The 9/11 Commission Report is the closest thing in print to an official narrative of the events that gave rise to the “war on terror.” In American political culture, the Commission embodied a trans-partisan act of knowledge creation, handing down a narrative meant to establish treasured national consensus. Also, the Commission acted as a filter trusted to use classified information in a manner that educated the public without jeopardizing national security.
The Commission’s handling of sources, however, raises serious questions about its analytical rigor, as well as the story it presents. To take one jarring example: The Commission alleges that al-Qaeda existed and was waging war against the United States as early as 1992, four years before Osama bin Laden’s infamous 1996 declaration of hostilities. This charge allows the Commission to connect al-Qaeda directly to the Afghan Arabs. Its report says that, in April 1988, bin Laden and ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam (the Palestinian Islamic scholar who mobilized Arab support for the Afghan jihad) “established what they called a base or foundation (al Qaeda) as a potential general headquarters for future jihad.” The sole authority cited for this claim is an article by ‘Azzam on page 46 of the April 1988 edition of al-Jihad magazine titled “Al-Qa‘ida al-Sulba.”
But the article in question does not support the report’s statement. It is not the founding manifesto of a new organization, but a general reflection on the need for a solid base (al-qa‘ida al-sulba) of pious, indoctrinated youth to support jihad, a sort of revolutionary vanguard. As Jason Burke and Fawaz Gerges have noted, the article uses the Arabic word qa‘ida in one of its broad everyday meanings, “foundation,” with no apparent relationship to Tanzim al-Qa‘ida, the name bin Laden eventually gave to his outfit. Moreover, the article is clearly concerned with the armed struggle against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, then still ongoing. It makes no reference to attacking the US or to bin Laden.
There is no dispute that bin Laden and ‘Azzam were comrades and friends and that both worked to bring foreign volunteers to support the Afghan struggle against the Soviets. That does not mean, however, that ‘Azzam — or even bin Laden, at this early date — contemplated organizing to fight the US. While ‘Azzam was a fierce critic of US policy, his juristic writings on jihad deal with situations in which invasion of a Muslim country by non-Muslims confers a duty of aid upon other Muslims. Moreover, speculation on this point is especially otiose, as ‘Azzam was killed in 1989, before the major US military presence in the Gulf.
The second problem with the Commission’s claim is that it was plagiarized from a misreading of the original text. The prosaic details of citation point the finger. ‘Azzam’s article does not appear on page 46 of that edition of al-Jihad magazine, as claimed by the 9/11 Commission (instead, there is an article soliciting donations for an Afghan orphan); rather, it appears on pages 4 through 6. This apparent omission of a hyphen, however, is revealing, because the identical error appears in Rohan Gunaratna’s book Inside Al Qaeda, which is cited elsewhere in the report. Gunaratna — who did not read the article himself, but rather relied on a translation from the Arabic provided by Reuven Paz of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel — mischaracterizes the article as a “founding document” for al-Qaeda.
Incidentally, the same article is similarly misused by another “expert” text relied upon by the Commission, Evan Kohlmann’s book Al-Qaida’s Jihad in Europe. Kohlmann appears not to have read the text himself either (indeed, he does not know Arabic), reproducing Gunaratna’s pagination error and describing the three-page article as a “monumental treatise” in which ‘Azzam “publicly announced the foundation of Al-Qaida.”
The 9/11 Commission’s sloppy handling of publicly available material raises serious questions about its interpretation of the many classified documents relied upon in its narrative. Even more, it illustrates the weaknesses of “apolitical” institutions such as bipartisan commissions relying on “expert” knowledge in basic fact-finding. The 9/11 Commission’s narrative may have served many purposes, but the truth was not one of them.