Conspiracy theories appear at every important event in U.S. history. Marcus LiBrizzi, an English professor at the University of Maine at Machias and an authority on conspiracy theories, however, was shocked at how soon conspiracy theories about 9/11 appeared, because normally it takes a decade or so before conspiracy theories develop enough material to be articulated and to surface.
In the case of September 11, there are four major types of conspiracy theories. The first is a belief that the U.S. government, while it did not actively assist in or perpetrate the attacks, has worked to cover up its own gross negligence and incompetence in the matter. The second theory is that the government knew about the attacks and intentionally allowed them to happen in order to suit its own political, military, and economic agendas. The third theory is that the U.S. government, not Al Qaeda, committed the attacks. (There is disagreement, however, as to how the government accomplished this. Some believe that bombs were planted in the World Trade Center and Pentagon, arguing that burning jet fuel alone could not have caused the extensive damage. Others subscribe to a more extreme "no plane" explanation, contending that the four aircraft were either passengerless remote-controlled devices or missiles surrounded by holograms of planes.) A fourth vein of conspiracy theorists assert that a foreign government or organization, such as Israel or a powerful drug cartel, carried out the attacks.
The leadership of the September 11 conspiracy theories is a diverse group. The movement's most vocal theorists are David Ray Griffin, a retired professor of postmodern theology; James H. Fetzer, a professor at the University of Minnesota–Duluth; Steven F. Jones, a retired physicist from Brigham Young University; and Jim Marrs, a freelance writer who specializes in conspiracy theories. All of them joined Fetzer's Scholars for 9/11 Truth to coordinate the investigations of the events surrounding 9/11. Soon, however, differences over the interpretation of 9/11 developed between Fetzer and Jones. Jones left the Scholars for 9/11 Truth to form the Scholars for 9/11 Truth and Justice.
One particularly radical conspiracy theorist is A. K. Dewdney, a professor emeritus of computer science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. His theory, which he calls "Operation Pearl," makes September 11 a U.S. government conspiracy. In his thesis, the first three passenger aircraft landed at Harrisburg International Airport, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where the passengers disembarked. Three remote-controlled aircraft then were launched against the World Trade Center complex and the Pentagon. Passengers were then packed into the United Airlines Flight 93 aircraft, which was then shot down over Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The three empty aircraft were flown over the ocean and disposed of in a watery grave.
Dewdney's thesis lacks credibility for a number of reasons. First, there were too many passengers to cram into one aircraft. Second, two videos show and numerous witnesses saw both American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 crash into the World Trade Center's twin towers. Third, seven witnesses saw a commercial aircraft crash into the Pentagon. Fourth, and most important, it is unlikely that the U.S. government could carry out such an involved conspiracy without being caught.
Conspiracy theories have also been proposed by non-U.S. academics and leaders. One such individual is French left-wing activist Thierry Meyssan. His book L'Effroyable Imposture: 11 Septembre 2001 (The Frightening Fraud: September 11, 2001) charged that it was a plot by the American government to discredit its enemies and to increase the U.S defense budget. This book appeared in 2002 and became an immediate best seller. Among his assertions was that the damage to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., could not have been caused by a Boeing 757 but was instead a missile strike or a truck bombing made to appear as a plane crash. He also challenged eyewitness testimony. His thesis was that the September 11 attacks were part of a military conspiracy in the United States to impose a military regime. Media in both France and the United States have attacked the book for its bizarre claims. Shortly after the publication of his book, the U.S. Department of Defense declared Meyssan persona non grata. This status meant that Meyssan would be unable to enter the United States for any reason. The U.S. government followed in July 2005 with a document from the U.S. Department of State classifying him as a major source of anti-American propaganda in the world.
The number of individuals who believe in 9/11 conspiracy theories is, perhaps not surprisingly, highest in Islamic nations, even those that are close American allies, such as Egypt and Pakistan. On September 23, 2010, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a speech before the United Nations (UN) in which he claimed that while most American politicians advanced the idea that September 11 had been carried out by Al Qaeda, most Americans and citizens of other nations believed that the terrorist attacks were in fact orchestrated by the U.S. government for economic and political gain. Although opinion polls have made it clear that Ahmadinejad's appraisal of Americans' opinions was incorrect, his comments underscored the fact that there is ongoing disagreement about the events of September 11.
Although critics have dismissed them as unfounded, conspiracy theories and theorists nevertheless remain an important facet of the ongoing discussions about September 11. And, while the vast majority of Americans blame Al Qaeda for the attacks, a number of national polls indicate that as many as one-third believe the U.S. government either allowed the attacks to happen or actually carried them out.
When President Barack Obama announced on May 1, 2011, that U.S. intelligence had tracked Osama bin Laden to a large compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where U.S. Navy SEALs had killed him during a raid and then buried his body at sea, conspiracy theories were quick to emerge. Despite assuring the public that photographic and DNA evidence had been taken that proved the body to be bin Laden's, the Obama administration's reluctance to share this evidence, in combination with the quick disposal of the body (both of which, it claims, have been done to avoid angering Muslims around the world), have led to speculation that bin Laden was in fact not killed in the raid. Some have suggested that someone else other than bin Laden was killed, while others have denounced the claim as a calculated attempt by Obama to ensure his reelection.
Stephen E. Atkins
Dunbar, David, and Brad Reagan. Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can't Stand Up to the Facts. New York: Hearst Books, 2006; Gurwitz, Jonathan. "Conspiracy Theories Only Flourish in the Darkness." San Antonio Express-News, May 24, 2006, 7B; Henley, John. "US Invented Air Attack on Pentagon, Claims French Book." Guardian, April 1, 2002, 1.