'Bin Laden is not dead' and other conspiracy theories
During a discussion with some fellow medical students, I was astounded to observe that they thought 9/11 was a Jewish conspiracy and that al Qaeda is just a figment of some people's imagination. I found it surprising how most of them did not know the origins and genesis of al Qaeda, one of the largest terrorist organizations in the world.
The aim of writing this post is not to launch a tirade against the conspiracy theory culture prevalent in our society. It is to discuss a couple of popular controversies and try to provide some answers to the much debated questions. The authors I have mentioned are the ones whose work is considered best by several independent bodies.
1. Osama bin Laden was not killed in the Abbottabad operation
It has been a whole year since the operation that killed bin Laden in Abbottabad, and a majority of Pakistanis still do not believe it ever happened.
Nicholas Schmidle, winner of 2008 Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism, wrote a detailed article named "Getting Bin Laden: What happened that night in Abbottabad" in The New Yorker on August 8, 2011. That article is one of the most comprehensive accounts of the Abbottabad operation till date. Regarding the planning of the operation, the article mentions:
In late 2010, Obama ordered Panetta to begin exploring options for a military strike on the compound. Panetta contacted Vice-Admiral Bill McRaven, the SEAL in charge of JSOC. In January, 2011, McRaven asked a JSOC official named Brian, who had previously been a DEVGRU (Naval Special Warfare Development Group) deputy commander, to present a raid plan.
On March 14th, 2011, Obama called his national-security advisers into the White House Situation Room and reviewed a spreadsheet listing possible courses of action against the Abbottabad compound. Most were variations of either a JSOC raid or an airstrike. At the end of the meeting, Obama instructed McRaven to proceed with planning the raid.
About the SEAL team, the article states:
During the ninety-minute helicopter flight, James and his teammates rehearsed the operation in their heads. Since the autumn of 2001, they had rotated through Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa, at a brutal pace.
The Abbottabad raid was not DEVGRU’s maiden venture into Pakistan, either. The team had surreptitiously entered the country on ten to twelve previous occasions. Most of those missions were forays into North and South Waziristan, where many military and intelligence analysts had thought that bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders were hiding. (Only one such operation—the September, 2008, raid of Angoor Ada, a village in South Waziristan—has been widely reported.) Abbottabad was, by far, the farthest that DEVGRU had ventured into Pakistani territory. It also represented the team’s first serious attempt since late 2001 at killing “Crankshaft”—the target name that the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, had given bin Laden.
Regrading the Killing of Osama bin Laden, it says:
The Americans hurried toward the bedroom door. The first SEAL pushed it open. Two of bin Laden’s wives had placed themselves in front of him. Amal al-Fatah, bin Laden’s fifth wife, was screaming in Arabic. She motioned as if she were going to charge; the SEAL lowered his sights and shot her once, in the calf. Fearing that one or both women were wearing suicide jackets, he stepped forward, wrapped them in a bear hug, and drove them aside.
A second SEAL stepped into the room and trained the infrared laser of his M4 on bin Laden’s chest. The al Qaeda chief, who was wearing a tan shalwar kameez and a prayer cap on his head, froze; he was unarmed. “There was never any question of detaining or capturing him—it wasn’t a split-second decision. No one wanted detainees,” the special-operations officer told me. Nine years, seven months, and twenty days after September 11th, an American was a trigger pull from ending bin Laden’s life. The first round, a 5.56-mm. bullet, struck bin Laden in the chest. As he fell backward, the SEAL fired a second round into his head, just above his left eye. On his radio, he reported, “enemy killed in action.”
Hearing this at the White House, Obama pursed his lips, and said solemnly, to no one in particular, “We got him”.
2. Al Qaeda is a “western propaganda”
Lawrence Wright, in his 2007 Pulitzer-prize winning book, The Looming Tower: al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 has described the genesis and evolution of al Qaeda and the ideas upon which it was formed along with its operations around the world - including 9/11.
Lawrence Wright has given detailed biographies of Sayyid Qutb, the ideological father of al Qaeda, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, the founder of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, the face of al Qaeda, Muhammed Atta, the pilot of one of the 9/11 planes and Ayman al Zawahiri, the current head of al Qaeda operations. Some important points mentioned in the book include:
- Sayyid Qutb in his book Milestones had openly announced that he considered Muslims living under democracy as belonging to “Jahiliyya”, the tribal pagan society that existed in Arab Peninsula before the advent of Islam. This was a clear message of Takfeer. (one Muslim declaring another Muslim a disbeliever)
- Sheikh Abdullah Azzam and other Saudi fighters had not participated as such in the war and still claimed to have “defeated a super power”. Their contribution to the war was negligible.
- Ayman al Zawahiri was an adherent of Sayyid Qutb’s philosophy and his previous organization namely “al Jihad” was involved in the assassination of Anwar Saadat. Later, al Jihad was merged into al Qaeda and was involved in murder of both Abdullah Azzam and Ahmad Shah Massoud.
- Al Qaeda was formed in Pakistan in August 1988. The book noted:
The mentioned al Qaeda is basically an organised Islamic faction, its goal is to "lift the word of God, to make His religion victorious," the secretary recorded in his minutes of the first meeting. The founders divided the military work, as they termed it, into two parts: “limited duration,” in which the Arabs would be trained and placed with Afghan mujahideen for the remainder of the war; and “open duration,” in which “they enter a testing camp and the best brothers of them are chosen.” The graduates of this second camp would become members of the new entity, al Qaeda.
3. The 9/11 twin towers attack
Jason Burke, author of On the Road to Kandahar and 9/11 Wars said that after 9/11, history of the last 30 years can be divided into a “pre-9/11” and a “post-9/11” world. The planes flown by al Qaeda members not only hit the twin towers killing thousands of innocent people, they also dug the goldmine for conspiracy theorists around the world.
A science and technology magazine named Popular Mechanics published a report based on the most famous conspiracy theories about 9/11 in March 2005 and debunked them using critical analysis and interviews with experts. The report is named “Debunking the 9/11 Myths”.
There are also various documentaries about the incident, apart from the infamous “Loose Change" whose first part was popularised in Pakistan, but the others were never discussed.
4. Jews are planning the downfall of Muslims
Tarek Fatah in his book, The Jew is Not My Enemy: Unveiling the Myths that Fuel Muslim Anti-Semitism tried to trace the roots of the widespread anti-Semitism in Muslim countries, especially Pakistan. He noted that anti-Semitism gained roots in the Islamic world after the conquest of European territories by Muslim Conquerors. The Christians who converted to Islam brought with them anti-Semitism rooted in the history of Christianity. The book also examines how anti-Semitism was used by people such as the aforementioned Sayyid Qutb to harness their anti-Shia sentiments.
Sadly, the problem facing our society is not just a widespread belief in conspiracy theories, it is also the way educated people embrace these theories and add twists to them. After every national disaster, a new conspiracy theory emerges; the most recent example being of Zaid Hamid, who following the Siachen tragedy, posted a video alleging Indians of deliberately causing an avalanche.
This ignorance is not a novel phenomenon. When Osama bin Laden was killed by US Navy SEAL Team Six, it was considered a “drama” by 66% of Pakistanis. Pakistanis in general are more willing to believe in conspiracy theories as opposed to facts. This may be because these theories provide a feasible explanation of events in a narrow frame of reference.
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