- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 7, 2001

AMMAN, Jordan America's effort to enlist street-level support among Arabs and Muslims in the fight against international terrorism is an uphill battle.
Although most people in the United States consider Osama bin Laden the prime suspect behind the September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, public opinion throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds is moving in a completely different direction. Most Muslims are entertaining alternative theories, and many are embracing one theory above all that the attacks were carried out by Israel's clandestine intelligence service, the Mossad.
Such widespread skepticism about bin Laden's reputed involvement is the clearest proof yet that the United States is losing the so-called public relations war. Aware of the problem, the United States and its Western allies are using more sophisticated methods to counteract bin Laden's exploitation of Muslim sentiment.
After bin Laden's latest statement was read on Al Jazeera satellite news station Saturday, accusing the United States of waging war against Islam and calling Arab leaders "infidels" for supporting the United Nations, a former U.S. diplomat took to the same airwaves, watched by 35 million viewers, and provided a U.S. government rebuttal in flawless Arabic.
While applauding the effort, Middle East analysts say Muslims are looking for a substantive change in U.S. policies regarding Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than a more vigorous debate.
In the meantime, conspiracy theories proliferate, even among senior government officials of the Arab coalition partners.
"The level of conspiracy theories just makes you want to scream," said a Western diplomat based in Amman who had just been lectured by a senior Jordanian official about the Mossad's "obvious" role.
Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass shared the same view with a group of visiting academics from Britain last month.
Such suspicious attitudes and conspiracy theories are nothing new in the Middle East, where the Mossad often is seen as an evil force lurking behind otherwise inexplicable events. In the case of bin Laden, these attitudes have substantially undermined President Bush's attempt to translate worldwide sympathy for the 5,000 innocent people killed in the September 11 attacks into a concerted international campaign against terrorism.
"We are just not even in the ballpark here, and the Bush administration is aware of this," said Michael Hudson, director of the Arab studies program at Georgetown University in Washington.
The lack of direct evidence proving a bin Laden connection is spawning a flood of elaborate theories.
Among the explanations advanced by newspaper columnists in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, London, the West Bank and elsewhere:
The attacks were the work of "the great Jewish Zionist mastermind that controls the world's economy, media, and politics."
Mr. Bush ordered the hijackings and attacks as a means to solidify his hold on power in Washington and erase any memory of the election dispute in Florida.
Japanese extremists carried out the terrorism in retribution for U.S. nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Members of the American militia movement were behind the attacks in answer to the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
China or Russia ordered the attacks to undermine U.S. efforts to develop a missile-defense shield.
Conspiracy theories are an inevitable consequence in countries where the flow of news is controlled by the government.
To compensate, people try to discern the truth by reading between the lines. Frequently, the resulting speculation is based on the question: Who benefits?
"It is a lack of information and candor that feeds conspiracy theories, as people attempt to use their own wit to figure out what is being hidden from them," said Jon W. Anderson, an anthropologist at Catholic University in Washington.
To counter this information disconnect, the Bush administration is hiring public relations specialists to wage media campaigns in the Middle East.
Middle East analysts are skeptical. "To think of this in terms of advertising is missing a really big point," said Mr. Hudson of Georgetown. "It is not really 'the medium is the message,'" he said. "It isn't. You have to have something to say."
Rather than viewing the United States as a force working for a just and lasting peace, many Muslims question whether America's real agenda is to wage a war against Islam in order to render the Middle East safe for Israel. Mr. Bush's use of the word "crusade" in an early speech still is cited by Muslims as proof of this.
At the street level, the most prominent theory in circulation is the false suggestion that Jewish Americans were given advance warning not to report to work at the World Trade Center the morning of the attacks. This is the so-called "proof" that Israel's Mossad was behind the attacks.
"Why hasn't the media stressed the 4,000 Jews who did not turn up for work on September 11," asked Lina, a Palestinian college student here in Amman. Her two friends, both wearing head scarves, nodded in agreement.
"The Israelis are the ones who have the most to gain," said Samer, a dress-shop clerk.
According to this theory, the Mossad conducted the September 11 attacks to goad the United States into what would become a joint U.S.-Israeli military operation against Islam with the United States targeting bin Laden in Afghanistan and Israel targeting Islamic militants in Palestine.
Another line of analysis among some Muslims is that bin Laden lacked the ability from his cave hide-out in Afghanistan to carry out such a complex terror attack.
"Bin Laden is being framed for these attacks," said Mahmood, a Saudi attending college in Jordan.
In fact, substantial and growing circumstantial evidence points to involvement by those associated with al Qaeda. But it is still not clear whether U.S. investigators have uncovered any direct links to bin Laden.
Some Arabs say it is too late. "We believe Osama bin Laden didn't do this, even if the evidence shows that he did," said Ahmad, a restaurant worker.
Nida, an eye doctor in Amman, agreed. "If there is no [direct] proof, it means it was not bin Laden, but the Americans will not accept it," she said.

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