- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 16, 2005

It is so depressing. The Taliban and al Qaeda are still giving us the propaganda run-around, and we are still falling for it. It seems that we (the government and the U.S. media) have learned nothing about dealing with enemy propaganda since September 11.

Taliban spokesmen learned early that propaganda themes released in Pakistan had 11 hours to fester before Washington could to respond to them. By the time Rear Admiral Stufflebeam did respond, the next lie was already beginning to fester. They got the US on the defensive early and have kept us on the ropes in the propaganda war ever since.

On Friday, May 13, Richard Boucher told Aljazeera that the United States would investigate allegations that the Koran was desecrated by soldiers at Guantanamo Bay. The State Department spokesman took this action after several days of riots in Afghanistan and growing unrest over the issue in the Middle East. The controversy has not abated since then—indeed, it has festered further. Foreign press reports now speak of willful U.S. desecration of the Koran as a proven fact.

But the Koran in the toilet story first appeared in the press over a year ago. It was reported by UPI, the Observer (Sunday Guardian, UK), The Washington Times and other media as well starting at least in March 2004.

The “story” appeared just after three British nationals (Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed) were released from Guantanamo Bay. Upon release, they claimed that they endured abuse, beatings, disrespect and insults while they were incarcerated. Rhuhel Ahmed also said U.S. soldiers kicked a Koran and put one in a toilet bucket. (He didn’t mention whether anything other than the Koran was in the bucket at the time.)

But why is this year-old story resurfacing now? Why did riots begin in Afghanistan when the news reports on the incident were more readily available in Europe and the Middle East. Who put this propaganda story out now and why? And, who is benefiting from it? The answer may be that someone needed to create an incident and generate chaos in the border area of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This someone may have seen an immediate need to reduce cooperation between the Musharaf and/or Karzai governments, the coalition forces and the local tribesmen.

Recent actions may have made this chaos a necessity. Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the operations director of al Qaeda and a man who may know where Osama bin Laden is hiding, was captured in Pakistan and Haitham al Yemeni, a chief bomb-maker, was reported to have been recently killed there as well. Still other reports say the coalition forces are hot on the trail of terror leader bin Laden.

Because of this, we might want to consider the possibility that the Koran desecration charge is being played up at this time in order to create a smokescreen and give bin Laden enough cover to move to a place of greater safety. It may also create an environment where he will be supported and hidden by outragedMuslimsinthe Afghan/Pakistan border area some of whom may never have actually seen a toilet.

So, maybe the question should not be whether an errant soldier or two mishandled copies of the Koran. Maybe the question should be who is pushing this story and why. Who is benefiting and who is being manipulated? Maybe we should look at what people or groups are promoting this story to include members of the international media — and ask why.

A start may have been made in this — if the United States or the press will follow up on it. Recently, the Afghan government reportedly arrested several university professors from Jalalabad on suspicion of orchestrating the Koran “protests.” Further, the Afghan government spokesmen said that the riots were instigated on orders from abroad. Could these orders have come from bin Laden? Did he create the chaos in order to run and hide? How many Pakistanis and Afghans were martyred to give him cover? Further, one news story said that some Muslim inmates at Guantanamo used pages from the Holy Koran to stop up the toilets and irritate the Americans.

Maybe our second question should be why isn’t this an issue in either the domestic or international press. This was a case of brave bin Laden supporters desecrating the Holy Koran. If it’s wrong for us, why isn’t it wrong for them? Isn’t that a gross double standard? As for people like Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed, they said they were innocent and were not terrorists. That reminds me of a line from the movie ‘The Shawshank Redemption’: “I’m innocent, remember? Just like everybody else here.”

Let us also remember that al Qaeda training manuals instructed terrorists to complain about abuse and torture. The goal, of course, is to make Guantanamo look like a Gulag and thus generate international support. Of course, this part may be easier to do if the president of Amnesty International, Irene Zubaida Khan, is a Muslimfrom Bangladesh. Might her religious leanings have influenced her judgment on this issue?

Bob Merz, a former CIA analyst (1977-2004), is a consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton.

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