9/11 conspiracy theories: The truth is out there...just not on the internet

In his new book a Times commentator debunks the world's greatest conspiracy theories. Here he deconstructs those that followed 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings

The internet has created shadow armies whose size and power are unknowable. Cyberspace communities of semi- anonymous and occasionally self-invented individuals have grown up, some of them permitting contact between people who in previous times might have thought each other's interests impossibly exotic or even mad. At the same time, the democratic quality of the net has permitted the release of a mass of undifferentiated information, some of it authoritative, some speculative, some absurd. But, increasingly, material originating on the net has turned up in popular culture - a millennial version of the word-of-mouth route to popularity. The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia has, at the time of writing, become a first resource for many students, despite the amusing randomness of its reliability.

Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of English-language websites have sprung up specifically devoted to proselytising for the 9/11 Truth movement. In addition many “independent” or “alternative” media sites routinely replicate 9/11 conspiracy material uncritically, and many of these sites link to or cite each other. Sites endorsing 9/ll conspiracy theories, and those subscribing to them in passing, far outnumber sites devoted to debunking or refuting such theories.

The construction and circulation of audio and visual material devoted to 9/ll revisionism is easy on the internet. Cheap movies, often made using material not cleared for copyright, made and narrated by non-professional film-makers, have been posted on Google video, YouTube and other sites specialising in moving pictures. Invariably such items make the same claims to accuracy and balance as do mainstream TV programmes, but have been concocted with the smallest fraction of research and resource, though no little ingenuity.

A Scripps Howard poll of July 2006 (which measured belief in a Kennedy conspiracy at 40 per cent) had 36 per cent of respondents suspecting government participation of some kind in the attacks, with just over one in six believing that explosives had been used to bring down the twin towers. A summary of what a made-it-happen-on-purpose 9/ll Truth activist is likely to believe goes something like this. Certain forces in the Bush Administration wanted a pretext to use overwhelming military force in the Caspian area and the Middle East, either to procure oil supplies, to weaken opposition to Israel or both. Accordingly they or their agents organised a false-flag operation, which would accomplish what Pearl Harbour was supposed to have accomplished for the Rooseveltian war party in 1941, causing a large number of Americans to die on the territory of the United States itself with the blame wrongly being put on Islamist extremists. The plot they devised involved three airliners being flown into the World Trade Centre main towers and, possibly, a Washington target.

There were either no hijackers or the ones on board were patsies, and two of the planes were guided remotely into the World Trade Centre. What brought the towers down, however was a “controlled demolition” using explosives planted there at some earlier time. The same devices also brought down the structure called World Trade Centre 7, though no plane flew into that building. The Pentagon was not hit by an airliner but by a guided missile. The fourth airliner, United 93, possibly heading for the capital, was either shot down because the passengers threatened to land it successfully thus exposing the plot, or else it was never found. Various ruses, including faked mobile phone calls and fraudulent claims of such calls were used to disguise the true nature of the crime.

That was the basic theory, although different people in the Truth movement might agree or disagree with various parts of it. To accept it, you have to believe that elements of the US Government engaged in a conspiracy of exceptional complexity and enormous risk of failure. This group of conspirators would have had to suborn, dupe or train 19 hijackers, create elaborate background stories for them, send them to flying schools to be seen around Florida and other parts of the US, before disposing of them either in the crashes or, in the case of Flight 77, in a manner unknown.

The conspirators would have had to have sent experts in to rig the two main towers and WTC7 with sufficient explosives to be sure of bringing the first two buildings down some time after the planes had hit them, and WTC7 whenever it was felt expedient to do so. But the explosives had to be sufficiently inert not to be triggered either by the impacts of the planes or by the thousands of gallons of burning aviation fuel, an especially tricky proposition since no precedent existed for the crashing of a large civil airliner into a 1,000ft skyscraper. The planes also had to be guided into the exact locations of the explosives. The towers had to come down because the destruction by terrorists of planes full of passengers and the unknowable number of casualities in the areas of the towers hit by the aircraft might not, in themselves, have been sufficiently provoking to cause the reaction needed by the plotters. On the other hand it was apparently thought OTT to rig the towers in such a way as to have them topple over and possibly destroy half of south Manhattan. A balance had to be struck.

For reasons unknown (a liking for variety, perhaps) the plotters decided not to repeat the trick in Washington. Believing that an attack that could kill up to 30,000 people in New York might not provide an adequate casus belli, the plotters trained a missile, or an explosives-laden small military plane, on the Pentagon, trusting that onlookers would accept that it must have been an airliner, either for the positive reason that Washingtonians are more suggestible than New Yorkers, or the negative one that it was too tall an order to get a big plane to strike the Pentagon in the right way.

There was, however, quite possibly a plane targeted on another Washington building (perhaps you don't want too much variety), Flight 93. This was the one that supposedly crashed into a Pennsylvanian field. Not so. It had to be shot down by the Government when the passengers unfortunately got wind of what was planned and stormed the cockpit - to find the autopilot, or the patsies, or whatever they found. Although another theory, favoured by the makers of [the internet documentary series] Loose Change, is that Flight 93 didn't crash and wasn't shot down, but, like Flight 77, was made to disappear. Of course, it was essential that no air defences were deployed properly against the two or three planes containing “hijackers”, because the premature destruction of these aircraft would have meant the towers would have had to be blown with no obvious culprit. So it was necessary effectively to stand down those defences, by scrambling fighters deliberately late and issuing them with intentionally vague orders.

Then there was post-production. One aspect of this was simple: the faking of videos of Osama bin Laden and others claiming responsibility for the attacks. Another was more complex: the passengers of Flight 77 and possibly Flight 93 were either murdered in a secret location and their bodies disposed of beyond any chance of discovery, or else they were relocated, lost for ever to their families and friends, somewhere they could never be found. This would have been slightly easier if, as the millionaire 9/ll Truth activist Jimmy Walter has claimed, they were all “working for the government”. Finally, investigators belonging to the disaster agency FEMA, to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, to the fire, police and other emergency services, were paid off or intimidated to produce reports favourable to the official version.

Although the ingenious A.K. Dewdney, a professor of computer science at the University of Western Ontario, has calculated that this whole plot would only require 44 agents, it seems obvious that the intimidation alone would need as many if not more operatives than that. Hundreds, if not thousands, would have to have been directly involved in different aspects of the conspiracy. And all of them would have to have been either fanatically committed to the project or else almost unimaginably immoral. Think for a moment about the men who rigged the twin towers with explosives.

As if this plot wasn't sufficiently challenging, there were Truth activists who became persuaded of even more technologically complex possibilities. On the fifth anniversary of the attacks, the New Statesman carried an interview with David Shayler and his partner Annie Machon, the former employees of MI5. The interviewer describes Machon as looking uncomfortable when Shayler decides to reveal his true opinion. “‘Oh f*** it, I'm just going to say this', (Shayler) tells her. ‘Yes, I believe no planes were involved in 9/ll.' But we all saw with our own eyes the two planes crash into the WTC. ‘The only explanation is that they were missiles surrounded by holograms made to look like planes,' he says. ‘Watch footage frame by frame and you will see a cigar-shaped missile hitting the World Trade Center.' He must notice that my jaw has dropped. ‘I know it sounds weird, but this is what I believe.'”

It seems likely that Shayler hadn't seen the pictures of wreckage from Flight 175 on top of WTC5. Even so, this “intelligence expert” believed that a cabal that couldn't plant weapons of mass destruction in the vastnesses of the Iraqi desert could fly hologram-shrouded missiles in plain daylight into one of the most public places in the world.

Inevitably, the London bombs that killed 56 people on July 7, 2005 gave rise to a whole raft of speculation about government involvement, and in 2006 two British versions of Loose Change appeared on the net. One was called Ludicrous Diversion, and the other Mind the Gap. David Shayler was the author of the second, arguing in it that the 7/7 bombings were probably a false-flag operation designed to instil a false fear of terrorism into the British people and permit the government to do whatever nefarious thing it had on its collective mind at the time. Mind the Gap came complete with supposed warnings to Israelis, disturbing questions about evidence and photographs, and CCTV shots allegedly so badly forged that they were evidence of elements in the new world order wanting to reveal themselves, saying, “Look we're sick of lying. We've had enough.” The aftermath of the bomb blasts didn't look like the product of peroxide bombs to Shayler, who as a deskbound operative for MI5 would, one must imagine, have seen very few peroxide bombs exploding. What was more, the so-called bombers were nice boys who liked cricket, and the train timetables for the jihadists to arrive in London were all wrong.

One piece of evidence, a potential magic bullet, was accepted by all the 7/7 conspiracies, and this was the impossible locations of the blasts. The official version was that the lethal explosives had been carried in backpacks by the bombers who set them off on three trains and a bus, killing themselves and the people around them. But if the bombs could be shown to have detonated somewhere else - underneath the trains, for example - then they couldn't have been associated with the so-called terrorists. This, claimed the theorists, was exactly what eyewitnesses had claimed to see happen when the bombs exploded.

Ultimately all such reports could be sourced to one place, a Guardian journalist called Mark Honigsbaum. In June 2006 Honigsbaum gave an account of how the idea of the blast from below had come into existence. On July 7 he had been sent by his newsdesk to Edgware Road, the site of one of the explosions, where among scenes of complete confusion he had managed to grab quick interviews with some of the survivors as they left a makeshift triage centre in a local store.

Two of them told Honigsbaum that when the bomb exploded, the covering on the floor of the carriage had “raised up”.

With no time to check what the passengers had said, Honigsbaum phoned in an audio report to The Guardian, which was used on its website. It was Honigsbaum who added the elaboration that it “was believed” that the explosion had happened underneath the train, and “some passengers described how the tiles, the covers on the floors of the train, flew up, raised up”. After filing Honigsbaum spoke at greater length to more survivors who had been much closer to the blast, and they told him that the explosion had happened inside the carriage. His earlier report, admitted Honigsbaum, had been “flawed”, but unfortunately “my comments, disseminated over the internet where they could be replayed ad nauseam, were already taking on a life of their own”. Ruefully, the reporter concluded that in the old days of telephones and books it would have taken some time for rumour to paint itself full of tongues, but today “such networks can be created instantaneously with a few clicks of a mouse”.

© David Aaronovitch 2009