In speeches leading up to the fifth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush focused on the dangers of Islamic fascism and the efforts, both at home and abroad, to combat them. In response, his election-year rivals fired back that we are no safer than we were five years ago. According to them, we are mired in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have sacrificed our civil liberties while exaggerating the global terrorist threat.
But al Qaeda is not so conflicted. While American politicians tore into each other, Al Jazeera calmly released a video of Osama bin Laden from before September 11. Given the timing of the tape’s release, you could call it bin Laden’s alternative commemoration of the mass murder of nearly 3,000 people in America.
The film reveals bin Laden strutting through his Afghanistan terrorist camp — and blessing those who were preparing the suicide attacks. Other top men in al Qaeda appear, and at least two hijackers boast of their planned jihad in Manhattan.
There is a lot to relearn from the footage that we have apparently forgotten in these last five years.
Let’s start with what actually prompted September 11. Today, according to a Scripps Howard poll, more than a third of Americans suspect the attacks were an inside job (with federal officials either helping the hijackers or at least knowing about them in advance). Meanwhile, a majority of our Canadian neighbors believe U.S. policies were a primary cause of the attack.
But what does the newly released tape tell us? Was September 11 a result of American support for Israel? Or the presence of our troops in Saudi Arabia, or the U.N. embargo of Iraq — the grievances bin Laden himself in 1998 cited as grounds for murdering Americans?
Not according to two of the captioned “Martyrs of the Manhattan Raid,” who spoke freely in this newly released tape. Saudi nationals Hamza al-Ghamdi (who helped crash Flight 175 into the South Tower of the World Trade Center) and Wail al-Shehri (who joined Mohamed Atta on Flight 11 to topple the North Tower) mostly voiced anger over Western violence against Muslims in Chechnya and Bosnia (as well as citing furor about Kashmir and the Philippines).
Never mind that the U.S., almost alone among Western countries, criticized Russian tactics in Grozny, and bombed a European Christian country for several weeks to save Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Instead of having any precise claim against America, these killers showed their hurt arose from their own sense of envy and collective failure — as attested to by the now all too familiar references to “being humiliated” and lost honor on the tape.
There is no doubt who al-Ghamdi and al-Shehri were — or what they were planning to do. Yet polls since September 11, 2001, consistently reveal most Middle East Muslims do not believe al Qaeda, much less any Arab Muslims, carried out the attacks. Instead, Israel or the CIA is blamed. The tape is also a chilling reminder that in this war evidence means nothing; superstition, bias and delusion everything.
It’s also important to note bin Laden acknowledges the murder plot and prays for the hijackers (“ask God … to aim their shots well”). Yet some delude themselves that bin Laden, albeit misguided and dangerous, is a resistance fighter driven by notions of Islamic purity. In the past, bin Laden has even denied his involvement in planning September 11. Here, though, he clearly takes credit for it. The Arab Street should be reminded its icon is not only a killer and a thug but a pathological liar.
And let’s not forget what has become of these odious jihadists since this creepy pre-September 11 video was made, since their various fates might offer some barometer of our success or failure amid our persistent domestic recriminations.
The Afghanistan camp in the tape was obliterated by the U.S. military. Bin Laden is alive, but hiding — most likely protected by the friendly Islamist tribes inside a nuclear Pakistan.
The two murderous September 11 hijackers are in hell. Another terrorist on the tape, Mohammed Atef, a top bin Laden lieutenant, was killed by a U.S. air strike in Afghanistan. And Ramzi Binalshibh, who probably helped plan the September 11 killings but failed to gain entry into the U.S., is in a cell in Guantanamo Bay.
In short, most of our enemies who appear in this latest film are either dead, scattered or in captivity — and by the very policies of military retaliation and incarceration so criticized around the world.
Ultimately, the tape of this now-extinct terrorist camp reminds us not to impute our own notions about motives to these jihadists. Instead, why not just watch and listen to what they themselves really do and say? The truth may shock us.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of “A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.”