OK”. Under his watch American soldiers did nevertheless kill Bin Laden. Yet the war in Afghanistan continues unabated and the 9/11 attacks are still cited as the reason why American boots are currently still stomping around the Afghan mountainside.
But, the mystery surrounding the 2001 attacks continues to occupy minds, and looking back on the previous decade, one cannot but conclude that the attacks did constitute a “new Pearl Harbor”, a “new Pearl Harbor” that has determined the course of the new century’s first decade. In 1991, the Cold War ended and NATO as well as the U.S. started looking for a new raison d’être in the absence of the Communist threat. Even though many voices argued that the Alliance would rapidly cease to exist, the opposite happened. Still, the West had to wait till February 1995, for Willy Claes, NATO secretary-general from 1994-95, to declare that “Islamic militancy has emerged as perhaps the single gravest threat to the NATO alliance and to Western security” in the aftermath of the fall of Communism. Claes added that extremist Muslims oppose “the basic principles of civilization that bind North America and Western Europe.” Given the potentially provocative nature of his statement, the then-Secretary General added that he was not calling for “a crusade against Islam”. The 1998 African U.S. embassy attacks provided President Clinton with an ideal opportunity to appropriate NATO’s new-found rationale, and he duly concentrated on Usamah bin Laden and other Muslim extremists. In 2001, President George W. Bush launched the War on Terror as the new framework of U.S. foreign and domestic policy in order to capture Bin Laden and defeat Al Qaeda.
A decade later, with the war in Iraq slowly winding down and Afghanistan becoming more and more deadly by the day, the War on Terror shows no sign of ending anytime soon. President Obama’s foreign policy is all but in continuation of that of his predecessor and he seems determined to continue the “Just War” in Afghanistan, even though Bin Laden is now dead and Al Qaeda has no credible presence on the ground in the Hindu Kush mountains. At the same time, drone strikes are expanding into Pakistan and Yemen, hunting for Muslim extremists. Still, Barrack Obama is quick to point out that “America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings”. As a result, the questions that emerge now are: have the 9/11 attacks really ushered in a new Cold War, known only as the War on Terror? And has the Muslim Extremist now replaced the Godless Communist as the personification of opposition to the West and resistance to American dominance?