tue 28/01/2020

The Conspiracy Files: Osama Bin Laden - Dead or Alive? BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Conspiracy Files: Osama Bin Laden - Dead or Alive? BBC Two

The Conspiracy Files: Osama Bin Laden - Dead or Alive? BBC Two

Where is he?

Osama Bin Laden: Come out, come out, wherever you are

If Gordon Brown had slipped and fallen on the ice this weekend you could have expected at least a dozen conspiracy theories to have emerged on the internet. Why was David Miliband spotted studying a weather map the night before? Why had the PM’s aides suggested that particular pavement? And who controls the gritting lorries anyway? The worldwide web is many things, and one of them is this festering, bottomless pit of paranoid conjecture – rich picking for a tough-minded series like BBC Two’s The Conspiracy Files, whose latest chosen subject was Osama Bin Laden. Or rather the lack of him.

There haven’t been any confirmed sightings of the world’s most wanted man since December 2001, when the al-Qaeda figurehead went to ground in the Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan - US Special Forces were only 800 metres from his lair, upon which they were directing ferocious air strikes. But why did the US government then refrain from going in for the kill? Round one to the conspiracy theorists.

Since then, like a forgetful uncle, Bin Laden has sent us irregular greetings, usually in audio form, but sometimes with pictures. Occasionally, like the so-called “October surprise”, one would drop on the doormat just days before the American Presidential elections (thus helping to ensure four more years of George W. Bush), or on President Obama’s first official visit to Saudi Arabia - so stamping on any threatened olive branches.

And there was something a bit fishy about these videotapes. What had happened to that greying beard?  Had the Big O taken to using Just for Men? (I didn’t make up that gag, by the way; a spoof video, “Black Beard the Terrorist”, was posted on YouTube shortly after Bin Laden’s dramatic reappearance). And why was he seen writing with his right hand, when he is left-handed? And the face looks too chubby for our famously long and lean holy terrorist.

Were any of the videotapes real? And if they are hoaxes, who is manufacturing them? Was it al-Qaeda, hoping to convince the world that their leader was still on top of events, or the US military-industrial complex, protecting the enormous profits ($240 billion from Afghanistan alone) from the continuing War on Terror?

The latter theory found a spokesperson in David Ray Griffin, a retired philosophy professor in California, who has written a book on the matter – just as he has already published several other books detailing the Bush-Cheney administration’s alleged involvement in the 9/11 terrorists attacks. In this theory, Osama is simply a useful bogeyman in the US military master plan for regime change across the Middle East. In the obvious absence of any al-Qaeda representatives, Griffin was a lone voice for the conspiracy theorists.

He was up against a barrage of sceptics, including Robert Baer, the ex-CIA Middle East agent whose experiences inspired the 2005 George Clooney political thriller Syriana. "He's probably in the same bed next to Elvis Presley,” was Baer’s scathing comment on a French newspaper report that Bin Laden received kidney dialysis in Dubai in the months before 9/11, while the whole kidney disease story was pooh-poohed, but only after we had been told that Bin Laden had died from this organ ailment at Tora Bora.

It was all getting a mite confusing, which was probably the point, although you felt like you were being specifically fed information so that it could be snatched back later (which might also have been the point). My own sense was that there wasn’t quite enough of a conspiracy theory here to entirely justify the title. Or, rather, that this particular theory was all part and parcel of the larger paranoid post-9/11 world view dealt with earlier films in this series.

Anyway, aside from this bendy, travel sickness-inducing corniche of fact, rumour and fantasy (at one point the late Benazir Bhutto popped up to claim that Bin Laden had been murdered, only to contradict herself later), the jigsaw pieces of Rudin’s film eventually fell into place to give a clear picture of what is known of Bin Laden’s movements since the Twin Towers fell to the ground. Not much, in short.

The most compelling evidence against the videotapes' inauthenticity was, as so often, forensic. It came from a “leading expert in forensic image interpretation”, Andy Laws, who had the fancy software to back up his conviction that the man in all the videos – even the chap in the dyed beard – was in fact Bin Laden.

But opinion remained divided as to whether he is still alive now. Robert Baer remained unconvinced, while Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, the last person to interview Bin Laden (in November 2001), says the wily mujahideen is still very much with us, and the secret of his survival is that he is "much cleverer and wiser than the American intelligence". The cock-up theory of history, in other words. But will this film have put the lid on this particular internet stew, or just have given it another damn good stir?

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