Osama bin Laden is dead. A new skyscraper is rising at the site of the old World Trade Center. U.S. troops are withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ten years later, the physical legacies of 9/11 attacks are fading into history. Yet the conspiracy theories about who “really” was behind the attacks seem to be growing.
Like a drug-resistant virus, these fantasies have persisted — despite efforts to combat them — by mutating over time, taking new forms and finding new modes of transmission. Jews and Israel often are their targets, and they evoke centuries-old myths about Jewish power, allegiances and manipulation of social institutions.
The conspiracy theories began almost as soon as the towers fell. Four days after the attack, the Syrian newspaper Al-Thawra reported that 4,000 Jews failed to show up for work at the World Trade Center on 9/11 after being warned by Israeli intelligence, according to a 2007 U.S. State Department document debunking the myth. Another held that five Israeli students were secret Mossad agents who knew about the attacks and allowed them to happen. That myth eventually morphed into the conspiracy theory that the Israelis directed the attacks remotely.
Other myths have followed, spreading around the world and taking root even in the United States. Of 36,000 conspiracy videos recently found on the Internet, 16,000 implicated Jews or Israelis, according to a new report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) titled “Decade of Deceit: Anti-Semitic 9/11 Conspiracy Theories 10 Years Later.”
“What we’ve seen in the last 10 years is the proliferation of a real propaganda industry surrounding Sept. 11,” said Deborah Lauter, director of the ADL’s civil rights division. “Prominent among those theories are those making anti-Semitism front and center.”
The theories have amounted to more than just pernicious talk.
On June 10, 2009, one alleged 9/11 conspiracy theorist opened fire at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, killing a security guard. The perpetrator, James von Brunn, then 88, died before the case could come to trial.
Experts say 9/11 myths that blame the Jews are spreading freely from neo-Nazis and other white supremacists into new areas whose acolytes are not necessarily anti-Semitic but are unknowingly adopting the tropes of classical anti-Semitic conspiracy theories: anti-government radicals, young anti-war activists, New Age ideologues, and propagandists and journalists in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
“What’s changed is the proliferation of coded rhetoric to refer to Jews internationally and in the U.S,” said Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a liberal think tank based in Somerville, Mass. “They’re unprepared to recognize it even when they see it.”
Michael Barkun, a professor of political science at Syracuse University who has studied extremists and their ideologies, said, “They aren’t people who are terribly different from the population at large,” except that “they are more likely to be attracted to conspiracy theories.”
Alan Sabrosky, a columnist for Veterans Today, an anti-Semitic Web site, is one of the most widely cited sources for anti-Semitic 9/11 myths, according to the ADL. Sabrosky has declared his mission to “contain” Israel’s ambition by exposing Israel’s alleged role in 9/11 and maintains that Washington and New York are the centers of “Zionist power.”
Citations of Sabrosky’s work pop up not just on extreme-right Web sites but also on pro-Palestinian Web sites such as Mondoweiss, Arab media sites and the Internet newsletter Dissent Voice, which describes itself as “a radical newsletter in the struggle for peace and social justice.”
“This is a strange world where the right and the left mix, with anti-Semitism shot through,” said Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report. “On the left, it is shot through with anti-Zionism; on the right, the fear of the international Jew.”
A 2008 poll of 17 representative nations by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland found that only nine of the countries surveyed had majorities who believed al-Qaeda orchestrated the attacks. Most of those who believed otherwise did not implicate Israel, however. Instead, they said they did not know who was behind the attacks or blamed the United States. In Russia, Israel-related conspiracy theories were at 2 percent of those polled. In
Kenya, 3 percent believed in Israel-related myths. In Indonesia, the number was 5 percent.
In the Middle East, however, the numbers were much different. In Egypt, 43 percent of respondents blamed Israel for 9/11. In Jordan, 31 percent blamed Israel. In the West Bank and Gaza, the numbers were slightly lower. In Turkey, however, only 3 percent believed Israel was behind the attacks.
Conservative columnist Daniel Pipes, who has written two books on conspiracy theories, says such theories about Jews are a fringe element in the West, but are par for the course in the Middle East, where he said “they are spread by the mainstream media, leading intellectuals and politicians.” Pipes considers 9/11 conspiracy theories a relatively benign false belief akin to theories about the Kennedy assassination — widespread, but not leading to damaging consequences.
The impact of the many 9/11 conspiracy theories is still not entirely clear.
“We’re in a period where the boundaries between the mainstream and the fringe have become quite blurred,” Barkun said. “Once they were more distinct. Once most people were not exposed to them, or if they were, it was to have them debunked. Now they move quite readily into the mainstream.”
Barkun added, “This shift in which these ideas have entered the mainstream is so recent that I don’t think we are in a position to know what the social effects are.”
Berlet said he worries that 9/11 conspiracy theories are fueling the rise of anti-Semitic rhetoric in major public forums.
“It is horrifying. It creates a hunt for an enemy and undermines the very concept of democratic society,” he said. “You would think that decent people would stand up and say enough. It’s spreading, and our leaders lack the backbone to confront it.”