WASHINGTON -- In our media age, it was inevitable we'd finally see terrorist home videos. How long, one wonders, before they come out in DVD format?
The Osama bin Laden home video released by the U.S. last Thursday gave a fascinating look at the head of a fanatical Muslim cult receiving a visiting Saudi sheik. According to the accompanying translation from Arabic to English - made by the U.S. government and checked by two U.S.-based Arabic experts - bin Laden clearly appears to voice his culpability for the suicide attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
In the most damning admissions, a gleeful-looking bin Laden says, "We calculated in advance the number of casualties from (sic) the enemy who would be killed based on the position of the tower." And, "We had notification since the previous Thursday that the event would take place that day."
The U.S. government is delighted by the smoking gun tape, which was mysteriously "found" in Afghanistan a few days ago. The White House says the tape should dispel any lingering doubts bin Laden was behind the Sept. 11 mass killings.
But two other Arabic experts say the tape's audio quality is so poor that almost nothing bin Laden says on it can be verified. To my ears, well accustomed to Arabic, half of bin Laden's words were inaudible. The translation was sometimes out of sync with the action on screen. Bin Laden's statements looked cut up and edited.
Cynics suggest the tape was a forgery made by Russian intelligence or the U.S. government, with incriminating statements spliced into an otherwise boring exchange of pleasantries between bin Laden and a visiting admirer. This is possible. In 1990, the U.S. used retouched satellite photos to convince the Saudis that Iraq was about to invade - which it was not.
A KGB PLANT?
The old Soviet KGB was extremely fond of planting fake documents to embarrass the West. Russia wants to keep George Bush's crusade going because it takes heat off Moscow's own brutal war in Chechnya, distracts the U.S., and earns cash IOUs from Americans.
But regardless of whether the tape is real or a fake, there remains little doubt that al-Qaida was behind the attacks on the U.S. But, as Prince Nayef, head of Saudi security observed last week, Osama bin Laden is largely a figurehead. Its real leaders, said the prince, echoing this column's view, remain as yet unknown and are likely outside Afghanistan.
Two of al-Qaida's leaders are in Afghanistan: its Egyptian CEO Ayman al-Zawahiri - known to all as "the doctor" - and his No. 2, Abu Zubaydah. They are still believed alive and in hiding with bin Laden. The late Mohammed Atef, a former Egyptian policeman, was considered the military leader of al-Qaida until he was killed by a U.S. bomb.
The roots of al-Qaida and other loosely linked anti-American organizations remain where they originated: in Egypt. Even though 15 of 19 of the hijackers on Sept. 11 were Saudis, it's likely the operation was planned in Egypt by members of two militant groups, Egyptian Jihad and Gamma al-Islamia, with Osama bin Laden serving as a symbolic spiritual guide.
In this sense, bin Laden was re-enacting the role of the dreaded medieval head of the cult of the Hashishins, Hassan al-Sabbah, known as Sheik al-Jebel, or Old Man of the Mountain. From his lair in the Syrian mountains, the sheik's suicide assassins, crazed on hashish and armed with poisoned daggers, terrorized much of the Muslim world and the Crusader states of the Levant. The Mongols finally stormed the sheik's aerie, Alamut, and put a bloody end to the Hashishins, from whom we get the term "assassin."
Americans need no more convincing that bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks. Washington released the self-serving tapes to convince the many doubting Abduls of the Muslim world of bin Laden's guilt.
Some Muslims will certainly accept the tape at face value and turn with disgust against bin Laden as a fanatical mass murderer. Few Muslims accepted his wild claims or calls for jihad against the West. But one suspects many Muslims and other Third Worlders will still believe bin Laden and his henchmen gave the United States what it deserved, payback for decades of bloody meddling in their affairs - revenge, as the tape mentioned, for the "martyrs" of Palestine.
Third Worlders do not always accept our western view that when states kill huge numbers of innocent civilians, c'est la vie, but when private enterprise killers strike, that's unacceptable terrorism.
To many, the fanatical Osama bin Laden will still represent the hand of retribution against the arrogant western powers and their local satraps. New avengers will follow in his footsteps. Suicide bombers are the poor man's version of cruise missiles, helicopter gunships, B-52s, fuel-air explosives and 15,000-lb. bombs.
Copyright © 2001, Canoe Limited Partnership