The smoking gun?

The Arab world gives a mixed reaction to the tape released by the U.S. government showing Osama bin Laden's connection to the Sept. 11 attacks.


Eric Boehlert
December 14, 2001 2:45PM (UTC)

With television sets around the world broadcasting the home video of Osama bin Laden boasting about his role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the most anxiously awaited reaction will come among Muslims, particularly viewers in the Middle East. There, many had continued to openly question whether bin Laden and the al-Qaida terrorist network were responsible for the hijacking attacks.

Experts suggest the tape, in which bin Laden calmly outlines the murderous attacks, speaks for itself and should help dismiss any lingering doubts in the Middle East. But they note already on Middle Eastern television there have been suggestions that the tape doesn't explicitly prove bin Laden's guilt, and that hostility in the region toward America centers more around its policy toward Israel, not bin Laden. Also, despite all the talk from the White House this week about delaying the release of the tape until the government translation was just right, some surprising errors in translating the tape from Arabic to English may lead to further suspicion in the region.

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"The tape should dispel any remaining doubt that bin Laden is an evil villain and responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks," says Ali Abunimah, vice president of the Arab-American Action Network. "Most serious people didn't need this tape to be convinced. The tapes that had already been released [by bin Laden] made it clear since he all but took responsibility for the attacks."

"Seeing is believing," adds Jerry Lampe, senior associate at the National Foreign Language Center in Washington, who has taught Arabic for more than three decades. "I'd hope most people [in Middle East] would say, 'Yep, he did it.' I don't think they can deny that."

Still, at least right after the video's initial airing, bin Laden seemed to receive the benefit of the doubt among guests on Al-Jazeera, the influential pan-Arab news channel. According to As'ad Abukhalil, author of the forthcoming book "Bin Laden and Taliban: The New American War Against Terrorism," who watched Al-Jazeera on Thursday, one guest suggested perhaps bin Laden was simply trying to impress the people he was visiting. Striking a legalistic defense, the guest noted bin Laden didn't reveal any information on the tape that he couldn't have picked up by reading the newspapers (i.e. that Mohammed Atta was the ring leader and that the planes hit 20 minutes apart).

Another Al-Jazeera guest agreed the tape was not a "smoking gun."

That reaction probably did not please Christopher Ross, the Arabic-speaking former American ambassador to Syria who appeared on Al-Jazeera Thursday on behalf of the U.S. government. Ross was also the primary government translator who told Al-Jazeera he listened to the bin Laden tape 50 times in order to come up with the English version that appears as text on the bottom of the screen. (That translation was then checked by two outside Arabic experts.)

"Maybe he should have listened 100 times," says Abukhalil, who notes a few surprising errors in the translation that suggest an ignorance "not only of Arabic but Islam, too."

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For instance, at one point on the tape a supporter refers to how "the day will come when the symbols of Islam will rise up and it will be similar to the early days of Al-Mujahedeen and Al-Ansar."

Abukhalil says that's clearly a reference to two early groups of supporters among the prophet Mohammed; Al-Muhajireen and Al-Ansar. Instead, the translator thought the speaker was referring to Al-Mujahedin, a generic term for pious fighters and one made famous among Muslims who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s. That kind of mistake, says Abukhalil, "is like saying Jesus had 55 disciples."

Additionally, on the tape there's a reference to the prophet's four successors. Although all four names are audible, only three are translated. "My freshmen students would know [the names] after a few weeks of class," says Abukhalil, who teaches political science at California State University at Stanislaus. "I'm astonished by stuff like that."

And the Saudi government took umbrage at the translators' identification of some of the people bin Laden and his friends talked about. The translators identified several of the individuals discussed, but the Saudis claimed they got the names wrong.

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Those missteps in no way affect the overall message of the tape, but he thinks it could help "fuel the imagination of conspiracy theorists."

Abunimah, though, downplays the importance of word selection. "There is no issue of translation in this case. Because there's no nuance relevant when you're talking about killing 3,000 civilian people."

But Lampe, who recently returned from Egypt where he says there's a palpable sense of ire and frustration over the deterioration of Palestinian-Israeli relations and the United States' role in the dispute, wonders if Muslims there will be able to watch the tape impartially.

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"There is a lot of anger today," he says. "And those who are terribly angry perhaps won't see the tape as objectively as one would hope. I don't think anybody there is fond of bin Laden. At the same time, they're very critical of the Bush administration and its bias toward Israel."

Abunimah agrees. "There's genuine anger towards a range of U.S. policies in the Middle East that have nothing to do with bin Laden."


Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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Osama Bin Laden



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