Connecting bin Laden to 9-11

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In 2006 the Muckraker Report published a story quoting an FBI official saying there was "no hard evidence connecting bin Laden to 9/11". The original site no longer exists, but here's the complete text of the story as available at

The argument here appears to be something like this.

1: It's surprising that bin Laden has not been indicted for 9/11.

2: The lack of an indictment, combined with the "no hard evidence" comment, suggests that perhaps the FBI don't accept the "Bin Laden - 9/11 connection" reported in the media.

3: In any event, the "no hard evidence" comment suggests that the FBI don't accept the bin Laden "confession" tape as reliable.

4: And if there's no "hard evidence" linking bin Laden to 9/11 then the US should not have invaded Afghanistan to "smoke him out of his cave".

Let's take a look at each of these arguments in turn.

Indicted for 9-11

Bin Laden hasn't been indicted for 9/11, this is true, and as a result 9/11 isn't included on his FBI poster. But that's not the only omission. As we write the "Caution" section on that page reads like this:

So there's a specific mention only of the embassy bombings, nothing else at all. But does that mean we can assume the FBI believe bin Laden has no connection to, say, the Cole bombing of October 2000? Not at all: bin Laden was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a 2003 Cole-related indictment:

Read the full indictment here

The Cole situation is a complex one, with others claiming they only confessed after torture, charges being made and dropped, suspects escaping from custody and being rearrested. What's notable, however, is despite the solid focus on al Qaeda, and the naming of bin Laden in an indictment for others, he's never been personally indicted for the attack and it doesn't appear on his FBI "most wanted" poster.

Browse through the FBI's "Most Wanted" terrorists and you'll find this approach, using just one indictment, is very much the norm. Even the "big names" like Ayman al-Zawahiri, Anas al-Liby or Adam Gadahn are only tied to single indictments.

Why? Well, practicality may have played a part. You only need one indictment to bring a suspect to trial, after all. Rex Tomb appeared to suggest as much when he was asked about bin Laden's wanted poster by the Washington Post:

Other informed commentators also appear unconcerned:

It's also worth noting that the FBI "Most Wanted" page itself says that further indictments may appear later: "Future indictments may be handed down as various investigations proceed in connection to other terrorist incidents, for example, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001." (Source)

And later we saw Zacarias Moussaoui indicted in a federal court, and found guilty of being complicit in the al Qaeda planning of 9/11.

The situation was made more complicated when the Bush administration sought to define al Qaeda terrorists as "unlawful enemy combatants" who had violated the "laws of war". Subsequently the 2006 Military Commissions Act permitted them to be charged and tried through special military tribunals, rather than following the usual civil court route. Conventional indictments were no longer required for high level prisoners like some of the Guantanamo detainees, though this may change, depending on how the Obama administration decides to treat them.

In 2007 several al Qaeda members were charged in military courts with planning the 9/11 attacks. While bin Laden isn't amongst them, he does appear as a co-conspirator. Here's the first part of the first charge:

Bin Laden is an integral part of the case against Khalid Sheikh Mohamed and others, so much so that this is the first act listed in the charges:

There's no apparent doubt here that bin Laden was involved. Of course this is "only" a military court: would there be a problem being indicted elsewhere? Apparently not, as we write:

There could be 9/11 indictments in a federal court very soon, then. And we shouldn't be surprised as this has already happened elsewhere, when a Spanish judge charged bin Laden in 2003] (though some alleged the US and Israel had "incited" Spain to do this).

In any event, it is not surprising for a terrorist suspect to be indicted for only one attack, even if the FBI believe they're connected to another. There's reason to believe that this is a policy decision, at least when it comes to 9/11: the US have preferred to take the military commission route. And therefore it's not safe to assume the lack of an indictment points to an absence of evidence, or some doubt over the suspect's guilt.

No hard evidence

We still have Haas telling us that the FBI believe there's "no hard evidence" connecting bin Laden to 9/11, of course.

The first problem with this statement is that it's not particularly clear. What is "hard evidence" here? Paper trails, the flow of money, witness statements? Haas doesn't tell us, so we can't say what evidence he might accept exists.

A second, and more fundamental problem is that the FBI don't stand by the comment. Betsy Glick in the FBI Public Affairs office told us that "The information provided at that time by the (now retired) Investigative Publicity Unit Chief, who was not an agent nor a counterterrorism expert, does not accurately explain the situation."

And this was hardly a surprise, as previous FBI statements make it clear that they've no doubt about the al Qaeda (and so bin Laden) part in 9/11:

So, the FBI tell us that the "no hard evidence connecting bin Laden to 9/11" comment "does not accurately explain the situation", while Watson explained long ago that "The evidence linking al-Qaeda and Bin Laden to the attacks of September 11 is clear and irrefutable". We're still trying to get them to address the Haas account more definitively, but even now it's plain that the FBI do believe that the evidence clearly points to Bin Laden and Al Qaeda as being responsible for 9/11.

Confession tape

In his original article Haas speculates that, if the FBI believe there's "no hard evidence" connecting bin Laden to 9/11, then that may cast doubt on the 2001 "confession tape".

This idea is significantly undermined by the fact that, as we've seen, the FBI have discredited the original "no hard evidence" comment by saying it "does not accurately explain the situation".

And notably even Ed Haas later came to believe that the tape was genuine ( version). Presumably he either discarded the "no hard evidence" comment, or (more likely) simply decided this wasn't a substantial reason to believe the tape was faked, after all.

See also: Confession video


Perhaps the most tenuous argument Haas makes is to suggest that American shouldn't have invaded Afghanistan if there's "no hard evidence connecting bin Laden to 9/11". Here's the relevant paragraph again:

The reality is that the attack on Afghanistan was about vastly more than bin Laden. If you look at Bush's radio addresses, for instance, he didn't mention bin Laden on September 15th, immediately before the Afghan attack on October 6th, or after it on the 13th. Instead it was general talk about the terrorists and the Taliban.

The Blair dossier, released just before the Afghan attacks began, said "one of Bin Laden's closest and most senior associates was responsible for the detailed planning of the [9/11] attacks" (source). Even early on official pronouncements were saying bin Laden was not the hands-on mastermind.

And while bin Laden's name was often invoked in the press, perhaps most famously with Bush's "dead or alive", White House press conferences regularly made the point that this was about far more than him:

(Read more: All about bin Laden)

The initial focus was on the attacks as being planned by al Qaeda, then. Substantial evidence for that has been presented at the Moussaoui trial (exhibits are here). Al Qaeda members, videos and texts have implicitly and explicitly accepted responsibility (see here), Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh provided detailed interviews on the plot to Al Jazeera (source), and have been charged with planning the attacks by the US. Even if the FBI today agreed that there's "no hard evidence connecting bin Laden to 9/11" - which they do not - there's plenty to say that al Qaeda organised and planned 9/11, in part from Afghanistan, just as the US claimed before they launched their attack on that country in October 2001.


At the core of Ed Haas original piece is Rex Tomb's comment that there's "no hard evidence connecting bin Laden to 9/11". As this lacks clarity - there's no explanation of what "hard evidence" means - and the FBI now say it "does not accurately explain the situation", we see little reason for it to overturn other public statements by the FBI, where they make it clear that they believe evidence linking al Qaeda to the attacks is "clear and irrefutable."

Elsewhere there's little here but rhetoric and speculation. The fact that bin Laden hasn't been indicted for 9/11 is often taken as some sign of doubt of his guilt, for example, but as we've seen, he's not been indicted for the USS Cole bombing, either, despite being named as a co-conspirator in an indictment of others. Not being personally indicted for a crime isn't always an indication that the authorities think you may be innocent.

And the focus on bin Laden can't conceal the fact that there's plenty of evidence indicating al Qaeda's responsibility for the attacks, including the exhibits in the Moussaoui trial, and their own multiple admissions. We may get more when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others face trial, but even without that there's more than enough to connect al Qaeda, and bin Laden, to 9-11.