In December 2001 the US released a video claimed to be of bin Laden, talking about the 9/11 attacks. CNN would later report that "bin Laden brags in Arabic that he knew about them beforehand and says the destruction went beyond his hopes. He says the attacks 'benefited Islam greatly.'". The same article said "[t]he Bush administration hopes the tape will convince skeptics, particularly in the Muslim and Arab worlds, of bin Laden's complicity in the attacks", and offered some evidence of its initial success:
You can view a low resolution version of the tape below, as the first option in the Videos section.
It didn't take long for people to start saying this tape was a fake, though, and not just a few individuals on conspiracy message boards, either. Journalist Robert Fisk delivered an early and emphatic verdict:
Others soon followed suit, often using the same image from the US tape as a comparison, and generally taking the line that it's utterly impossible that the video could be of bin Laden. 911Research said "Osama bin Laden would need morphing super-powers to be the man in the confession video", for instance; Prison Planet stated "the man in the video looks nothing like Bin Laden", and message board and blog comments were harsher still: "You literally have to be blind not to see that the man in the video is not Bin Laden.".
Further arguments appeared. The man in the video wore a gold ring, for example, while the real bin Laden did not. He writes with his right hand, but the FBI say bin Laden is left-handed. It's an obvious fake, we're told. But is that really true?
The image used by Fisk regularly appears elsewhere to discredit the tape, however it's worth bearing in mind that this comes from a very low resolution, 4 frames-per-second RealMedia file. It's extremely poor quality, and there are other stills available.
Does this bin Laden really look so "fat"? We'd say not, and further clues appeared with the release of a high-resolution video clip in an exhibit to the Moussaoui trial (see it in full in the Videos section below).
This image, for instance, looks like the one used to create the "fatty bin Laden" picture used by Fisk and others.
Yet this one is from the very same clip:
Crop the face from that clip, then place it top left with three accepted bin Laden images (we've resized and mirrored a couple of these but otherwise left them untouched) and you get something like this:
The photos are taken from slightly different angles, the resolution and lighting is worst in the video shot, but this is no longer a "fat" bin Laden: if anything, the video image looks thinner than the others. But otherwise it bears a much stronger resemblance to the other shots, and requires far more effort to dismiss.
Another clue appears in the full video, when bin Laden arrives. Reports on his height vary - anything from "just over 6 feet" to "6 feet six inches" - but it's generally accepted that he's tall. And sure enough, we can see the confession video man duck before passing through a doorway:
And these aren't the only reasons to consider that this video may be genuine.
The "confession" video contains other figures of interest, beyond bin Laden. This frame seems to show al Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith, for instance:
Here he is in an al Qaeda video and another image, for comparison:
Then there's al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri, in the tape and an al Qaeda video:
And Khaled al-Harbi, a Saudi national and associate of bin Laden (tape image from the left, news shot to the right). He surrendered to the Saudi authorities in 2004 as part of a month-long offer of "leniency to terrorist suspects".
Are these also "imposters"? We've seen no reason to believe that. But if they're not, then why appear in a video with a fake bin Laden? One possible explanation is proposed by Cooperative Research, who suggest this might be one of the doubles known to have been used by bin Laden. But perhaps a simpler explanation is that the video is genuine, and everyone in it is exactly as they seem.
The "fake bin Laden" accusations were originally supported with other arguments about a ring he was seen to be wearing, and the fact that the video shows bin Laden writing with his right hand, while the FBI say he's left-handed. These claims aren't convincing and so have largely disappeared, but for completeness we'll mention them here.
At one time What Really Happened made the following argument, for instance:
It sounds convincing, but only if you assume the author actually checked other "confirmed photos" to look for such a ring. We found one very quickly:
This looks like another part of the same video, although the story associated with it was published much later.
(And these images are interesting in themselves. Doesn't the first look to have a longer, thinner face then the second? Are we to believe one of these is also a fake?)
This video was taken only weeks after the “confession” video. bin Ladin wears a ring in both videos, and to our knowledge no-one is saying these images aren’t of bin Ladin. The confession video ring may therefore act as a minor confirmation that it’s the same guy, by matching this additional characteristic.
As for the “gold ring” business, we’d make a couple of points.
First, how does anyone know that the ring was made of gold? The video is in no way high enough quality to determine that.
And second, what is this supposed to prove, anyway? We’re also told that suicide and the killing on innocent people is forbidden by Islam, yet bin Ladin and his supporters appear not to share the same views. If they do see no problem with killing thousands of people on 9/11, then is it really inconceivable that they’ll also have their own opinions on jewellery?
The left/right-handed issue is no more convincing. It's certainly true that photos indicate he uses a gun in a left-handed way, but that need not apply to everything else. In the Arab world, in particular, the left hand is seen as dirty:
It's entirely possible that bin Laden may have learned to write with his right hand, then, while using his left for other things. And this is supported by other footage showing him writing right-handed.
(See the Videos section below for the full clip.)
Even if that wasn't the case, there's still another possibility, that some injury made Bin Laden prefer to write right-handed. There's no sign of that in the confession tape, but other reports from the time do talk of him favouring his right, and speculating that there may be some medical cause:
This doesn’t prove anything, obviously. But given that we have both a video clip apparently of bin Ladin writing with his right hand, and a possible reason why he may not be able to use his left, the right-handedness of the confession video bin Ladin doesn't seem of any great significance. If anything, it supports its authenticity by matching up with previous footage.
These arguments aren't enough for everyone. How can that initial image look so different, they wonder? One theory comes from a surprising direction, Ed Haas of the now-defunct Muckraker Report, who had previously believed the confession video was a fake.
Haas suggests that the initial video was shot in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and so used the PAL video standard, with a resolution of 720 x 576. This would later need to be converted into NTSC, with a resolution of 720 x 480. He points out that this could be done using a "linear interpolation PAL to NTSC conversion method", essentially eliminating every fifth line from the PAL video, but this would of course change the aspect ratio of the image and give everyone slightly fatter faces. Read more here.
Could this be correct? It's an interesting idea. We're not 100% convinced, as al Zawahiri, Suleiman Abu Ghaith and others don't appear particularly different to usual, but then they do get much less coverage in the video so it's hard to say for sure.
The possibility of some aspect ratio issue can't be ruled out, though. In January 2010 the BBC's "Conspiracy Files" strand aired a program on the issue of whether bin Laden was dead or alive. They had a professional analyse the "confession" video, as well as the 2004 pre-election video where bin Laden had a darker beard, and according to him both were matches with an earlier bin Laden video. He suggested the "confession" video had been distorted when it was resized to add subtitles. See his analysis below in the Videos section.
In 2007 the following story appeared on many 9/11-related sites:
Professor Lawrence didn't respond to an email asking for more details, however there are a few points about this story that you might like to keep in mind.
We're not entirely sure why Lawrence is referred to here as "Top U.S. Bin Laden Expert", other than to try and make the story more convincing. We've not seen anyone else make that claim about him. And while he edited a book of bin Laden's speeches, the cover, author biography and introduction make no mention of any special expertise on the man.
The introduction to Lawrence's "Messages to the World" does contain other useful comments, though:
When he wrote this book Professor Lawrence seemed in no doubt that al Qaeda were responsible for 9/11, then. And his book actually includes the October 2004 bin Laden statement that Lawrence says claims "direct responsibility for 9/11", with lines like "as I looked at those destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the oppressor in kind by destroying towers in America, so that it would have a taste of its own medicine. and would be prevented from killing our women and children."
If Lawrence believes that al Qaeda were behind the 9/11 attacks, then, and that a legitimate 2004 bin Laden statement claimed responsibility for this, then his comments on the 2001 video don't seem nearly as significant as the original story made out.
Beyond the analyses, we think the idea of the tape being faked raises other questions, for which there are a distinct lack of answers.
Many of the same sites who tell us this tape is a fake, for instance, also point out that bin Ladin denied being involved with 9/11 soon after the attacks. If this is true then it suggests bin Ladin is a real, live person, out there somewhere, not doing the bidding of the US Government. In which case why has he, or some other al Qaeda spokesman, not pointed out that this tape is a fake?
But even if it could be established beyond doubt that the man in the video were not bin Laden, that's still a very long way from showing that "9/11 was an inside job". What if he were one of bin Laden's doubles, for instance, but otherwise expressing the views of bin Laden and al Qaeda?
Certainly, despite the widespread assumption, there's not a jot of evidence to say that America were behind the tape, and some indications that they weren't. One of these is commonly referred to on 9/11 sites as an inaccurate translation of the tapes:
Very interesting, but hardly support for faking, at least not by the US Government. Because if they organised the filming, why wouldn’t they have the participants saying exactly what they wanted? Why the need to play around with translations later?
The reality is that there are plenty of people who say the video is genuine, and not just in the Bush administration. Here's a conversation between Al Jazeera London bureau chief Yosri Fouda and TBS Publisher and Senior Editor S. Abdallah Schleifer.
It's also worth remembering that this is just one of the tapes in which bin Laden or al Qaeda either explicitly or implicitly accept responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. And as we've seen, even some of those saying the "confession tape" is bogus seem to believe other claims of responsibility are legitimate, therefore without more concrete evidence it's hard to see how this issue will ever prove anything at all.
The Bin Laden "Confession" Tape: full version (rubbish quality), better Moussaoui trial exhibit, BBC "Conspiracy Files" analysis and more.
Bin Laden discusses the attacks in an October 2001 interview with al Jazeera.
9/11-related al Qaeda videos include "The Nineteen Martyrs" (names the hijackers), "Knowledge is for Acting Upon: The Manhattan Raid" (covers planning, training, more), and bin Laden's 2007 audio tape when he claims responsibility for the attacks.
Hijackers video wills: