In speeches leading up to the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, President Bush focused on the dangers of Islamic fascism and the efforts, both at home and abroad, to combat them. In response, his election-year rivals fired back that we are no safer than we were five years ago. According to them, we are mired in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have sacrificed our civil liberties while exaggerating the global terrorist threat.
But al-Qaida is not so conflicted. While American politicians tore into each other, Al Jazeera calmly released a video of Osama bin Laden from before 9/11. Given the timing of the tape's release, you could call it bin Laden's alternative commemoration of the mass murder of 3,000 Americans.
The film reveals bin Laden strutting through his Afghanistan terrorist camp and blessing those who were preparing the 9/11 suicide attacks. Other top men in al-Qaida appear, and at least two of the hijackers boast of their planned jihad in Manhattan.
There is a lot to relearn from the footage that we have apparently forgotten in these last five years.
Let's start with what actually prompted 9/11. Today, according to a Scripps Howard poll, more than a third of Americans suspect the attacks were an inside job (with federal officials either helping the hijackers or at least knowing about them in advance). Meanwhile, a majority of our Canadian neighbors believe U.S. policies were a primary cause of the attack.
But what does the newly released tape tell us? Was 9/11 a result of American support for Israel? Or the presence of our troops in Saudi Arabia, or the U.N. embargo of Iraq the grievances that bin Laden himself in 1998 cited as grounds for murdering Americans?
Not according to two of the captioned "Martyrs of the Manhattan Raid," who spoke freely in this newly released tape. Saudi nationals Hamza al-Ghamdi (who helped crash Flight 175 into the South Tower of the World Trade Center) and Wail al-Shehri (who joined Mohammed Atta on Flight 11 to topple the North Tower) mostly voiced anger over Western violence against Muslims in Chechnya and Bosnia (as well as citing furor about Kashmir and the Philippines).
Never mind that the U.S., almost alone among Western countries, criticized Russian tactics in Grozny, and bombed a European Christian country for several weeks to save Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Instead of having any precise claim against America, these killers showed that their hurt arose from their own sense of envy and collective failure as the now all too familiar references to "being humiliated" and lost honor in the tape attest.
There is no doubt who al-Ghamdi and al-Shehri were or what they were planning to do. Yet polls since 9/11 consistently reveal that most Muslims in the Middle East do not believe that al-Qaida, much less any Arab Muslims at all, carried out the attacks. Instead, Israel or the CIA is blamed. So the tape is also a chilling reminder that in this war evidence means nothing superstition, bias and delusion everything.
It's also important to note that bin Laden acknowledges the murder plot and prays for the hijackers ("ask G-d . . . to aim their shots well"). Yet some delude themselves that bin Laden, albeit misguided and dangerous, is still a resistance fighter driven by notions of Islamic purity. In the past, bin Laden has even denied his involvement in planning 9/11. Here, though, he clearly takes credit for it. The Arab Street should be reminded that its icon is not only a killer and a thug but a pathological liar as well.
And let's not forget what has become of these odious jihadists since this creepy pre-9/11 video was made, since their various fates might offer some barometer of our success or failure in this present period of domestic recriminations.
The Afghanistan camp in the tape has been obliterated by the U.S. military. Bin Laden is alive, but hiding most likely protected by the friendly Islamist tribes inside a nuclear Pakistan.
The two murderous 9/11 hijackers are in hell. Another terrorist in the tape, Mohammed Atef, one of bin Laden's top lieutenants, was killed by an American air strike in Afghanistan. And Ramzi Binalshibh, who probably helped plan the 9/11 killings but failed to gain entry into the U.S., is currently in a cell in Guantanamo Bay.
In short, most of our enemies who appear in this latest film are either dead, scattered or in captivity and by the very policies of military retaliation and incarceration so criticized around the world.
Ultimately, the tape of this now-extinct terrorist camp reminds us not to impute our own notions about motives to these jihadists. Instead, why not just watch and listen to what they themselves really do and say? The truth may shock us.