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Briefings & Documents Menu / Anti-war Briefings Menu / Briefing 06


8 October 2001

Incontrovertible?
The "Evidence" Against Bin Laden

War has started against Afghanistan - against terrorist camps, and against the Taliban regime. The British and US Governments proceeded after convincing key allies that (1) they possessed 'incontrovertible' proof that Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden was responsible for the 11 September atrocities (no such proof exists, as we shall see), and (2) persuading them also that there was no nonviolent method of securing him for trial for these crimes.

Despite Government/media propaganda that the Taliban 'refused to hand over bin Laden', the truth is that the Taliban have refused to 'hand over Osama bin Laden without evidence' (Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Times, 22 Sept., p. 1, emphasis added).

According to a report in the Telegraph, the Taliban actually agreed to extradite bin Laden to Pakistan on 1 Oct.: 'The proposal, which had bin Laden's approval, was that within the framework of Islamic shar'ia law evidence of his alleged involvement in the New York and Washington attacks would be placed before an international tribunal. The court would decide whether to try him on the spot or hand him over to America.' The deal was vetoed by President Musharraf of Pakistan. (Telegraph, 4 Oct., p. 9, see ARROW anti-war briefing 5 for more details.)

This agreement makes it clear that earlier offers by the Taliban were genuine: extradition might really have been possible if credible evidence against bin Laden had been provided earlier to the Taliban regime. But President Bush 'peremptorily dismissed a request from the Taliban for proof that Mr bin Laden was behind the outrages on 11 September.' (Independent, 22 Sept., p. 1) This was the consistent US/UK position.


The Dossier

The British and US Governments have provided an openly published dossier of 'evidence' from the British Government; a confidential briefing to NATO ambassadors (which won their support); and a confidential briefing of President Musharraf of Pakistan (which appeared to win his support).

First, the famous 70 point dossier published by Tony Blair - savaged by the British broadsheet press. Bronwen Maddox, Foreign Editor of the Times, describes it as 'a puzzling and worrying piece of work' with 'so many puzzling omissions that the document begins to undermine itself.' She feels it was 'more significant for what it leaves out than for what it leaves in', with 'few clues even to the form of evidence for September 11: almost nothing on money or phone records'. It 'seems lame - to the point of advertising a deficiency - to say that a signature of an al-Qaeda attack is the absence of a warning'. (Al-Qaeda being bin Laden's 'network'.)

'There is nothing hard enough in it to convince sceptics in either London or Washington, let alone Kabul.' It is 'a political dance, not a serious attempt to preach to the unconverted', a 'paper shield' for President Musharraf of Pakistan, and the rulers of Saudi Arabia. (Times, 5 Oct., p. 8)

The dossier is described by the Independent on Sunday as 'conjecture, supposition and assertions of fact', a work that 'uses every trick in the Whitehall drafter's arsenal to make the reader believe they are reading something they are not: a damning indictment of Mr bin Laden for the events of 11 September.' (7 Oct., p. 7). The dossier is 'almost worthless from a legal point of view'. (Guardian editorial, 5 Oct., p. 23) The document 'took us no further than the information already in the public domain.' (Independent, 5 Oct., Review p. 3) The Telegraph suggests there is 'powerful evidence' against bin Laden - but not in the dossier. Still-secret intelligence evidence convinces those who have seen it: 'We are happy to take it on trust'. (5 Oct., p. 29) The Telegraph does not refer to the dossier at all, a telling sign of its weakness.


Nine Points

Most of the material in the dossier does not deal with 11 September. 'Only nine of the 70 points in the document relate to the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon'. (Robert Fisk, Independent, 5 Oct., p. 5) For Bronwen Maddox, it is 'striking', given the dossier's purpose, 'that apparently the most solid evidence refers to the 1998 attacks [on US Embassies]. There is comparatively little on September 11.' (Times, 5 Oct., p. 8)

One claim is that Osama bin Laden warned his closest associates to return to Afghanistan by 10 Sept. (para 62) The Guardian pointed out that 'Dozens of men suspected of having links to bin Laden's al-Qaida network have been detained in Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands' and US reports say 'that four or five al-Qaida cells remain in the US and have either been detained or are under surveillance'. There have been 'no confirmed cases so far of known al-Qaida members being ordered back to Afghanistan on the eve of the attack.' (5 Oct., p. 5) The Independent on Sunday concluded that 'if there was advice to go to Afghanistan, presumably [these agents] ignored it or did not receive it.' (7 Oct., p. 7, emph. added) The evidence indicates no such recall was issued.


Associates And Rival Groups

The dossier alleges that three of the hijackers were 'associates of al-Qaeda'. (para 61) Senior British lawyer Anthony Scrivener QC is troubled by the word "associate": it 'gives the impression that they are not members of that organisation and I would certainly wish to examine the evidence to see what associates really means.' (Times, 5 Oct., p. 7) The Independent on Sunday comments that the word "associate" 'suggests the authorities lack intelligence on al-Qa'ida: they think they know who may be involved but they are not sure, and they are not certain where they come in the pecking order - hence the catch-all "associate".' (7 Oct., p. 7)

Anthony Scrivener QC also seized on another crucial weakness of the dossier: the claim that 'No other organisation has both the motivation and the capability to carry out attacks like those of September 11'. (para 69) For Scrivener, 'the main problem' with the dossier is the fact that 'there are other terrorist groups who share the same hatred of the Americans who might have carried out this atrocity. (Times, 5 Oct., p. 7)

The Times pointed out that the dossier did not mention the 1994 attempt by the 'Armed Islamic Group' of Algeria 'to crash a hijacked plane into the Eiffel Tower': 'Intelligence experts are sceptical' about the claim that no other group has the motivation and capability to carry out such attacks. (Times, 5 Oct., p. 4)


Legal Opinions

Richard Gordon QC said that bin Laden's alleged prior record (as set out in the dossier) 'shows, in the language of the lawyers, propensity, but it proves little.' (Independent on Sunday, 7 Oct., p. 7)

Nick Blake QC, of human rights lawyers Matrix Chambers, said the evidence in the dossier could feasibly support charges of incitement to murder; there were 'debatable' grounds for a a charge of conspiracy to murder; but it would need 'more concrete evidence to obtain an indictment for murder against bin Laden': 'Nothing in the disclosed material shows actual participation in the murders as opposed to giving approval to terrorist attacks.' (Telegraph, 5 Oct., p. 6)

Anthony Scrivener QC said, 'it is a sobering thought that better evidence is required to prosecute a shoplifter than is needed to commence a world war'. (Times, 5 Oct., p. 7)


NATO

NATO ambassadors were subjected to a 40 minute oral presentation by US State Department counter-terrorism envoy Frank Taylor, which led Lord Robertson to declare the evidence against bin Laden 'incontrovertible.' However, the secretary-general of the alliance was contradicted by NATO diplomats who said (anonymously) 'that the US presentations could not show, beyond doubt, real factual hard evidence, apart from the names of several of the hijackers, details of where they had studied, and their backgrounds.' (FT, 5 Oct., p. 6) Not much incontrovertible secret intelligence material there.


Pakistan

For the Times, 'Nothing could more powerfully validate the proof' that Osama bin Laden is guilty 'than the acceptance by Pakistan that there were sufficient grounds for indictment in a court of law'. '[N]o country has greater reason for wanting to claim that the evidence is still ambiguous.' (5 Oct., p. 23) Unfortunately for the Times, this is precisely the Pakistani position: President Musharraf has said, 'I personally and my government feel that there is evidence which is leading to an association between the terror acts and Osama bin Laden.' (FT, 6 Oct., p. 7) Merely 'leading to an association'!

Earlier a Pakistani Foreign Ministry official had indeed said that there were grounds for an indictment, but Mohammed Riaz Khan pointed out that information provided to Pakistan 'related to both pre-September 11 incidents and also to the September 11 events'. 'Mr Khan side-stepped reporters' questions as to whether the evidence pertaining to the September 11 attacks provided clear grounds for a court indictment on their own.' (FT, 5 Oct., p. 6)


Unconvinced

The secret intelligence shown to the Pakistanis did not convince them. 'There is no evidence presented [in the dossier] that directly links bin Laden to September 11.' (Bronwen Maddox, Times, 5 Oct., p. 8) Given the distortions and omissions in the Government's dossier, there are no grounds for believing 'incontrovertible evidence' exists to support the Government's bold assertions. The British Government has launched a war which may cost tens of thousands of lives through famine with less "evidence" on display than is needed to prosecute a shoplifter.


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