PETRAS ESSAYS IN ENGLISH

September 24, 2001

Washington's conspiracy theory rejected

James Petras

Conspiracy theorists (CT) have flourished following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Unlike the past in which CT were largely found in marginal groups at the fringes of political power, in the current case they are most prominent in the highest reaches of government, in the mass media with the biggest world audiences, and among the most respectable academics. Conspiracy theories enunciated from the US and the EU spread across the globe, repeated by leaders, religious notables and the mass media in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The "conspiracy", according to its main exponents in the US is made up of a cabal of secret Islamic conspirators grouped around fundamentalist leader, Osama ben Laden. Together with his followers they are organized in a global terrorist network, Al Qaeda, conspiring to overthrow Western governments and establish Islamic regimes everywhere, beginning with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The CT base their accusations against a Fundamentalist Islamic conspiracy on no direct evidence. Even the identification of the suspected terrorists has been open to question, let alone their political beliefs, organizational affiliation and intenational networks.

Like most conspiracy theories, evidence is the first victim of preconceived notions. The bases for Washington's attributions of the terrorist attacks to Islamic fundamentalists in general and Ben Laden and the Afghan Taliban in particular is based on generalities extrapolated from previous incidents in other contexts as well as from preconceived notions about the capacities, politics and activities of Islamic fundamentalists.

The conspiracy theorists deduce their conclusions in the following manner: Ben Laden in particular and Islamic fundamentalism in general have been involved in and supported terrorist incidents in the past. Both are declared enemies of the US and the West and have issued edicts calling for " holy wars " against Washington. Ben Laden and his Islamic supporters operate clandestine international networks ( al Qaeda ).

Therefore, according to the CT, these general characteristics lead to the specific conclusion that Ben Laden's international network was responsible for the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

This deductive logic is impeccable but lacking in basic empirical evidence. None of the identified suspects have any of the basic characteristics of any close followers of Ben Laden or the Taliban or any Islamic fundamentalist group.

Key suspects did not follow any of the basic precepts of Islamic codes – let alone the austere practices of Ben Laden or the Taliban. One of the principal key suspects, Ziad Jarrahi, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation (Sept 22, 2001 ), " liked to have a drink, was fun-loving and sociable and he never expressed anti-American feeling". Ziad's family possesses a video showing Ziad at his cousin's wedding in January (2001) dancing, drinking and clean shaven. Earlier reports about three suspected terrorists described their drinking heavily in a Florida bar.

According to the BBC " all of the 19 hijack suspects identified by the FBI came from similar backgrounds in the Middle East… They are members of a small middle class able to pay for a better education in countries like Germany and the United States." Ziad, asked for a $2000 loan from his family a few days before the attack to finance his travel. Apparently family support was more relevant than any of the international financial networks of Ben Laden.

These facts are at complete variance with the CT on each and every basic point. First the suspects are not practicing Muslims, let alone fundamentalists. They drink, they dance, they date – they behave very much like secularized middle class individuals the world over. Secondly they are educated, middle class professionals, unlike the previous terrorist followers of Ben Laden and other Islamic/Taliban-backed groups who are poor, semi-literate, true believes raised in slums or villages and indoctrinated by religious teachers. Thirdly the suspects form a kind of cohort with common educational experiences in the same geographical area: Seven of the suspects studied in Hamburg – mostly in technical fields. They were not recruited from the refugee camps nor indoctrinated at religious schools by fundamentalist religious teachers.

The in depth profile of the key suspects does not fit any of the speculative assertions made by the conspiracy theorists to justify their war against "Islamic Fundamentalism", Ben Laden, al Qaeda, or the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

The evidence about the terrorists suggests that the attackers were likely a small cohesive independent group of educated, secular individuals, who probably had know each other on a personal basis for considerable time. Membership was probably limited to long time acquaintances with little or no connection to any existing terrorist groups – fundamentalist or otherwise. These characteristics explain the reason for the intelligence failures, since they monitor and infiltrate known fundamentalist groups. While some of the terrorists may be religious, the likelihood is that their actions were directed by secular ideological beliefs. Their choice of targets suggests that their selection was based on a political-economic analysis of the centers of global economic and military power.

It is highly unlikely that the Taliban or Ben Laden from the caves of Afghanistan could have planned, directed and executed these actions, given the precise details and co-ordination involved. It is highly unlikely that Iraq, Syria or Iran would have engaged in this type of action and with these suspects without being detected, given the intelligence reach of the EU, the US and the Mossad.

If the conspiracy theory is so patently lacking in substance and the alternative theory of a localized, small, autonomous group is more plausible, why does Washington prepare war against Afghanistan and other countries in the Gulf and Middle East?

One plausible hypothesis is that Washington, prior to the terrorist attacks, was planning to overthrow the Taliban regime and used the attack to justify its policy. A high Pakistani official confirmed that he was told in August 2001 by a US official that Washington was planning to get rid of the Taliban by early October 2001. The reason: Taliban served as a training ground for Islamic militants opposed to US power and presence in the Muslim world. A second hypothesis is that the war mobilization and regimentation allows Washington and some EU countries to mobilize ground troops for active combat – thus breaking down civilian opposition to ground-wars (the Vietnam Syndrome). To admit that the incident was committed by a small autonomous group of secular professional with no international networks and national havens, would undermine the war mobilization and the politics of intimidation and force used to reassert US world power.

The conspiracy theory can serve to justify violent attacks against Iraq, Syria and possibly Iran and Libya or whatever country opposes US empire-building. The Bush doctrine of " whoever is not for us is against us" reenforces Israeli state terrorism in the Occupied Territories and justifies repression of anti-globalization movements in the North and mass movements against neo-liberalism in the South.

The conspiracy theory dichotomizes the world between the US empire and terrorism. It mystifies the real conflict between a crises-ridden empire and burgeoning social movements of opposition.