Al-Ahram Weekly Online
20 - 26 December 2001
Issue No.565
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Caught on camera

For relatives of 11 September's victims, it was painful to watch Osama Bin Laden joyfully recall the carnage. But the Pentagon-released tape did little to boost Arab and Muslim support for the US military campaign in Afghanistan, writes Khaled Dawoud

The one-hour long tape released by the Pentagon on 13 December -- which showed Osama Bin Laden explicitly admitting that he had prior knowledge of the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington -- was aired only after a lengthy debate within the US administration itself.

US President George Bush claimed that he was personally against airing the tape out of respect for the feelings of the families of over 3,000 people killed in the two terror attacks. He finally decided to air it anyway, he said, in order to silence sceptics and opponents of the ongoing military campaign in Afghanistan.

"I knew that the tape would be a devastating declaration of guilt from this evil person," Bush said on Friday. "This is the Bin Laden who murders people. This is the hate man who sent innocent people to their deaths."

Bush also dismissed the idea from some quarters of the Arab and Islamic worlds that the video -- which the US government says was seized in Jalalabad, Afghanistan -- was a public relations ploy on Washington's part.

"It is preposterous for anybody to think that this tape is doctored. That's just a feeble excuse to provide weak support for an incredibly evil man," Bush said. "This is Bin Laden unedited," he added.

According to the Pentagon, the tape was recorded in mid-November. It shows Bin Laden speaking to a room of supporters in a location suspected to be Kandahar, Afghanistan. "These comments were videotaped with the knowledge of Bin Laden and all present," the Pentagon said.

For sceptics, however, the first reason to doubt the authenticity of the tape was that the events recorded on it did not seem to follow any logical order -- a fact acknowledged by the Pentagon itself. In fact, the tape seems to proceed backwards. The end of Bin Laden's visit is at the beginning of the tape, followed by a visit to the site of a US helicopter downed by former Taliban rulers of Ghazni province. Bin Laden's visit begins approximately 39 minutes into the tape.

In the two most important segments in the tape, Bin Laden is seen talking to an unidentified sheikh who appears to be crippled from the waist down. Bin Laden and his associates appear to have great respect for the sheikh, and Bin Laden kisses him several times on the forehead upon entering the room before sitting down to start the conversation.

The first release of the tape included only English subtitles of what Bin Laden and his associates were saying. But other copies with Arabic subtitles were later provided by the Pentagon to Arabic television channels.

For shaken Americans, the most horrific segments of the conversation were those in which Bin Laden admitted that he had prior knowledge of the attacks. At this point in the tape, the 'mystery' sheikh interrupts the conversation to "praise Allah" and thank God for the success of the operations.

"We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy, who would be killed based on their position in the tower," Bin Laden says on the tape. "We calculated that three or four floors would be hit. I was the most optimistic of them all. Due to my experience in this field, I had thought that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse only the area where the plane hit and the floors above it. This is all that we had hoped for."

The sheikh's reply to this was "Allah be praised."

Bin Laden goes on to say "we were at (at this point the soundtrack becomes inaudible) when the event took place. We had been notified the previous Thursday that the event would take place that day. We had finished our work that day and had the radio on. It was 5:30pm our time. I was sitting with Dr Ahmad Abul-[Khair]. Immediately after we heard the news that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, we turned the radio station to the news from Washington. The news continued with no mention of the attack until the end. At the end of the newscast, they reported that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center." The sheikh reiterates his reply of "Allah be praised."

"After a little while, they announced that another plane had hit the World Trade Center. The brothers who heard the news were overjoyed by it," Bin Laden added.

In another segment of the tape, Bin Laden refers directly to those who allegedly carried out the 11 September attacks. "The brothers who conducted the operation, all they knew was that they had a martyrdom operation and we asked each of them to go to America but they didn't know anything about the operation, not even one letter. But they were trained and we did not reveal the operation to them until they were there, just before they boarded the planes... Those who were trained to fly didn't know the others. One group of people did not know the other group."

On the tape, Al-Qa'eda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith intervenes to back the sheikh's claim that the majority of the world's Arabs and Muslims were "praising" the attacks. Bin Laden then again makes statements that seem to confirm that he knew the alleged leader of the 19 hijackers, Mohamed Atta.

Abu Ghaith is heard on the tape saying, "I was sitting with the sheikh [Bin Laden] in a room, then I left to go to another room where there was a TV set. The TV was broadcasting the big event. The scene was showing an Egyptian family sitting in their living room and they exploded with joy. Do you know when there is a soccer game and your team wins? It was the same expression of joy. There was a subtitle that read: 'In revenge for the children of Al-Aqsa, Osama Bin Laden executes an operation against America.' So I went back to the sheikh [Bin Laden] who was sitting in a room with 50 to 60 people. I tried to tell him about what I saw, but he made gesture with his hands, which meant 'I know, I know..'"

With an obvious smile on his face, Bin Laden replies by pointing to Abu Ghaith and saying, "he did not know about the operation. Not everybody knew. Mohamed Atta from the Egyptian family [meaning the Egyptian members of Al-Qa'eda group] was in charge of the group."

Referring to his followers, Bin Laden says "They were overjoyed when the first plane hit the building, so I said to them: be patient... The difference between the first and the second plane hitting the towers was 20 minutes. And the difference between the first plane and the plane that hit the Pentagon was one hour."

In an earlier reference to the hijackers, Bin Laden says that "those youth who conducted the operations did not accept any fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) in the popular terms, but they accepted the fiqh that the prophet Mohamed brought. Those young men [inaudible] spoke through their deeds in New York and Washington, speeches that overshadowed all other speeches made everywhere else in the world."

"Their speeches are understood by both Arabs and non-Arabs -- even by Chinese. Some said that in Holland, at one of the centres, the number of people who accepted Islam during the days that followed the operations numbered more than the people who accepted Islam over the last 11 years. I heard someone on Islamic radio who owns a school in America say 'We don't have time to keep up with the demands of those who are asking about Islamic books to learn about Islam.' This event made people think [about true Islam], which benefited Islam greatly."

Analysts who watched the tape claimed that it carried more than just a confession. One statement made by the disabled sheikh -- reportedly a Saudi who lost his legs while fighting against the former Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan -- could be a possible warning of a future attack on the United States.

"No doubt it is a clear victory," the sheikh says, referring to the 11 September attacks. "Allah has bestowed... honour on us... and he will give us blessings and more victory during this holy month of Ramadan and after Ramadan. And this is what everyone is hoping for. Thank Allah that America came out of its caves. We hit her on the first hit and the next one will hit her with the hands of the believers, the good believers, the strong believers."

Muslim scholars and experts on militant groups have pointed out that Bin Laden and his entourage refer several times in their conversations to "dreams" and "visions" by their followers that an attack will take place in the United States whereby a "plane will hit a tall building." The comments are meant to suggest that "God was on their side" and that He blessed those attacks.

After recalling several visions and dreams, Bin Laden jokingly says that he told one his followers that he should not tell others about a dream predicting the New York attack, in order not to reveal the secret.

Bin Laden says that one of his closest associates, Abul- Hassan Al-Masri, told him a year ago that he "saw in a dream that we were playing a soccer game against the Americans. When our team showed up in the field, they were all pilots." Bin Laden then describes how Al-Masri "wondered if that was a soccer game or a pilot game? Our players were pilots." Bin Laden then claims that "He [Al-Masri] didn't know anything about the operation until he heard it on the radio. He said the game went on and we defeated them. That was a good omen for us."

There was one sentence which the Pentagon did not translate fully and was evident only for Arabic speakers. The disabled sheikh refers to the effect of the 11 September attacks on the US administration. The Pentagon translation has the sheikh saying: "They [the Americans] were terrified, thinking there was a coup." But in actual translation, clearly ignored by the US government translators, the sheikh says that even US President Bush "had to go into hiding" at the White House.

Bin Laden appears at the end of the tape reciting a poem in which he reveals one of the main reasons why he established the Al-Qa'eda organisation and has been fighting against the Americans. "From the battlefield vanished the brightness of swords and the horses/ And over weeping sounds now we hear the beats of drums and rhythm/ They are storming his forts/ And shouting: We will not stop our raids until you free our lands."

The tape is also being seen as an embarrassment to the Saudi Arabian government. The visiting sheikh recalls the names of several respected Saudi scholars who, he claims, supported the 11 September attacks. The sheikh says that his phone did not stop ringing "until the morning" as he received calls praising the attacks.

WHO IS THE DISABLED SHEIKH?: The identity of Osama Bin Laden's guest remains a mystery amid conflicting accounts about who he really is. US sources told the Saudi-owned London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that they believed him to be Suleiman Al-Ghamdi, a Saudi national based in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.

But the paper also quoted other Arab sources identifying him as Abu Suleiman Al-Makki, who married the daughter of Bin Laden's right hand man, Ayman El-Zawahri, while he was staying in Jeddah several years ago. Other Arab sources told the newspaper that the man is an Iraqi identified by his nom de guerre "Abu Khadija."

The Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat quoted "well-informed" sources identifying the sheikh as Abu Suleiman Al-Makki, a veteran Saudi "Arab Afghan" who fought in Afghanistan and Bosnia for 11 years. The paper said that the man was a resident of the holy city of Mecca, from where he took his family name.

OFFICIAL SUPPORT, POPULAR MISTRUST: Officials from oil-rich Gulf countries, which have traditionally been staunch US allies, were the first to come out to denounce Bin Laden and to distance the Islamic religion from his views. But elsewhere in the Arab world, most newspapers reported the tape without much comment. Several analysts and commentators said that the United States should not expect much sympathy at a time when US weapons are being used by its closest ally in the region, Israel, to kill Palestinians. On Friday, the United States again vetoed a Security Council resolution calling upon Israel to stop its attacks on civilian Palestinian villages and calling for the resumption of peace talks.

The Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, strongly denounced Bin Laden and his group, describing him as a "murderous criminal."

"The tape displays the cruel and inhumane face of a murderous criminal who has no respect for the sanctity of human life or the principles of his faith," the ambassador said in a statement.

Kuwaiti First Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah said the videotape was "shocking." "Anyone who sees or listens to the tape would be shocked to hear people laughing joyously over the killing of innocent people," Sheikh Sabah said.

"There is no doubt in my mind that Bin Laden was behind those operations. The tape confirms this in a way that leaves no room for doubt," said the United Arab Emirates' Information Minister Sheikh Abdallah Bin Zaid Al Nahayan. "They [Al- Qa'eda] deserve the punishment that befell them. I go further and say that we, Arabs and Muslims, should punish them for offending Islam, Muslims and Arabs."

Critics, on the other hand, pointed out that the tape was released at a time when the US campaign was nearly over. Many fear that the United States is not looking for support for its ongoing campaign, but instead for possible future attacks against other countries where Al-Qa'eda have a presence.

Hard-line militant groups in Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia were sceptical in judging the tape.

"We do not believe the video is authentic because, first of all, the images are not clear," said Wirawan Adnan, a spokesman and lawyer for the Laskar Jihad militia in Indonesia, the world's biggest Muslim-majority nation.

"Secondly, we question whether Osama Bin Laden would allow any tape recordings to be made of himself discussing the attack," he told Agence France Presse. "It is very strange for someone like him to let himself be filmed in that situation."

Critics also pointed out that although Bin Laden is seen going into chilling detail about the planning of the attacks, he is never shown explicitly admitting responsibility for the operation.

"This videotape is not authentic," said Riaz Durrani, a spokesman of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, which spearheaded a series of violent pro-Taliban rallies in Pakistan. "Americans made it up after failing to get any evidence against Osama."

Ameeruddin Mughal, a spokesman for the outlawed Harkat- ul-Mujahideen, an Islamic militant group fighting in Indian Kashmir, said the tape showed somebody who merely resembles Bin Laden. "In the age of computers and digital technology, it's not difficult to make a fake video," he said.

Even secular Pakistanis doubted the veracity of the tape. Iqbal Haider, a former senator from the party of ousted Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, said he finds it hard to believe that Bin Laden would be stupid enough to allow himself to be filmed confessing to the crime.

"It is hard to believe that a man who masterminded the September attacks which such secrecy and finesse could be that stupid and imprudent," he said. "I hate Bin Laden and the Taliban because they have inflicted incalculable damage on Muslims, but it is hard to digest that he could be such a fool."

In Egypt there was no official reaction to the release of the tape. However, the public reaction was as divided as elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world.

"The poor quality of the tape shows without a doubt that it is fabricated," Diaa Rashwan, an expert on militant groups, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The other tapes recorded for Bin Laden were very clear and professionally done, the camera zoomed in on him and his Arabic language was sharp, loud and clear," he added. In the most recent tape Bin-Laden was also speaking in Arabic, Rashwan noted, "but we couldn't understand a word, even though it is our native language. So how could the Americans translate it?" he asked.

Abdel-Moneim Said, director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, had a different view. He said that no Arab government so far has doubted the authenticity of the tape, "and until they do, I will believe the Americans," he said. He added that other tapes of Bin Laden contained the same insinuations and the same language. He described those who doubted the tape as "people who have been living in denial since this whole crisis started."

Although experts debated the tape, the majority of average Egyptians interviewed by the Weekly said the tape was not authentic. "It is definitely fake," said Shahinaz Abdallah, a human resources specialist.

"Someone with such a military mentality is not so stupid as to leave behind incriminating evidence," said Rasha Hosni, a pediatrician.

"How can one tell whether the tape was fabricated or not," said Hussein Gohar, a gynaecologist. "I don't think it is fake, but then I couldn't make out anything from what he [Bin Laden] was saying."

As far as Said is concerned, "all these conclusions are based on political positions and viewpoints, not on an objective overview of the situation." He added that the United States would not attack a fake enemy and let the real one get away with it, planning another attack on its land. Nevertheless, Rashwan believes that "if this tape is the strongest evidence they have against Bin Laden, then thousands of innocent lives are being wasted and Bush should be tried as a war criminal."

THE LEGAL ASPECTS: Legal experts, meanwhile, differed on whether the tape could be taken as solid evidence good enough to convict Bin Laden in a court of law. Many saw the issue as irrelevant because they did not expect that Bin Laden would be arrested alive to stand trial.

"I think it's an extremely strong piece of evidence that the prosecution will be very happy to have," said Richard Uviller, an expert on evidence law at Columbia University.

"It's the words of the accused himself. This would be a very dramatic piece of evidence at the trial. It's a much more vivid sort of evidence than a transcript or the account of another person who heard what he said."

Still, American evidentiary laws require that such evidence be authenticated -- that is, prosecutors must prove that it is in fact Bin Laden depicted on the tape and that it has not been doctored. The best way to establish the tape's authenticity, US legal experts said, would be for the prosecution to produce whoever filmed it. That information, however, is not forthcoming.

THE TECHNICAL ASPECTS: Most technical experts, however, agreed that even with the today's possibilities for digital wizardry, faking a videotape in which Osama Bin Laden appears to take credit for the 11 September attacks would be extremely difficult.

The biggest hurdle would be mimicking the cadence and rhythm of natural human speech. Synchronising a doctored soundtrack with existing video would also be tough, and technology that can synthesise Arabic speech is still in its infancy.

Modern day software tools do allow for elements of a person's speech to be pasted together and for words to be 'put' in people's mouths. Such a doctored recording would not sound natural to an expert listener, however, according to Kenneth Stevens, head of the speech research lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

US officials said they intentionally refrained from trying to enhance the video's sound or picture quality so as not to give detractors ammunition. Emerging speech synthesis technology is giving computers the ability to mimic a human voice. It would be more problematic, however, to synchronise Bin Laden's lips and hand gestures with what he was saying. On the tape, while recalling his expectations on how the attack on the World trade Center would proceed, Bin Laden held one hand vertically and moved his other hand across the top horizontally, then relaxed his moving hand into a slight crumple. The impression was of a plane breaking up and pushing a building over.

Although the message was clear, some of the effect was lost on viewers. The scrolling translation on TV did not always keep up with the images, so it was difficult for non-Arabic speakers to know exactly what words motivated the occasional mirthful grin on Bin Laden's part. Even Arabic speakers found the actual audio difficult to hear.

Additional reporting by Rana Allam

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