The New York Times is suddenly and retroactively blaming Israel for motivating the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, without much evidence to support the claim.
A recent Times news article about deadly attacks in Africa by affiliates of the terrorist group Al Qaeda blames them on President Trump’s decision to obey an American law that required him to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
The Times reports, “The attacks came fully seven months after President Trump moved the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the disputed holy city, which Mr. Trump recognized as the country’s capital. Widely seen as inflaming tensions and as a demonstration of the administration’s favoritism toward Israel in its long conflict with the Palestinians, the move drew condemnation at the time from many corners, including Al Qaeda and other extremist militant organizations.”
The Times mentions that the Jerusalem embassy move “drew condemnation … from many corners” but fails to mention that it also drew praise from many corners, including from the elected government of Israel and many American Jews and Christian Zionists.
But that’s just a mild precursor compared to the Times September 11 revisionism, which comes in a paragraph of the article that immediately follows the description of Jerusalem. The Times reports, “The suffering of the Palestinians has long been an animating cause for Al Qaeda, a stand-in for the victimization of Muslims at the hands of Western powers. Biographies of Osama bin Laden say that as an adolescent, he cried watching news coverage of displaced Palestinians who had been forced off their land.”
These are new claims by the Times, which has previously had rejected them. For example, on September 23, 2001, a former Jerusalem bureau chief of the paper, Serge Schmemann, wrote, “the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11 were apparently not about Israel and the Palestinians, at least not directly. … There were no indications that the architects of the attack had American support for Israel as their primary motivation.”
On October 12, 2001, the Times published an op-ed by a former US diplomat, Dennis Ross, headlined, “Bin Laden’s Terrorism Isn’t About The Palestinians.” Ross wrote that any claim that the attack on America “was about the plight of the Palestinians” was as “absurd” as Saddam Hussein’s claim that he had invaded Kuwait in 1990 to help the Palestinians.
Not even the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, bought this nonsense. The Times reported in 2002:
Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, sought to distance himself unequivocally from Al Qaeda in an interview published today, warning Osama bin Laden to stop justifying attacks in the name of Palestinians.
“I’m telling him directly not to hide behind the Palestinian cause,” Mr. Arafat was quoted as saying in The Sunday Times of London, referring to recent statements by Al Qaeda leaders.
“Why is bin Laden talking about Palestine now?” Mr. Arafat said. “He never helped us. He was working in another, completely different area and against our interests.”
That 2002 Times report referred to “Al Qaeda, which has in the past mentioned the Palestinian issue only glancingly.”
For Israel and its friends, it’s a bit of a complicated issue. Associating Al Qaeda with the Palestinian cause could help discredit the Palestinians by associating them and their supporters with an evil terrorist group that is extremely unpopular with Americans across the political spectrum who vividly remember the 2001 attacks. However, the association could also feed the fantasy that if only the Israel-Palestinian issue could be somehow resolved, Al Qaeda and other similar anti-American and anti-Western terrorist groups would immediately surrender and cease their violent attacks.
Anyway, one wonders what “biographies” — not just one, but plural — of Osama Bin Laden the Times is talking about. And one wonders how believable are these improbable Times-cited reports of Bin Laden’s adolescent tears. One biography of Bin Laden is by Michael Scheuer, a former CIA official who has complained of a “fifth column of pro-Israel US citizens” who are “unquestionably enemies of America’s republican experiment.” That erodes his credibility. Another Bin Laden biography, by Jonathan Randal, reports that Bin Laden, “like so many other Saudis, had a long record of indifference about the Palestinian cause.”
Unless the Times itself has independent confirmation or reason to believe this tale about Bin Laden’s tears for the Palestinians, or is willing to fill Times readers in with more detail about the source, it is strange for the newspaper to shift its narrative so dramatically about the “animating cause” of the group behind the deadly attacks on America in 2001.
One hint of this story’s possible source does come in a previous Times article, from December 2017, which begins, “Osama bin Laden was just 14 when his mother noticed that he had stopped watching his favorite Westerns. She found him fixated instead on news reports about Palestinians, tears streaming down his face as he watched TV in their home in Saudi Arabia. ‘In his teenage years, he was the same nice kid,’ his mother related. ‘But he was more concerned, sad and frustrated by the situation in Palestine,’ she said, according to Lawrence Wright’s account of bin Laden’s trajectory and Al Qaeda’s rise in his book, ‘The Looming Tower.’”
Even that, though, is a truncated account; the full quote from the Wright book has Bin Laden’s mother claiming that her teenage son would “weep” about “the situation in Palestine in particular, and the Arab and Muslim world in general.” The Wright book passage mentions nothing at all about “displaced Palestinians who had been forced off their land.” The rest of the Wright book passage explains also that during the same period, Bin Laden became more religious, with some ascribing the change “to a charismatic Syrian gym teacher at the school who was a member of the Muslim Brothers.”
The Times could just as easily have blamed the gym teacher or the Muslim Brotherhood; instead, it blames the Jewish state of Israel.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.