The 9/11 Enigma, Revisited

A thousand years from now, who will observe this doleful anniversary? From that perspective, will the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history seem like a blip on the wide screen of history, or a turning point in the saga of the rising American Imperium?

Although I’d be willing to bet on the latter, we can’t know, but one thing we do know for sure: 9/11 looms large over the world of 2006. Its gigantic shadow cast a pall over the West, paralyzing rational thought and inaugurating a new age of perpetual war – a “clash of civilizations,” in Samuel Huntington‘s phrase. In the five years since the twin towers fell, the clear victor in this epic battle is Osama bin Laden, still at large and threatening us with fresh attacks.

His trail long since grown “stone cold,” as the Washington Post puts it, bin Laden is a hero to millions. I would venture to say he is the most popular Muslim leader, and certainly the preeminent Middle Eastern Arab leader. The inspirer and progenitor of 9/11 has attained the status of a living myth, and, as long as he remains at large, his mythic stature will only grow. And yet President Bush, after initially declaring he wanted the al-Qaeda leader “dead or alive,” did not mention him by name for years. However, that kind of pretense is hard to keep up, and certainly this dark anniversary required the White House to suddenly recall Osama bin Forgotten.

One can see why they’d rather forget, because the mere mention of his name is enough to invoke the circumstances whereby he was allowed to get away. In what sense this result was “allowed” is for history to judge. All I can do is ruefully note what the Washington Post reported:

“Many factors have combined in the five years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to make the pursuit more difficult. They include the lack of CIA access to people close to al-Qaeda’s inner circle; Pakistan’s unwillingness to pursue him; the reemergence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan; the strength of the Iraqi insurgency, which has depleted U.S. military and intelligence resources; and the U.S. government’s own disorganization.”

The diversion of resources away from the fight against al-Qaeda and toward effecting “regime change” in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East has been a godsend to the Islamist radicals who burn with hatred for America and yearn to top the terror of 9/11. In an excellent CNN documentary on bin Laden shown the other night, Peter Bergen reported the post-9/11 judgment of many of bin Laden’s comrades was that the whole thing was a mistake. Suddenly they had this unrelenting nemesis on their backs: a whole layer of the top leadership was lopped off, and those that survived were on the run.

The big news in the above-sourced Washington Post story, however, is that bin Laden’s own flight from the mountains of Tora Bora was apparently captured on videotape, which has been obtained by the CIA. The tape shows bin Laden

“[C]onfidently instructing his party how to dig holes in the ground to lie in undetected at night. A bomb dropped by a U.S. aircraft can be seen exploding in the distance. ‘We were there last night,’ bin Laden says without much concern in his voice. He was in or headed toward Pakistan, counterterrorism officials think.

“That was December 2001. Only two months later, Bush decided to pull out most of the special operations troops and their CIA counterparts in the paramilitary division that were leading the hunt for bin Laden in Afghanistan to prepare for war in Iraq, said Flynt L. Leverett, then an expert on the Middle East at the National Security Council.

“‘I was appalled when I learned about it,’ said Leverett, who has become an outspoken critic of the administration’s counterterrorism policy. ‘I don’t know of anyone who thought it was a good idea. It’s very likely that bin Laden would be dead or in American custody if we hadn’t done that.’ Several officers confirmed that the number of special operations troops was reduced in March 2002.”

Perhaps just as appalling is this eerie video, which makes one wonder just how closely we tracked bin Laden. Unless they just plucked it off the Internet – could it have been part of al-Qaeda’s propaganda effort, posted on some jihadist Web site? – our government’s possession of the tape indicates just how close they came to him, and how just a little more sustained effort might very well have nabbed him.

Given the above, we can say, with fair certainty – and a certain rectitude in our voice – that bin Laden was allowed to get away. Not inadvertently, as an unintended consequence of a mistaken policy, but as the result of a conscious decision that made the invasion of Iraq a higher priority than the capture of the terrorist leader. It was more important to carry out the neoconservative agenda in the Middle East – to raise the flag of the president’s “global democratic revolution” – by force of arms. It was more vital to our interests to enable the Israelis in their campaign to build an impregnable Fortress Israel out of the broken lives and hopes of their Palestinian helots, to give a “green light” to the invasion of Lebanon, and to set up Syria and Iran for “regime change.”

Bin Laden? 9/11? Forget it, buster – that was just a pretext, a catalyzing event that allowed a wellorganized network with a preexisting agenda to move quickly and with determination to implement its plan. The recently issued “phase two” of the Senate Intelligence Committee report – see here – shows how this administration bent the facts and twisted the intelligence to lie us into war. It turns out the CIA warned the administration that there were no links to al-Qaeda, which we knew already, but the really devastating part of the report is the section dealing with the role of Ahmed Chalabi‘s Iraqi National Congress.

That the INC was simultaneously an Iranian intelligence asset and an American client, and that we knew this and still sponsored Chalabi & Co., tells us all we need to know about this administration and its Bizarro World mindset. As the report notes, on March 3, 1995, “Chalabi made contact with Iranian intelligence officials to discuss Iran’s positive support on the planned action [a coup against Saddam] and their support for possible action against Southern Iraq.” He did so with American approval: our guy “was present outside the meeting space, was seen by the Iranians, and was aware that Chalabi intended for the Iranians to see him there as a signal of U.S. support.”

Yesterday, we worked in tandem with the Iranians to overthrow Saddam Hussein, with our agent standing literally outside the door as Chalabi chatted with his Iranian handlers, and today we are ringing the alarm bells over the supposedly dire threat posed by Tehran. Our State Department routinely refers to Iran as the world’s number-one exporter of terrorism, and yet here we have solid evidence of an American-INC-Iranian axis of convenience. We pride ourselves on never negotiating with purported terrorists, and yet we are apparently not above allying with them. If this is supposed to be some sort of Machiavellian deviousness, then it seems the Americans outwitted themselves: they are fighting a monster of their own creation.

Iran is yet another diversion away from al-Qaeda, and a conflict with Tehran is bound to help bin Laden with what is, perhaps, his biggest problem, and that is the big split in the Muslim “Ummah” between Shi’ite and Sunni doctrine. Instead of fighting each other in Iraq, the sectarian factions will turn their sights on a common enemy: the invading Crusaders, as bin Laden would put it, and their Israeli allies. Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit until 1999 and author of Imperial Hubris, says that the U.S. is bin Laden’s “one indispensable ally,” and it certainly seems that way, doesn’t it? We couldn’t be helping his cause more if we directly subsidized it: our Middle East policy, spelled out plainly as unconditional support for Israel and local despots, is a virtual recruiting poster for al-Qaeda. The Iraq war, the rape of Lebanon, the gathering threat to Syria and Iran – if bin Laden is telling the Muslim world that the Crusaders are moving to eliminate Islam from the face of the earth, then our actions confirm his prognosis on a daily basis.

There are those who deny the very existence of bin Laden and disdain al-Qaeda as a myth, the creation of the “real” perpetrators of the worst terrorist attack in American history – the U.S. government itself. You and I saw those two planes crash into the World Trade Center, and we saw the Pentagon hit – but who are you going to believe, those Alexander Cockburn calls the “9/11 conspiracy nuts” or your lying eyes? I agree with Cockburn’s critique of the utterly daffy “controlled demolition” thesis, and the equally crackpot delusion that the Pentagon was hit by a missile instead of a jetliner. Yet there is more here than meets the eye…

A whole movement has grown up, apparently, the so-called “9/11 Truth” movement, which seeks to show… well, it isn’t quite clear. Some 9/11-Truthers think an evil cabal within the U.S. government plotted the whole thing from beginning to end, although when it comes to naming names and drawing up a bill of indictment, the Truthers stumble on their lack of specifics. The jet fighters that might have intercepted the hijacked planes were delayed – deliberately, of course, since no government has ever been guilty of incompetence, heaven forfend! – and the rest is history. And if you think these people are just fringe nut-jobs, take a look at the polls. As the Seattle Times reports:

“A recent Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll of 1,010 Americans found that 36 percent suspect the U.S. government promoted the attacks or intentionally sat on its hands. Sixteen percent believe explosives brought down the towers. Twelve percent believe a cruise missile hit the Pentagon. Distrust percolates more strongly near Ground Zero. A Zogby International poll of New York City residents two years ago found 49.3 percent believed the government ‘consciously failed to act.'”

These people are not crazy: they are smart enough to question the “accepted” narrative, and their skepticism of governmental beneficence is healthy and quintessentially American. The problem with the 9/11 Truthers is not that they question the conventional 9/11 narrative, but that their alternative explanations defy common sense – and divert attention away from the core mystery of 9/11, which is: how in the name of all that’s holy did a conspiracy envisioned on such a large scale, and stretching over at least five years, go undetected?

Yes, governments are incompetent, but there were key people in government who were fully aware of the threat posed by bin Laden and his followers. In the months and weeks leading up to the attack, the president was presented with the evidence, including an Aug. 6 memo entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.” [.pdf]

It’s not as if, prior to 9/11, the terrorist threat had never been raised: I seem to remember at least one New Year when the color code would have gone to a slightly reddish orange if we’d had color-coded terror alerts back then. Yet, in spite of the multi-billions spent on “anti-terrorist” measures, 19 hijackers managed to penetrate American society and carry out a synchronized terror assault on two major targets, twin symbols of U.S. financial and military power.

For all the scrutiny invited by bin Laden, it surpasses understanding how not even an inkling of his plan was picked up by any intelligence agency, anywhere. None of our allies picked up the scent: not the Brits, not the intelligence services of our local satraps, including the Pakistanis, with their links to the Taliban – not even the Mossad, with its legendary prowess as the most ruthlessly efficient of the lot.

Of course, if you believe Carl Cameron and Fox News, which reported that the Israelis did indeed know that something pretty awful was going to happen on Sept. 11, 2001, and somehow neglected to tell us all they knew, then this last does not apply. In mid-December 2001, Cameron told his viewers:

“Since Sept. 11, more than 60 Israelis have been arrested or detained, either under the new PATRIOT anti-terrorism law, or for immigration violations. A handful of active Israeli military were among those detained, according to investigators, who say some of the detainees also failed polygraph questions when asked about alleged surveillance activities against and in the United States.

“There is no indication that the Israelis were involved in the 9/11 attacks, but investigators suspect that the Israelis may have gathered intelligence about the attacks in advance, and not shared it. A highly placed investigator said there are ‘tie-ins.’ But when asked for details, he flatly refused to describe them, saying, ‘evidence linking these Israelis to 9/11 is classified. I cannot tell you about evidence that has been gathered. It’s classified information.'”

So how come the 9/11 conspiracy nuts aren’t demanding the immediate declassification of the evidence for these alleged “tie-ins”? After all, here is a source that can hardly be accused of being part of the Bush-bashing Left, and is not exactly hostile to Israel. On account of its pro-administration, pro-Israel orientation, Fox News’ reporting on this subject is all the more credible. You’d think the conspiracy theorists would be all over it. But you’d be wrong. Instead, they prattle on about “controlled demolition,” a missile striking the Pentagon, and other wild “theories” that only discredit all attempts to examine and revise the official 9/11 narrative. Like Bush going into Iraq, the “demolitionists” and their brethren divert scarce resources – and limited attention spans – away from the really baffling anomalies, like this, for example.

The suspicions many Americans have about the official 9/11 narrative don’t seem all that unreasonable to me. What does seem unreasonable is the attempt to deride any effort to put 9/11 in its full context as “conspiracy theory” and worse. The unsolved mysteries of 9/11 continue to haunt us, and will remain with us as long as the real history of that signal event is shrouded in murk and protected by taboos.

Read more by Justin Raimondo

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].