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A YEAR AFTER

For Many Muslims, Bin Laden Remains a Scapegoat of U.S.

September 11, 2002|TYLER MARSHALL and MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Few people in the Muslim world have more reason to share America's conviction that Osama bin Laden masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States than Egyptian journalist Sakina Sadat.

Her brother, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, was assassinated by Islamic extremists 21 years ago. Bin Laden's second in command, Ayman Zawahiri, was a member of the organization that killed him. Sadat has an American son-in-law, a daughter who lives in Los Angeles, a pragmatic mind and a worldly outlook.

She also believes that Bin Laden had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks.

"He's a killer who wants to rule the Islamic world, but he doesn't have the mind to do this," she said. "He can send people with machine guns to kill, to destroy, to burn, but not to direct these three airplanes with pilots to destroy those buildings with a precision that requires milliseconds."

Much as the O.J. Simpson trial exposed the divide that separated white and black Americans in the mid-1990s, the accusations against Bin Laden bring sharply divergent views of the world into focus. For most Americans, and many of their allies, there is little doubt of Bin Laden's guilt. But from much of the Muslim world, the U.S. campaign against him often seems vengeful and anti-Islamic.

The differences reflect an enormous gulf of suspicion between the United States and Muslim societies, even at the upper echelons. Those who have followed his actions say that's exactly what Bin Laden had in mind.

"The implications are serious," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a respected political scientist at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan, and one of the few interviewed for this article who believes that Bin Laden did, in fact, mastermind the Sept. 11 attacks. "His agenda is to damage relations between Islam and the West, and he has succeeded in ways few really understand."

Analysts, both in the West and in Islamic countries, suggest that America's inability to convince Muslims of Bin Laden's guilt has helped sustain sympathy for him and may even have helped keep the Al Qaeda terrorist network from disintegrating under the force of relentless U.S. military pressure.

"No terrorist group in history has taken the pounding that Al Qaeda has, but it still operates," noted Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist at the Rand Corp.'s Washington office. "It still circulates videos for recruiting, provides film to [Arab TV network] Al Jazeera and invites people to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The sympathy they get matters."

The sharply differing assessments of Bin Laden's involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks are also likely to complicate efforts to build new bridges across the cultural divide.

The belief in Bin Laden's innocence extends far beyond the working-class slums and fundamentalist mosques that serve as some of radical Islam's prime recruiting areas. It is also found in the quiet parlors of educated, intellectual elites--from Cairo and Islamabad to Kuala Lumpur.

"Many of us--including me--were perturbed and perplexed that, within hours [of the attacks], the blame was put on Osama bin Laden," Malaysian social scientist Chandra Muzaffar said in an interview. "The evidence available is not persuasive enough to convince people. That leads us to believe there's something else here."

It is unclear just how and why opinions over Bin Laden's complicity are so divergent and remain so deeply rooted, but there are several theories.

Hoffman said many extremist groups in the Muslim world now operate well-oiled propaganda machines. He cited Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which he said operates its own TV network as well as Web sites in French, English and Arabic. In Bin Laden's own Al Qaeda, one of the four main committees is devoted to communications, Hoffman said.

The State Department gradually scaled back its own propaganda arm, the United States Information Service, after the end of the Cold War. As a result, Hoffman said, the U.S. is now outgunned in the battle for public opinion in the Muslim world.

"They've elbowed their way into the sweet spot, and we're playing catch-up," he said. "The message of these militant groups is simple and repetitive, and there's nothing to do to defend against it."

But other factors are at work too.

America's overall dearth of credibility in the Muslim world, in part a result of its support of Israel, and the swiftness with which Bin Laden was identified as the main suspect sowed doubt among many.

Many in Muslim countries also find it hard to understand how the most technologically advanced nation in the world could fail to react while such an attack unfolded over a period of more than two hours. Some have concluded that, much like the Oklahoma City bombing six years earlier, the attacks on New York and Washington were carried out by Americans.

The events of Sept. 11 are also perceived in Muslim nations through the prism of deep feelings that long ago shaped people's view of themselves and the world.

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