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Bin Laden Video: Smoking Gun or CIA Fake?

December 19, 2001

The latest videotape implicating Osama Bin Laden has been called the "smoking gun" — but critics of the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan call it "smoke and mirrors" deception.  The blurry 40-minute videotape released by the Pentagon on Dec. 13, purportedly showing Osama Bin Laden boasting of masterminding the terror attacks of 9-11, has raised more questions and doubts about its veracity than it has answered.

According to U.S. officials, the tape was found in a house in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan, and handed to the Pentagon by an unnamed person or group. At first it was reported that the CIA found the tape. Later press reports said United Front soldiers discovered it.  Unless the United States gives more information about how the tape was found or provides more technological details about it, doubts are bound to linger, the Guardian (U.K.) wrote.

One specialist in Islamic affairs, Hani Al Sibaei, described the videotape as "fabricated and a scandal for the greatest democratic country in the world." In a telephone call with the Arabic news network Al Jazeera from London, he noted the congratulatory wishes on the tape and Bin Laden's happy expression.  He said that this segment was taken from a tape of Bin Laden being congratulated on the pre-arranged marriage of his child to the child of Aiman Al-Zawaheri — which took place four years ago.

Al Sibaei said it boggles the mind that an organization like al Qaeda would create such simple-minded videotapes and then leave them behind in a private home. He added that Bin Laden has twice denied involvement in the attacks and said that he had sworn to Mullah Mohamed Omar, leader of the Taliban movement, that the Al Qaeda organization pledged it would not plan attacks against other countries from inside Afghanistan.

In the video, Bin Laden, wearing a green military jacket and white headdress, claims to have known the attacks would take place five days in advance, and says the destruction of the twin towers exceeded his expectations.  In the tape, which was broadcast with muffled sound accompanied by English translation, Bin Laden said that he believed that the fire from the jet fuel would result in a partial collapse of the iron infrastructure of the World Trade Center. The impact of the video may have been diluted to some extent by its poor quality and language difficulties. Many Arabs either had to accept the English translation on TV or strain to hear the words themselves.

Christopher Ross, a consultant hired by the State Department, told the Arabic news network Al Jazeera, that he had to replay the tape dozens of times in order to hear the conversation because the sound was so bad.  Ross indicated that to improve the translation, he replayed the tape another 50 times with the translator. He confirmed that the translation is not literal, because of the poor quality of the original tape's sound.

Some legal experts found the tape damning, if it could ever be admitted into court. "It is the most powerful kind of evidence," said Donald B. Ayer, former deputy attorney general. "It is a virtual confession."

In an earlier interview with a Pakistani newspaper, Bin Laden said "I have already said that I am not involved in the Sept.11 attacks in the United States. As a Muslim, I try my best to avoid telling a lie. I had no knowledge of these attacks, nor do I consider the killing of innocent women, children and other humans as an appreciable act."

Prosecutors seeking to bring Bin Laden to justice would certainly be keen to produce the tape but might struggle to prove its authenticity. Henry Hingson, former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said: "In this day and age of digital wizardry, many things can be done to alter its veracity."

The United States says the tape provides compelling evidence that Bin Laden was behind the attacks but the authenticity of the tape is doubted by many in the Muslim world and dismissed as unconvincing propaganda.  For all his familiarity with the Sept. 11 events, Bin Laden did not explicitly take responsibility for directing the operation. He said he had received notification of the Tuesday attacks the previous Thursday, indicating that the timing, at least, might have been left to others.

In Jordan, Abdul Latif Arabiat, head of the Islamic Action Front said, "Do Americans really think the world is that stupid to think that they would believe that this tape is evidence?"

"Of course it is fabricated," Dia'a Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on Islamic movements said, "If this is the kind of evidence that America has, then the blood of thousands who died and were injured in Afghanistan is on Bush's hands."

Riaz Durrani, a spokesman for Jamiat Ulema-e-Is lam, a pro-Taliban party in Pakistan, said: "This videotape is not authentic. The Americans made it up after failing to get any evidence against Osama."

President Bush, who hopes the video will bolster international support for the war on terrorism, challenged the critics calling the videotape a "devastating declaration of guilt for this evil person."  Countering claims that the video was faked, Bush said it was "preposterous for anybody to think this tape was doctored," adding, "Those who contend it's a farce or a fake are hoping for the best about an evil man. This is Bin Laden unedited."

Sean Broughton, director of the London-based production company Smoke and Mirrors and one of Britain's leading experts on visual effects, said it would be relatively easy for a professional to fake a video of Bin Laden.  But Broughton said to fool the top experts is much more difficult. "There are perhaps 20 people in America who would be good enough to fool everybody. To find someone that good and make sure they kept quiet would probably be pretty difficult."

Bob Crabtree, editor of Computer Video, said it is impossible to judge whether the video is a fake without more details of its source. "The U.S. seems simply to have asked the world to trust them that it is genuine," he said.


There are many problems with the videotape beginning with the appearance of Bin Laden.  Bin Laden, who is reported to suffer from kidney problems and uses a cane, has appeared rather lean in previous videotapes, but suddenly seems to have gained weight and actually appears jolly in the latest video, supposedly made on Nov. 9, only weeks after his previous video.  Bin Laden, who is of Yemenite parentage, has a characteristic long neck and long narrow head. The "new" Bin Laden appears to have a "husky" body and a smaller head in proportion to his body.

Some observers point out that in the latest video, Bin Laden appears to be wearing a ring on his right hand. In previous tapes Bin Laden wore no jewelry except a watch.  Others have pointed out that in the latest videotape Bin Laden is "gesticulating excessively" with his right hand, while in the earlier tapes Bin Laden, who is left-handed, spoke in a slow and deliberate manner.

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