It’s been raining rumor and myth since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. And though most of the so-called urban legends that now abound on the Internet and even make an appearance or two in mainstream news outlets are easily dispelled by their very outlandishness, there are some that just won’t go away.
Perhaps the most persistent is the claim that one of the Sept. 11 terrorists had been released from an Israeli prison at the insistence of the U.S. The following (or a very close variation) is the e-mail that has made its way to millions of Internet users worldwide over the past six or seven weeks:
In case you didn’t know…please pass it on. Terrorist pilot Mohammed Atta blew up a bus in Israel in 1986. The Israelis captured, tried and imprisoned him. As part of the Oslo agreement Israel had to agree to release so-called ‘political prisoners.’ However, they would not release any with “blood on their hands.” A well-meaning American president, Ronald Reagan, and his secretary of state, George Shultz, ‘insisted’ that all be released.
Thus Mr. Atta was freed and eventually “thanked” the U.S. by flying an airplane into tower one of the World Trade Center. This was reported by many of the networks at the time that the terrorists were first identified. It was censored in the U.S.A. from all later reports. The American public must be made aware of this fact.
We know this will burst the bubble of many a conspiracy theorist, but the only “fact” about the above-quoted e-mail is that it is nothing more than a patchwork of mistaken identity, historical illiteracy and outright falsehood, all adding up to one gargantuan lie. That the Monitor was still receiving versions of it as late as last week – after it had been thoroughly discredited by several newspapers and on a number of specialty websites – testifies both to the rumor-generating powers of the Internet and the boundless gullibility of the American public.
To begin with the matter of mistaken identity, back in 1986 a 33-year-old Palestinian named Mahmoud Atta (aka Mahmoud Abad Ahmad) shot up an Israeli bus, killing the driver and wounding several passengers. Some months later Atta, a naturalized American citizen, was apprehended in Venezuela and deported to the U.S. because there was no extradition treaty between Venezuela and Israel.
After spending three years in a U.S. jail, Atta was extradited to Israel where he was sentenced, in October 1991, to life in prison. The Israeli Supreme Court eventually freed him on a technicality, and his present whereabouts are unknown.
But as the Jerusalem Post reported earlier this month, that particular Mohammed Atta was a Palestinian born in Ramallah who would be 47 years old today; the Mohammed Atta identified by the FBI as one of the Sept. 11 terrorists was a 33-year-old Egyptian.
Now, about the e-mail’s historical illiteracy: As the myth-busting website Snopes.com points out, “The Atta who attacked a bus was arrested by the FBI and extradited to Israel, not ‘captured by Israelis,’ and his extradition didn’t take place until two years after Reagan left office. In fact, the Oslo agreement itself wasn’t signed until nearly five years after Reagan left office. All of this makes it rather difficult to support the claim that Atta was released under the terms of the Oslo agreement at the insistence of President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz.”
As for the e-mail’s outright falsehood, the misinformation about Atta was certainly not “censored in the U.S.A. from all later reports.” (Besides, only a cretin could believe that American journalists would knowingly “censor” a story this sensational if it were true.)
What happened was that while some news outlets initially ran stories that misidentified the Palestinian Atta as the Sept. 11 Atta, the erroneousness of those reports became obvious rather quickly – so that other than some embarrassed retractions, there were no “later reports.” This was not a case of a story being “censored” – there simply was no story there.
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org