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Trying to win the public relations war
By Azam al-Qari

A much-ballyhooed issue that has been publicly tossed about in the media by policy pundits and even U.S. President George W. Bush administration officials has been the need for public diplomacy. Ultra right-wing Attorney General John Ashcroft said that there is a necessity of "winning the public relations war." The first logical step was to quickly declare that Osama bin Laden was the main suspect in the destruction in New York and Washington on 9-11. He was the easy target, and the administration, which was never questioned about the massive security failure that allowed four aircraft to be hijacked almost simultaneously, could satisfy the American public with the announcement that the culprit has been identified and would be destroyed. 

U.S. officials released the infamous videotape showing bin Laden speaking with a Saudi guest in an effort to erase any lingering doubts that bin Laden was behind the Sept. 11 attacks. "I don't know how they can be in denial after they see this tape," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on critics of the tape.

The videotape that purports bin Laden admitting his "guilt" of destroying buildings in the U.S. contradicts all previous bin Laden pronouncements and the Taliban about their innocence. Bin Laden is under 50 and has never been credited with bouts of forgetfulness. Obviously, he must be remembering that he had previously videotaped statements on Al-Jazeera that he was not responsible for the U.S. bombings. And the American and Western press has painted bin Laden as a skillful manipulator of public opinion, who has always taken great care to tailor his message to his audience.

The video, which was allegedly found in a house in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, according to U.S. officials, carries a date stamp of Nov. 9. That was the day the Taliban lost control of the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, the first in a string of defeats for the party that had sheltered bin Laden. The Taliban surrendered the capital, Kabul, on Nov. 12.

It seems hard to believe that a marked person who was not serving as a boardroom bound general but a fighter in the trenches had the time to play host to a visitor in such a calm setting that even a video recording was arranged. The U.S. war establishment and the Western media have amply explained the magnitude of the U.S. munitions such as the "daisy cutters" and multi-ton bombs. It seems improbable that such a relaxed meeting was possible when such intense blasting was going on in the vicinity. Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert with the Washington office of Rand Corp., a California-based research organization, remarked, "Despite the fact that the air campaign was well underway when this was filmed, he still seems to feel very safe."

Bush and other officials insisted that it was authentic and that the government had verified to its authenticity before releasing. However, within a week, this claim lay in dust when it was told that the Saudi man shown talking with bin Laden about the attacks against the United States on a videotape is not a religious scholar, as originally thought, but a former anti-Soviet guerrilla in Afghanistan and a longtime acquaintance of bin Laden.

U.S. and Saudi officials initially identified the man, who is shown chatting amicably with bin Laden and comparing notes on the results of the Sept. 11 hijackings, as Suleiman al Ghamdi, the head of a small mosque who was once imprisoned by Saudi authorities for his radical views.

However, ranking Saudi authorities relented and said that the man is actually Khaled al-Harbi, who met bin Laden during the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and later fought on behalf of Muslims in Bosnia and Chechnya. Al-Harbi, who lost both his legs in combat, left Saudi Arabia 10 days after the Sept. 11 attacks to travel to Afghanistan, said Saudi officials.

The question is that if Al-Harbi was not a sheikh but merely a dedicated fighter, then why was bin Laden shown addressing him in the manner of a religious scholar. Perhaps the video doctors got the wrong footage to do their manipulation and the Saudis spilled the beans by revealing the man's real identity.

The United States has repeatedly informed the public about its sophisticated communications equipment, its CIA and FBI personnel, the special U.S. and British military units, and the hordes seeking the $25 million booty being used as a reward for the capture of bin Laden. The question arises that if a legless person could get to bin Laden, why could the world's most sophisticated force not reach there.

It was not thus surprising that al-Jazeera aired an interview with a London-based expert on Islamic groups, Hani Subai, who pronounced the tape a crude "fabrication."

"It is shameful that the strongest nation in the world should be presenting this tape as proof," said Subai, arguing that bin Laden looked much "healthier" in the video than in recent pictures, with less gray hair. He said the decision to air the tape showed that the Bush administration had "no evidence" against Mr. Bin Laden.

A Tale of Coincidences
The videotape offers coincidences that parallel U.S. claims. Bin Laden is shown confirming the suspicion of U.S. investigators that the Sept. 11 attacks were led by an Egyptian-born hijacker, Mohamed Atta, who allegedly piloted the first plane that flew into the World Trade Center. On tape, bin Laden is shown describing Atta as a "member of the Egyptian family," which American commentators say was evidently referring to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization, which formally merged with al-Qaeda in 1998.

Bin Laden is also shown confirming a theory developed by U.S. investigators that the hijackers were divided into two groups: brains and muscle. The brains consisted of pilots such as Atta who had trained for their mission over a lengthy period. The muscle was made up of dedicated al-Qaeda foot soldiers largely ignorant of the nature of the operation.

The intense bombing of the Tora Bora cave complex belies the U.S. claim that bin Laden was hiding in caves because the latest videotape showed him in an urban setting, in a comfortable-looking house.

The videotape indicates that until very recently he was able to keep in close and regular touch with his supporters around the world and received a constant stream of information. However, this belies the American assertion that the saturation bombing had destroyed bin Laden's command and control operations.

The U.S. has produced a transcript of the tape, although the fact that one cannot hear the Arabic too well, and no one knows what they are actually saying. 

The war situation and the nature of the alleged contents of the video just do not make sense as to why a person so concerned about his safety would just sit there and talk about it, and leave the tape lying around?

Perhaps Abdul Latif Arabyati, leader of Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood, summed up the reaction: "Do the Americans think the world is that stupid?"

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