AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 37/2003

Cover Story: Panoply of the Absurd

Part 2

And what about plans such as "Operation Northwoods" - a conspiracy plot hatched in 1962 by the US high command? Under this plan, a passenger aircraft flying over the Caribbean was to be replaced by a remote-controlled, identical aircraft. The aircraft would be exploded and the Cubans would be accused of having shot down the plane. Was this conspiracy also a figment of someone's imagination?

All of these supposed conspiracies did exist, but they all failed. "Northwoods" was eliminated by Kennedy, the Iran Contra deal fell apart and its key actors were exposed, and the fact that the Americans provided assistance to Afghan guerillas simply highlighted an ongoing dilemma in the often disastrous principle of American foreign policy, a policy based on the principle that my enemy's enemy is my friend.

Bröckers already made it quite clear in his first book that in his view, the grand puppet master behind September 11th was George W. Bush, who began "his rise to the position of great leader with an ideological fiction," that of "the Al Qaedaistic Bin Ladenistic global conspiracy." According to Bröckers, Bush turned the Islamists into bogeymen "with the help of a system that is essentially organized in the form of a secret society."

THE ZOMBIE TERRORISTS

The manner in which banal circumstances mutate into shadowy mysteries under such conditions is evident in an odd story that caused Mzoudi's attorney Rosenthal to engage in some speculation in court: the news that at least six of the alleged hijackers were supposedly alive and their voices were being broadcast live through various media outlets several days after the attacks.

On September 12th, a seventh man supposedly contacted his father. His name was Mohammed Atta. Atta Senior, a Cairo attorney, hasn't heard anything from his son since then, and is convinced that he has been murdered by US killers. Whether or not it includes Atta, to self-proclaimed alternative investigators the zombie terrorist theory serves as key evidence of shady machinations on the part of US authorities.

"This," say Bröckers and his co-author Andreas Hauß in what the blurb on the jacket calls a "meticulously" researched book, "has ... far-reaching consequences for the entire case, because it makes it entirely unclear as to who actually piloted the aircraft."

Just how shaky this line of argumentation is becomes evident in a statement just three lines farther down the page. "We," write the authors, "did not contact and personally interview them, nor have they been interviewed by anyone else recently." The authors continue to state that it is quite possible that the undead are now in fact dead. In the authors' opinions, if these men are alive, it must be perfectly understandable that someone who "is being accused of several thousand acts of murder" is likely to be in hiding "and unavailable for interviews."

Bröckers and Hauß spend fifteen pages making their version of a tale of suicide assassins seem plausible. Bülow does the same thing in five pages. However, a few telephone calls are all it takes to destroy their zombie theories. What these investigative journalists should have done was to spend a little time listening to those whom they cite as "reputable" sources for their arguments. Take the BBC, for example, which did in fact report, on September 23, 2001, that some of the alleged terrorists were alive and healthy and had protested their being named as assassins.

But there is one wrinkle. The BBC journalist responsible for the story only recalls this supposed sensation after having been told the date on which the story aired. "No, we did not have any videotape or photographs of the individuals in question at that time," he says, and tells us that the report was based on articles in Arab newspapers, such as the Arab News, an English-language Saudi newspaper.

The operator at the call center has the number for the Arab News on speed dial. We make a call to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A few seconds later, Managing Editor John Bradley is on the line. When we tell Bradley our story, he snorts and says: "That's ridiculous! People here stopped talking about that a long time ago."

Bradley tells us that at the time his reporters did not speak directly with the so-called "survivors," but instead combined reports from other Arab papers. These reports, says Bradley, appeared at a time when the only public information about the attackers was a list of names that had been published by the FBI on September 14th. The FBI did not release photographs until four days after the cited reports, on September 27th.

The photographs quickly resolved the nonsense about surviving terrorists. According to Bradley, "all of this is attributable to the chaos that prevailed during the first few days following the attack. What we're dealing with are coincidentally identical names." In Saudi Arabia, says Bradley, the names of two of the allegedly surviving attackers, Said al-Ghamdi and Walid al-Shari, are "as common as John Smith in the United States or Great Britain."

The final explanation is provided by the newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, one of the sources of Arab News, which in turn serves as a source to the BBC. Mohammed Samman is the name of the reporter who interviewed a man named Said al-Ghamdi in Tunis, only to find that al-Ghamdi was quite horrified to discover his name on the FBI list of assassins.

Samman remembers his big story well. "That was a wonderful story," he says. And that's all it was. It had nothing to do with the version made up of Bröckers' and Bülow's combined fantasies.

"The problem," says Samman, "was that after the first FBI list had been published, CNN released a photo of the pilot Said al-Ghamdi that had been obtained from the files of those Saudi pilots who had at some point received official flight training in the United States."

After Samman's story was reported by the news agencies, he was contacted by CNN. "I gave them Ghamdi's telephone number. The CNN people talked to the pilot and apologized profusely. The whole thing was quite obviously a mix-up. The Ghamdi family is one of the largest families in Saudi Arabia, and there are thousands of men named Said al-Ghamdi."

When we ask Samman to take another look at the FBI's list of photographs, he is more than happy to oblige, and tells us: "The Ghamdi on the photo is not the pilot with whom I spoke."

The investigative journalists should have been able to figure out just how obvious the solution to this puzzle was. They all write that a man named Abd al-Asis al-Umari had been named as a perpetrator by the FBI, and that there are apparently many individuals with this name. Bröckers and Hauß even noticed that the FBI had initially released an incorrect first name to the press. All of this certainly suggests that there was a mix-up, but it's also something that the conspiracy theorists apparently did not consider plausible.

In the case of the supposedly surviving terrorist Walid al-Shari, the truth is even more obvious. At least Bülow had the opportunity to avoid making this mistake. In his book, he writes that the alleged assassin Shari "lives in Casablanca and works as a pilot, according to information provided by the airline Royal Air Maroc."

If Bülow had inquired with the airline, he would have discovered that the name of the pilot who lives in Casablanca is Walid al-Shri and not, like that of the assassin, Walid al-Shari. This minor detail makes a big difference, namely the difference between a dead terrorist and a living innocent man. But to conspiracy theorists, discovering the truth is like solving a crossword puzzle for children: What's a four-letter word for a domesticated animal? Hrse.

Whatever doesn't fit is made to fit. And whatever fits is included without scrutiny. "The uncritical acceptance of any argument that suggests a conspiracy" is one of the cornerstones of all conspiracy theories, writes conservative US historian Daniel Pipes. "The conspiracy theorist starts with the conclusion and then looks for reasons to rule everything out that doesn't fit." If you happen to be holding a hammer, you're probably more likely to see nails everywhere.

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