Tape Stirs Widespread Doubt in Already Skeptical Arab World

Lebanese men watch the broadcast.
Lebanese men in the port city of Sidon watch a broadcast of the Osama bin Laden videotape at a coffeehouse on Thursday.
Times Staff Writer

The videotape billed as proof of Osama bin Laden’s responsibility for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was still playing when the Arab satellite news station Al Jazeera broadcast a telephone interview: “This tape is fabricated evidence,” declared Hani Sibaii, a London-based Islamist. “It does not deserve to be called evidence.”

From the moment U.S. officials said they suspected Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network were behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the charges were greeted skeptically by the Arab public.

Over and over, in casual conversation and in official remarks, people pointed to the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City as evidence that Americans are quick to blame Arabs--even when they are not responsible.

And, over and over, they asked for proof.

But Thursday, when proof was served up in the form of the grainy videotape, some people initially spoke of forgery, faulty translation--and ill-fated EgyptAir Flight 990.

In October 1999, a New York-to-Cairo jet crashed into the ocean, killing all 217 people on board. U.S. investigators concluded on the basis of flight data recordings and other evidence that the co-pilot intentionally downed the plane. They also said he was heard saying what was described as a prayer: “Tawakaltu ala Allah,” or, “I put trust in God.”

Arabs seized on that reference by the U.S. as proof of cultural ignorance. Arabs use the phrase casually and repeatedly in daily life. Perhaps, they said Thursday, the U.S. translators did it again with the Bin Laden tape.

“If you hear it as an Arab and you hear it as an American, you have a different feeling,” said Labib Kamhawi, a political science professor at Jordan University in Amman, the capital.

“Arabs, sometimes, the way they talk, give the impression they did something while they are expressing wishful thinking and sympathy. You cannot take the unclear dialogue, the unclear persons and justify a war out of this tape.”

The U.S. and its allies may see the footage as proof positive that Bin Laden and his followers were behind the attacks. But Arabs viewed the tape differently.

It was released at a time when many Arabs are angry with what they see as the United States’ blind support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. Further, the tape was of such poor quality and Bin Laden’s words so difficult to discern that viewers took away from it what they wanted. Those who did not believe the U.S. charges before the tape was shown were unlikely to change their minds afterward.

“People are convinced, me included, that Bin Laden does not have the kind of international reach he is alleged to have, nor the organization, nor the finances,” said Radwan Abdullah, a Jordanian political analyst from Amman. “The whole thing has been grossly exaggerated.”

Diaa Rashwan is an Islamist sympathizer with the Egyptian government-funded Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. He never believed that Bin Laden was guilty, and he still didn’t after seeing the tape.

“It’s a real scandal,” he said, laughing. “If this tape is the strongest evidence with Washington, then it is really a problem.”

Rashwan’s main reason was the poor quality of the tape. Bin Laden is a multimillionaire, a man said to posses extraordinary technological capabilities, a man who released previous videos that were slick and well produced, he said, so how could this be his work?

Criticism of Translation

“I think it is easy to have a good camera from Japan. Even me, I have a good camera,” he said.

But Rashwan also saw other problems in the tape: When a visitor from Saudi Arabia arrives, his voice is clear and there are frequent close-ups. But Bin Laden’s voice is always muffled and the camera never zooms in on him.

Kamhawi in Jordan had similar concerns, though his main objection had to do with the sound. Even if one accepts that the tape is real, which he was willing to do, he said it was impossible to know if the U.S. got the translation right.

“Frankly, it was not clear in Arabic, so we had to rely on the transcript. I think it does not add much, does not give any meat to Americans’ allegation. This sort of talk and discussion that took place is probably the same sort of talk that took place in many houses throughout the Muslim world--this sort of talk and fantasizing--but it does not really prove anything.”

But for some, the tape did seem to confirm their worst fears, that Arabs committed the attacks in the name of Islam.

Mona Ziade, editor of local news for the English-language Daily Star in Beirut, said she was watching with friends who began cursing the television screen. She said she thinks that some people are refusing to accept the credibility of the tape because they are embarrassed--and frightened.

“I believe that the public in general would probably have preferred for such a tape not to be broadcast,” she said. “They feel the danger that maybe this tape will give America the excuse to widen the war on terrorism.”

But even Ziade said the translation was not very well done.

Habib Toumi of the small Persian Gulf country of Bahrain accepted the tape as proof of Bin Laden’s guilt, but questioned the accuracy of the translation, saying it was “not a cultural translation.”

“The translation was not very good. You have to be familiar with the Saudi dialect to have an accurate translation,” he said.

The news anchor of Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite television station, went to a telephone interview with Christopher Ross, an Arabic-speaking State Department official. Ross said the translation was difficult because of the poor quality of the tape, but that it is accurate, if not literal.

“There is no doubt this tape is real and it is not fabricated,” Ross said. “I personally worked on this and replayed the tape more than 50 times, and it is a real tape which was found in Afghanistan.”

But the news station gave the last word to Sibaii from London. He suggested the dialogue on the tape may have been cut from a video of a wedding shot years earlier.