assessments

The Bin Laden Tape: Truths and Half-Truths

14 MINS READMay 31, 2006 | 04:54 GMT
By Fred Burton Osama bin Laden recently released another audiotape, a large portion of which was devoted to discussing the U.S. government's prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui and suspected terrorists being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in other locations. Much has been written about the contrast between this latest statement — in which bin Laden claims credit for personally planning the details of the 9/11 attacks — and previous statements (such as those issued shortly after 9/11) in which he denied any involvement. On the whole, however, bin Laden's current version of events appears to be truthful: His comments on several points can be borne out by logic, history and some of his own previous recordings. With that noted, however, the most intriguing aspects of this latest recording do not concern what bin Laden did say, but rather what he did not. In examining both points together, there is an obvious implication that 9/11 was not intended as a stand-alone plot. Moussaoui was being trained to take part in some other attack plan involving aircraft, and there are questions about what uses, if any, bin Laden may have had in mind for other suspected militants who are now in U.S. custody. A Timeline of Recordings Before examining the statements bin Laden made in the May 23 recording, it is useful to examine the release in the context of other al Qaeda statements — which, on the whole, have been coming relatively thick and fast in recent weeks. It is interesting to note that bin Laden has released three recordings so far this year — in January, April and May. That is a frequency that has been unmatched since 2004 (when he also issued recordings in January, April and May) — preceding a long, self-imposed hiatus that caused many to speculate that the al Qaeda leader might in fact have died.
Though it would seem that there was a specific tactical motive behind the May 23 release — which so closely followed Moussaoui's conviction in a federal trial — there also appears to be a larger purpose emerging from bin Laden's collective statements. Where once his leadership of al Qaeda and his relevance on the world stage were questionable, he is stating now — both implicitly and explicitly — that he is alive and firmly in control of his organization. Applying the Truth Detector The latest recording begins and ends with phrases that bin Laden has used in the past: "Peace be upon he who has followed the guidance." This is a standard greeting that Muslims offer to non-Muslims, and has been used more or less consistently when bin Laden is addressing audiences in the United States or in the West. Much of the discussion that follows is a rebuttal of theories that Moussaoui was to have been the "20th hijacker" in the 9/11 attacks, and bin Laden's claims that most of the suspected jihadists who are now in U.S. custody were not involved in that plot either — the obvious insinuation being that they have been unjustly imprisoned. Laying that aside for the moment, however, it appears that bin Laden's statements in the recording are factual — so far as they go. First, bin Laden asserts that Moussaoui was not supposed to participate in the 9/11 attacks. While this contradicts the testimony Moussaoui himself provided at his trial, we would concur with this statement. The timing of Moussaoui's entry into the United States and his training schedule simply did not mesh with that of the 9/11 pilots, who had entered the country nearly a year earlier. Bin Laden makes two interesting points here: 1. He did not assign Moussaoui to take part in the 9/11 attack, and 2. Moussaoui was being trained as a pilot — and therefore would not have been part of the muscle team for the 9/11 mission, as the U.S. government had claimed. Next, bin Laden claims that Moussaoui had no advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks — and that had he possessed any tactical details, the plan would have been called off following his arrest. There is every reason to believe this statement; operational security alone dictates that details about actual al Qaeda plans should remain strictly compartmentalized, in order to protect against leaks or infiltration of the organization. If Moussaoui was not to have taken part in the 9/11 attack, there would have been no "need to know" that such a plan was even in the works. We do believe, however, that Moussaoui — who was said by captured al Qaeda leaders to have been in touch with the same operational commanders as Mohammed Atta and the 9/11 operatives — had been assigned to take part in a follow-on or second wave of attacks. This would explain why he was being trained as a pilot, and fits in well with the overlapping planning patterns al Qaeda is known to have used prior to the 9/11 attacks and subsequent disruption of the network. Bin Laden makes another intriguing statement on this point: "And if Moussaoui was studying aviation to become a pilot of one of the planes, then let him tell us the names of those assigned to help him control the plane. But he won't be able to tell us their names, for a simple reason: that in fact they don't exist." Part of this statement is highly questionable, in light of other assertions being made simultaneously. It is likely that other potential operatives did indeed exist who ultimately would have taken part in the attack for which Moussaoui was being trained. However, it is probably true that they had not been given their taskings at the time of his arrest, and very believable that Moussaoui would not have known their names. After all, the 9/11 pilots came to the United States in 2000 but were not linked up with the muscle hijackers until the spring or summer of 2001. Had one of the 9/11 pilots been arrested a year or more prior to 9/11, they likewise would not have been able to identify the cell members who would be assigned to help them control the aircraft. Considering where Moussaoui was in his pilot training, and placing him on the same timeline as the pilots involved in the 9/11 operation, one must conclude that he had not yet reached the point of being linked up with the "muscle hijackers" for the follow-on attacks being planned. On another issue, bin Laden appears to be truthful when he says that the al Qaeda operatives being held by the U.S. government at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere were not involved in the 9/11 operation, except for two. Presumably he was referring to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who served as the main communications and support interface between the 9/11 operatives and the al Qaeda leadership. This statement can be supported on at least two obvious levels: 1. Those directly involved in carrying out the 9/11 attacks were suicide operatives who died in the operation; ergo, they are not in custody. 2. Several senior al Qaeda operations officers have either been killed or remain at large — so either way, if they were involved in planning the 9/11 operation, they are not in U.S. custody. Third, the operational security requirements for tight compartmentalization of information mean that very few people would be likely to have access to the 9/11 details. Thus, it follows that the majority of those currently in detention — a universe of suspects that numbers at least in the hundreds, if not thousands — are highly unlikely to have played any part in planning or executing the 9/11 attacks, and they probably did not even know about plans for the strike until after it had been carried out. Bin Laden himself has said as much before: In a videotape seized from an al Qaeda safe house in Afghanistan shortly after the U.S. invasion, bin Laden was seen telling dinner companions that many of his subordinates did not know about the plan until after the attack was launched. In addition to that, captured al Qaeda commanders Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh told an Al Jazeera reporter in 2002 that they had insulated Moussaoui from information about the 9/11 plan and the operatives themselves. Finally, bin Laden asserts in his recent recording that the United States has militants in captivity who are not associated with al Qaeda — some of whom even oppose al Qaeda's "methodology of calling for war with America." Again, there is no reason to doubt this statement: Al Qaeda does not have a monopoly on the jihadism business, and there are members other groups and small cells, not to mention individuals, who have been detained by the United States and other countries for militant activities. The Art of Omission So much, then, for the veracity of what bin Laden did say. The far more interesting aspects of this recording, of course, lie in what he did not say. And it is striking to note that, when one listens closely, the phrasing bin Laden uses in this recording is very precise and careful. Bin Laden opened the message by saying that he wanted to provide testimony on behalf of the Muslim prisoners the United States is holding, and that he would talk about "the truth concerning them." For the most part, he does appear to have spoken the truth, but he has not spoken the whole truth. For example, bin Laden is careful to specify that Moussaoui was not assigned to be part of the 9/11 operation — but in no way does he claim that Moussaoui was not affiliated with al Qaeda or dismiss the possibility that he was being trained to take part in another terrorist attack against the United States. Indeed, when bin Laden states that "I did not assign Brother Zacarias to be with them on that mission" (emphasis added), the obvious question is: to precisely which mission had Moussaoui been assigned? Considering that Moussaoui underwent some of the same training as the 9/11 pilots and had contact with the same operational commanders and financial facilitators, it seems clear that — despite not being assigned to "that mission" — "Brother Zacarias" was indeed involved in some kind of al Qaeda plot involving aircraft. It is not known for certain if Moussaoui was to be a part of a separate plot, which we have referred to in the past as the "planes operation," whether he was being trained for a backup plan in case the first plot was thwarted — or both. The conclusion, either way, is the same: He had been designated to take part in a plot involving aircraft, and he did not have a need to know the details of the 9/11 operation. The fact that bin Laden claims that he personally assigned the operatives who took action on 9/11 — or, to put it differently, that he micromanaged a major operation — is very interesting on its own merit. If this, like the other assertions in the recording, is believable, it says quite a bit about al Qaeda's operational model and bin Laden's leadership style. It probably would be his preference to continue running the organization the same way today if that is possible — though obviously communication with operatives in the field would be much more difficult and risky for him than prior to 9/11. It is possible that any future attacks carried out by core al Qaeda members would follow this model — though it is obvious that bin Laden has far less control over activities carried out by grassroots cells and individuals, who might undertake activities that do not fit with the core group's overall strategy and objectives. The implications of bin Laden's statements about Moussaoui's involvement in "that attack" can be extrapolated to include the al Qaeda suspects now imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. Again, he says that most of them were not involved in the 9/11 plot — but no mention was made of their potential involvement in other plots, in other places. That remains an open question. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other al Qaeda planners frequently had several operations in various stages of planning and execution at any one time — what might be called "wheels spinning within wheels." Bin Laden does not assert that the suspects in custody are all innocent or pose no danger to his enemies; rather, he states that they had "no connection whatsoever to the events of Sept. 11." He does not claim that they were not involved in al Qaeda's other operations and support activities. We cannot know for certain whether the suspects in U.S. custody are in any way affiliated with al Qaeda or if they are, in fact, innocent of any connections to terrorism. Both are possibilities. But it should be remembered also that there is a great expanse between these two extremes. Applying a legalistic microscope to bin Laden's statements in this area, we would note that some important jihadist figures — notably, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq — have not always been tied to al Qaeda either. Al-Zarqawi had been carrying out a jihadist campaign of his own prior to swearing allegiance to bin Laden's group in late 2004. Thus, it follows that any of al-Zarqawi's men captured before that date were never officially linked to al Qaeda; nor would any member of the Taliban or of the myriad Iraqi resistance groups who are now in custody be classified as al Qaeda members. Indeed, as bin Laden notes, some of those other jihadist groups disagree with al Qaeda's strategy and tactics — but then again, we have seen evidence of such tensions within the group itself. Conclusion What, then, are we to take away from bin Laden's recordings of truths and half-truths? For one thing, they are to be expected. Many Islamic scholars long have held that it is lawful to conceal the truth — or even to practice deliberate deception — during times of war, as a means of gaining an advantage over the enemy. Al Qaeda's followers, believing that they are fighting a legitimate jihad, employ this tactic — and bin Laden is a master in its use. Beyond this, however, it is apparent that bin Laden is attempting to use his "bully pulpit" to show the world that he is still alive, in control of al Qaeda, and relevant to the jihadist cause. Through the carefully chosen half-truths, it appears that he also is attempting to influence public opinion in the Muslim world and to inflame hostility toward the United States, by framing the argument that Moussaoui and others who have been incarcerated or detained are being treated unjustly. Moussaoui's trial — which ended shortly before bin Laden's tape was issued — represented a U.S. government attempt to show the world that justice is being served; the audiotape was bin Laden's way of undermining that message. And between the lines of it all, the recording serves as an unsettling reminder: that in addition to "that attack" — the one the world knows about and will forever remember — there have been other al Qaeda "wheels within wheels," some known and others invisible, spinning in the background.

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