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Briefings & Documents Menu / Anti-war Briefings Menu / Briefing 12

11 March 2002

Six Months On
Part I: The Perpretrators


The war in Afghanistan was justified by two central arguments: the first was that Saudi terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was the prime mover behind 11 September. US Vice-President Dick Cheney said within days of the attacks that there was no doubt that Osama bin Laden played ‘a significant part’ in the atrocities. (Independent, 17 Sept. p. 5) Yet even now, six months on, the only real evidence that bin Laden even knew about the attacks beforehand is contained in a video ‘confession’.

The ‘evidence’ produced by the British Government in its famous 70 point dossier was summed up accurately in a Guardian editorial: ‘the reality is that Mr Blair’s case comes down to two words: trust me’. (5 Oct. 2001, p. 23) Anthony Scrivener QC commented, ‘it is a sobering thought that better evidence is required to prosecute a shoplifter than is needed to commence a world war’. (Times, 5 Oct., p. 7) As for the ‘secret evidence’ disclosed to close allies, this was only strong enough for General Musharraf, military leader of Pakistan, to say that there was evidence ‘leading to an association’ between 11 September and bin Laden.’ (FT, 6 Oct., p. 7)

Turning to the video (apparently made by a bin Laden supporter), according to a US Government transcript bin Laden says, ‘We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy... We calculated that the floors that would be hit would be three or four floors. I was the most optimistic of them all... due to my experience in this field, I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit and all the floors above it... We had notification since the previous Thursday that the event would take place that day.’ (Newsweek, 24 Dec. 2001, p. 18) The al-Qaeda leader also says, ‘we asked’ (some of) the men who conducted the attack to go to the US to take part in the ‘operation’.

Assuming that bin Laden was telling the truth and not embroidering his role in front of an admiring audience, the video shows foreknowledge of the attacks, and a considerable contribution to the conspiracy - in the shape of the ‘brothers’ sent to the USA to take part in the attacks. However, it does not demonstrate that bin Laden ordered the attacks, or that he planned them.

Recall that just a few days after the attacks on New York and Washington DC Jurgen Storbeck, the director of Europol (the EU’s anti-terrorist organisation), ‘cautioned against jumping to conclusions before the mass of evidence had been properly sifted’: "Bin Laden is not the automatic leader of every terrorist act carried out in the name of Islam. It’s possible that he was informed about the operation; it’s even possible that he influenced it; but he’s probably not the man who steered every action or controlled the detailed plan. As for the idea that, sitting in Afghanistan, he could have controlled the last phase of the operation is something we should not accept without a lot of doubt... There are a lot of people with the same philosophy who may have been to bin Laden’s training camps, but are not necessarily under his orders." (Daily Telegraph, 15 Sept., p. 9)

Tony Blair’s dossier made much of the ‘fact’ that al-Qaeda was the only organisation with the capacity and willingness to perpetrate such a crime, but as Anthony Scrivener pointed out, ‘The main problem is that there are other terrorist groups who share the same hatred of the Americans who might have carried out this atrocity.’ (Times, 5 Oct., p. 7) For example, there was no mention in the dossier of the 1994 attempt by the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria ‘to crash a hijacked plane into the Eiffel Tower’. (Times, 5 Oct., p. 4)]


11 September originated in Hamburg. The conspiracy appears to have been led by an Egyptian student by the name of Mohamed Atta who had lived in a flat in Hamburg for eight years. Atta, 33, shared the flat with two other conspirators, one of whom had been trained in Afghanistan. ‘German prosecutors say it must have taken at least two years of detailed planning to organise the attacks on America.’ A German intelligence source said that ‘Afghanistan warriors’, Muslim radicals trained in Afghanistan, ‘have no connection with extremist organisations as far as organisational structures are concerned. Rather, they represent a loose network of small, often multinational, groups not subordinate to any common leadership but which maintain contact with one another.’ (Financial Times, 27 Sept. 2001, p. 3)

Irene Stoller, who retired in May 2001 after 13 years as director of France’s anti-terrorism division, has remarked, ‘Bin Laden and his lieutenants may seem from the outside like super-managers of international Islamist terror, but the real planning and execution is carried out at lower levels.’ (Time, 26 Nov., p. 40) Ahmed Ressam, jailed for participation in a failed al-Qaeda terrorist attack in 2000, told investigators that al-Qaeda operatives are rarely given detailed instructions. ‘Rather they are trained and then sent out to almost autonomous cells to act on their own, plan attacks and raise their own funds, often using credit-card scams to load up on money, despite the Islamic prohibition on theft.’ (Time, 24 Sept., p. 65)


Atta and the core group do not seem to have been followers of the puritanical and fundamentalist Osama bin Laden. According to the FBI, over the summer of 2001, the suicide hijackers spent time in strip clubs in Las Vegas and Florida. (Telegraph, 6 Oct., p. 3) Karen Armstrong, author of The battle for God, Islam: a brief history, and Muhammad, a biography of the prophet, wrote, "I must confess... that I am puzzled by the terrorists of September 11, because they are like no other fundamentalist that I have studied. It appears that Muhammad Atta was drinking vodka before boarding the airplane. Alcohol is, of course, forbidden by the Koran, and it seems incredible that an avowed martyr of Islam would attempt to enter paradise with vodka on his breath.

"Again, Ziad Jarrahi, the alleged Lebanese hijacker of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, seems to have frequented nightclubs in Hamburg. Muslim fundamentalists lead highly disciplined, orthodox lives, and would regard drinking and clubbing as elements of the jahili, Godless society that they are fighting to overcome." Armstrong says, "I have no theory to offer, but would just like to note that these seem to be very unusual fundamentalists indeed." (Guardian, 13 Oct. 2001)

Most tellingly, a crucial document found in Atta’s luggage (accidentally not loaded onto his plane) indicates that the author (either Atta or another core conspirator) was not familiar with basic tenets of Islam, or concerned with bin Laden’s ideology. The document, which sets out the final instructions to the suicide hijackers, opens with an invocation including the hijackers’ families. Robert Fisk notes that, ‘no Muslim - however ill-taught - would include his family in such a prayer’. A Muslim would also include the name of Mohammed immediately after invoking God in the first line of the prayer. No Muslim would need to actually quote from the morning prayer, as familiar to Muslims as the Lord’s Prayer is to Christians. Robert Fisk asks, ‘What Muslim would write: "The time of fun and waste is gone"?’. Fisk also points out that the document does not mention evicting US forces from the Gulf, ending Israeli occupation of Arab lands, or the overthrow of pro-US Arab regimes, bin Laden’s core concerns. (Independent, 29 Sept., p. 5)

It seems plain that the leaders of the 11 September attacks were not Muslim fundamentalists, were far from devout, and were in fact ignorant of many of the basic tenets of Islam. The only document which has survived from their conspiracy sets out no political agenda, and gives no trace of the issues that Osama bin Laden has championed throughout the Muslim world.


FBI investigators concluded within weeks of the attacks that 11 of the 19 hijackers did not know they were on a suicide mission. "Unlike the eight ‘lead’ attackers, who were all trained pilots, they did not leave messages for friends and family indicating they knew their lives were over. None of them had copies of the instructions for prayer and contemplation on the eve of the attacks and for ‘opening your chest to God’ at the moment of immolation, which FBI agents discovered in the luggage of Mohamed Atta..."

"It is understood the FBI has found evidence suggesting the 11 men expected to take part in ‘conventional’ hijackings - with the planes flown to distant airports, and the passengers and crew taken hostage while the hijackers presented demands. Items found among the 11 men’s possessions suggest they had been preparing themselves for incarceration. One source said: ‘It looks as if they expected they might be going to prison, not paradise.’ The FBI analysis concludes the 11 may have believed the purpose of the hijackings was to free the perpetrators of previous extremist terrorist attacks on the United States, such as the first World Trade Centre bombing in 1993." (Observer, 14 Oct. 2001)

Interestingly, bin Laden says in his video ‘confession’ that the ‘brothers’ he sent to take part in the attacks ‘didn’t know anything about the operation... we did not reveal the operation to them until... just before they boarded the planes’, though they did knew it was ‘a martyrdom operation’. (Newsweek, 24 Dec., p. 19)


Incidentally, there seems to have been a string of intelligence failures regarding the 11 September conspiracy. Atta’s home (used by two other core members) was nearly placed under surveillance a year before the attacks - German federal intelligence apparently asked the Hamburg state intelligence service to observe 54 Marienstrasse, but this was never carried out. Atta was apparently not a typical, inconspicuous, student ‘sleeper’ agent, but a regular ‘club class’ air traveller to a number of different countries. German intelligence monitored at least one conversation mentioning Atta between Muslim extremists in Hamburg - in 1999. (Telegraph, 24 Nov., p. 16) Atta had been monitored by the Egyptian secret service before the attacks took place, according to a German TV documentary, and was even monitored by the FBI ‘for several months in 2000, when he was frequently in Frankfurt and had allegedly bought large quantities of chemical, possibly to make explosives.’ (Financial Times, 24 Nov., p. 4) ‘It said the US agents who are believed to have watched Atta between January and May 2000 did not inform the German authorities about their investigation.’ (Guardian, 25 Sept.)

On 23 Aug., over two weeks before the attacks, the CIA cabled the FBI with the names of two men, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi, who took part in the attacks. Al-Midhar had been videotaped months before meeting a suspect in the bombing of the USS Cole, and the CIA advisory was "not a routine matter," an official familiar with the events told the Washington Post. ‘The FBI sought the men in New York and Los Angeles but they had been living in San Diego... The FBI failed to locate the men before they boarded the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.’ (Guardian, 25 Sept.)

Actually on the day of the hijacking, nine of the hijackers were ‘selected for security screenings that morning, including two who were singled out because of irregularities in their identification documents’. Six hijackers had their luggage swept for explosives or unauthorised weapons. (Washington Post, 2 Mar. 2002, p. A11)

Early depictions of the suicide hijackers as meticulous planners working undetectably, inconspicuous ‘sleeper’ terrorists rigorously avoiding surveillance, were misleading. The conspirators were not supermen. They could have been thwarted.


A Gallup poll in the aftermath of the attacks suggested various responses to 11 September, including military strikes against known terrorist organisations ‘even if is not clear who caused the attacks last week’ (23% support in the US, 13% support in the UK). The overwhelmingly popular option was ‘the US and its allies should only conduct military strikes against the terrorist organisations responsible for the attacks on the US even if it takes months to identify them’ (62% support in the US, 82% in the UK). (Telegraph, 20 Sept., p. 2) This was not the path followed.

In the event, the US and UK conducted not only ‘military strikes’, but a war, without compelling evidence of exactly who was responsible. Bin Laden’s video ‘confession’, made in early Nov. 2001, was not available on 7 Oct. 2001, and therefore could not have helped to justify the war which began on that day.

Given the decentralised nature of Islamic terrorism (and of the al-Qaeda network which makes up one part of this movement), the unfundamentalist behaviour and thinking of the leaders of the conspiracy, and the lack of evidence of direction from bin Laden, there are serious questions yet to be answered about the co-sponsors of 11 September.

Yet the nature and motivation of the conspiracy that led to 3000 deaths is now off the agenda of our leaders and the mainstream media. The ‘prime suspect’ is no longer even mentioned by President Bush or Prime Minister Blair. The al-Qaeda organisation and its affiliates are being attacked in dozens of countries, but the reasons why people become willing to support such an organisation, and to participate in Islamic terrorism, are not matters for serious discussion. So long as this is the case, it is impossible to deal with the root causes of terrorism, or to prevent future atrocities of the kind committed on 11 September. The victims of 11 September deserve more than this.

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