Osama bin Laden: Zionist Agent?

If you can't beat absurdity, use absurdity.

Sez here in The Washington Post that among Pakistanis, support is waning for the U.S. military effort against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban hosts. A front-page story Monday datelined Islamabad reports that, "In elegant drawing rooms as well as run-down mosques, many Pakistani Muslims insist that Israel must have been behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States." This is opportunity knocking for the U.S., even though opportunity has chosen to call at the madhouse door.

According to a conspiracy theory that has reportedly swept through the Islamic world, Israel plotted the September massacres to make Islam look barbaric, deflect attention from the intensifying Palestinian problem, and manipulate the U.S. into a war against all Muslims. The major supporting "evidence" for this crackpot belief is a report originating in the Arab press about Jewish employees at the World Trade Center. Supposedly, 4,000 Jews were forewarned of the coming attack and stayed home on Sept. 11. According to a familiar piece of paranoid ratiocination, "only the Mossad" could have carried off such an operation.

Thus, the people gathering in Islamabad's elegant drawing rooms perceive Osama bin Laden as Israel's patsy, and the U.S. military actions against his Taliban protectors as unjust.

How should the U.S. respond to this? Should it try to persuade Pakistanis and others of the truth by presenting factual evidence? Sure, but that probably won't have much effect. People believe in grand conspiracies because conspiracies meet a need. In this case, embracing a purported Israeli plot may be preferable to confronting an unspeakable crime committed in Islam's name, or it may reinforce a pernicious anti-Semitism (often associated with an array of purported Jewish conspiracies). Whatever the reason, one rarely persuades conspiracists by showing them counter-evidence; for them, counter-evidence is part of the cover-up that is part of the conspiracy.

But the U.S. has an alternative, admittedly an unusual one: It could use the conspiracy theory, altering its story line so that it supports American interests rather than undermining them. To address this, one has to understand a couple of things about how conspiracy narratives work.

First, most conspiracy stories contain a series of familiar tropes. This one, for example, is centered on the trope of Forewarned Survivors, a feature that also turned up in some narratives attached to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. In that case, 123 "forewarned" employees of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms supposedly stayed home on the morning of the bombing, thus "supporting" the charge that the U.S. government itself was responsible for the plot.

Second, such tropes are inevitably strung together by leaps of paranoid faith. That's inherent to the narratives. After all, if one could connect all the dots with specifics, these wouldn't be conspiracy "theories"; they'd be demonstrable. In this case, it is paranoid faith that somehow connects the Mossad schemers to their bin Laden patsies.

But the central role of paranoid faith makes such stories inherently unstable, which is why many such narratives generate numerous versions of themselves. The classic cases involve the many "solutions" to the Lincoln and JFK assassinations, and the conspiracizing of Jack the Ripper. Paranoid faith is always seeking to morph into a trope. And therein lies the American opportunity.

If the weakest point of the Mossad conspiracy narrative is the actual role of bin Laden-the-patsy, then the solution to the problem is to recast bin Laden. How? Glad you asked. As it happens, there is an extremely useful trope waiting to be exploited: The Arab Leader as Zionist Agent. A long series of Middle East leaders--from Egypt's Nasser to Syria's Assad to Libya's Ghadafi to Arafat himself--have inspired actual rumors that they were either secret Israeli agents or Freemasons (to many minds the same thing). Why? Like many similar narratives, these stories met a need. Such leaders made the Arab world look bad in some way; they led it to ignominious defeat, they massacred thousands of their own citizens, they behaved like buffoons, etc. Rather than confront the depressing reality of Arab political leadership, many persons chose to believe that such figures must be Zionist agents. According to the more colorful versions of these theories, these leaders even had the Star of David tattooed somewhere on their bodies.

In brief, a useful antidote to the "Mossad did it" story is a counter-version, circulated surreptitiously, that agrees that the Mossad did it to make Islam look bad and to foment conflict against Muslims, adding only that Osama bin Laden is the Mossad's knowing agent. Sound absurd? It is absurd. But millions of people already believe the absurd. If you can't beat absurdity, you counter it with a more useful version.

Would bin Laden fit the role? In fact, he's set himself up for it. The act he has committed is considered heinous and unacceptable by millions of Muslims, which is why they want to blame it on Israel; if they thought the murders praiseworthy, they wouldn't seek to transfer the guilt. Furthermore, bin Laden and his spokesmen have repeatedly praised the murders in their videotaped statements, promising more in Islam's name. Indeed, there is reason to speculate that bin Laden's gang is concerned about the popular perception among Muslims of the murders. In one tape, spokesman Sulaiman Abou Ghaith feels it necessary to defend the acts, saying "I would like to tackle an important point in this speech, which is that those youth who destroyed America and launched the storm of airplanes, they did good, by taking the battle to the heart of America." Bin Laden seems to realize he has narrative problems.

Could the U.S. spread a story like this? Sure, but not by the Voice of America or through "public diplomacy." This kind of thing is the work of so-called "gray" propaganda (so called because the information has no identifiable origin), by which damaging material is circulated through rumor and story planting. Effective military campaigns have made use of such operations at least since the days of Genghis Khan.

While such an operation would seem to be at Israel's expense, revising the Mossad rumor actually does Israel no new harm. In the meantime, it allows conspiracists to use the new story to meet the same avoidance needs that the former story met. All it does is use bin Laden's acts and words against him. Everyone knows that winning wars means winning hearts and minds. Sometimes the minds you encounter are twisted minds, and you have to use unexpected means to win them.

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