[Addendum, Oct. 7,4 p.m. ET: Osama Bin Laden essentially claimed credit for the Sept. 11 attacks in a statement recorded before Sunday's strikes on Afghanistan. "America was hit by God in one of its softest spots," he said. "If it continues with this policy [against Iraq and the PLO], the sons of Islam will not stop their struggle."]
It is an article of faith in many Muslim countries that Israel was behind the attack on the World Trade Center, with many citing as their evidence a "news report" that 4,000 Israelis called in sick from their jobs at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. The allegation has now appeared on scores of Web sites and bulletin boards, has been reproduced in e-mails too numerous to count, and has run as fact in newspapers and news broadcasts in the Middle East. Where did this charge originate, and what path did it take around the world?
First, a question begs: Where did the precise figure of 4,000 Israelis come from? According to the Anti-Defamation League's Web site, on Sept. 11, the Israeli Embassy released a statement expressing concern about the 4,000 Israeli nationals living in New York City—few of whom actually worked in the World Trade Center. At press time, the embassy couldn't confirm this statement.
According to Nexis and the Google search engine, the first mention of Israeli involvement in the attacks came in a Sept. 17 report on Lebanon's Al-Manar Television. The Los Angeles Times reports that the terrorist group Hezbollah has free access to Al-Manar's airwaves, and the station's Web site claims that the station exists to "stage an effective psychological warfare with the Zionist enemy."
The next day at 6:26 a.m., the American Web site Information Times published an article headlined "4,000 Jews Did Not Go To Work At WTC On Sept. 11," and credited it to an "AL-MANAR Television Special Investigative Report." This was not the first time that Information Times had pointed the finger at Israel. The day after the attacks, it warned in an article that the "terrorist government of Israel … cannot be ruled out" as a suspect. Information Times purports to be edited by Syed Adeeb from the eighth floor of the National Press Club at 549 15th St. NW, Washington, DC, 20045. The Press Club says it has no such tenant and repeated messages sent to the e-mail address for Syed Abeed listed on the site bounce back as undeliverable. Directory assistance for Washington, D.C., has no listing for Information Times.
The "4,000 Jews" page is easily forwarded as e-mail, and this may explain the message's rapid dissemination.
The Information Times article makes three charges:
1) Citing the Jordanian newspaper Al-Watan, it alleges that "Israelis remained absent [on Sept. 11] based on hints from the Israeli General Security Apparatus, the Shabak." No media source except Al-Manar claims to have actually seen the editorial in Al-Watan, which the Jordanian Embassy's information bureau describes as an obscure newspaper with a low circulation. Al-Watan's source? Unnamed "Arab diplomatic sources." (A few newspapers called Al-Watan have Web sites—click here, here, and here to visit them—though none seem to be based in Jordan.)
2) Citing the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, it alleges that Israeli secret police prevented Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from traveling to New York City on Sept. 11.
3) Citing the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, it alleges that the FBI arrested five Israelis who were caught filming the WTC's smoking rubble from their office building roof. (They were being held on the charge of "puzzling behavior.")
No other media outlet that can be searched through Nexis or Google has confirmed the Information Times claims about Sharon and the five Israelis.
Within days, the story appeared in newspapers around the world. A remarkably similar version appeared under the byline of Irina Malenko in Russia's Pravda on Sept. 21. Pravda removed the article from its Web site a few hours after posting, calling it a "great and foolish mistake," but it can still be accessed here. On Sept. 21, the Chicago Tribune reported that a Pakistani paper, which it did not name, had published a similar account. In his Sept. 23 Slate "Dispatch" from Islamabad, Peter Maass reported that a local pro-Taliban politician repeated the 4,000 Jews claim at an anti-U.S. rally. On Sept. 26, Pakistan's Business Recorder printed the story about 4,000 Jews in language almost identical to the original Al-Manar article as a letter to the editor under the name "Hakeem." The same day, the New York Times reported that the allegation had appeared in a newsletter published by an Islamic charity and in lesson plans prepared by Egyptian middle-school teachers. On Oct. 4, the Chicago Tribune spotted the allegation in a Saudi paper, which it did not name. In the Oct. 8 issue of Time, Tim McGirk reported from Pakistan that the story had swept through the country's mosques and Urdu newspapers.
On Sept. 28, USA Today repeated the claim in the context that "Muslims the world over" had tried to pin the attack on Israel. USA Today did not explain the origin of the charge. The Village Voice did the same on Oct. 2. The hoax-debunking site Snopes.com assailed the story, as well. With the Web as a weapon, a lie spreads quickly and easily. With the Web as a corrective tool, the same lie becomes much easier to bat away.