Tiny Palestinian group dodged blame on 9/11
[By Jenny Baboun and George Hale]
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — Qais Abu Laila was ready to head home from his Ramallah office when a telephone call thrusted him into the center of an unfolding event which, for many, would define the coming decade.
It was late afternoon on Sept. 11, 2001, and Abu Laila’s leftist faction the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine had just hijacked a civilian airliner and crashed it through the upper floors of a US skyscraper, or so the caller heard on the news.
Ten years have passed and yet it remains a mystery to this Palestinian lawmaker how his small party became identified initially as a possible suspect in a quadruple hijacking that leveled two skyscrapers, killed 3,000 people and sparked two American invasions which left thousands more dead.
“At that moment, news of the attack wasn’t even on TV yet. Nothing was clear,” says Abu Laila, a senior political officer in the marxist group. “All we knew was a plane had been hijacked.”
In fact, four planes were then under the control of 19 hijackers — most from Saudi Arabia, none from Palestine — and two had struck their targets, 1 and 2 World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan, when an anonymous tipoff to Abu Dhabi TV set off a frenzy of speculation that the Palestinians were involved.
The claim of DFLP’s responsibility, picked up by Reuters at 9:43 a.m. New York time, coincided with the crash of a third airliner into the Pentagon near Washington, DC. Abu Laila and others swiftly dismissed the possibility, and the claim was soon discredited by various experts and security officials.
“I immediately denied the reports,” Abu Laila recalled Friday in an interview.
“The DFLP does not even confront Israel, how would it confront the US? It also opposes attacks on countries that are not a party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Next, Abu Laila and other officials initiated a swift review of DFLP operations worldwide, making frantic contacts with headquarters throughout the occupied territories and across the Arab world.
“I called all the DFLP offices outside Palestine; I made sure they had no connection to the attacks — or even to the media reports,” he recalls. “Fearing there had been a ‘leak’ or some kind of misunderstanding, I sought assurances from the DFLP leadership — they were not even aware of the attacks.”
Hardly remembered a decade later, that initial claim reached a large audience at the time and, with live footage of Palestinians celebrating in Nablus and Lebanon, it further inflamed emotions in the US.
In New York, the level of anger seemed to rise by the hour over the course of the day, according to the contents of private pager data that was released to the public by WikiLeaks in 2009.
A review of the 500,000 messages shows that Americans were discussing the supposed DFLP claim as early as 9:52 a.m.: “A Palestinian militia group has claimed responsibility for the attacks on the World Trade Center and assumably for the Pentagon bombing,” said one of those first messages.
Four minutes later, another pager message reported that the “White House has been ‘threatened’ with terrorist attack … Palestinian group has claimed” responsibility.
The updates would continue as the attacks unfolded, beginning with the DFLP’s supposed role, then noting the Palestinian leadership’s condemnation and finally outrage at images of celebrations.
10:32 — “The Democratic Front for the liberation of palistine is claiming responsibility”
10:25 — “PAGE UPDATE NEWS BULLETIN: DEM FRON FOR LIBERATION OF PALESTINE CLAIMS RESPONSIBILITY”
11:03 — “FLASH QUE PALESTINA YA SE DECLARARON RESPONSABLES DE LOS ATAQUES. ESTO TE LO CONFIRMO AL RATO”
11:12 — “DEM front for Liberation of Palestine claims responsibility. Are you leaving early today? AA Flt from Bos to LA was one flight. This has …”
11:31 — “I just heard that the palestinian leader called Bush and called this horrific”
12:10 — “I guess on the TV in the breakroom they were showing live footage from Palestine and they’re celebrating in the streets.”
12:11 — “World Reacts: Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his top aides followed the events gathered around a TV set. ‘I send … my condolences to the president, the government and the people for this terrible incident,’ said Arafat.”
12:13 — “Palestinian gunmen at refugee camps in Lebanon fired into the air to celebrate news of the attacks on major U.S. landmarks and government offices.”
12:44 — “Mel|they are celebrating in the streets of Lebanon, actually passing out candy and stuff. sick, huh?
12:49 — “They are showing the damn middle-easters dancing and celebrating”
This continued until after midnight local time, Abu Laila recalls, when the United States and its intelligence apparatus began to point the finger at Al-Qaeda.
“It was around 1 a.m. here when the DFLP was cleared,” he says.
Back in Ramallah, the party “issued an official statement that the DFLP had nothing to do with the attacks, that we condemn attacks against citizens,” he said.
The statement also said the events of the day should “encourage the US to revise its policy of supporting Israel, because it generates a level of Arab and Islamic hatred.”
The US does not consider the DFLP a terrorist organization.
The faction was removed from the State Dept.’s official list during a regular review “due to lack of terrorist activity” in 1999, the same year Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda was added.
The initial suspicions of involvement in 9/11 were also ironic because of the faction’s efforts to end airline hijackings in the 1970s, Abu Laila says.
The DFLP “fought a huge intellectual battle” against hijacking planes and attacks on civilians and also called to “limit the armed struggle, so it’s not possible [for us] to call for these attacks,” he says.
“Maybe the claim was simply to involve the Palestinian people.”
An armed wing still claims a connection to the DFLP. The National Resistance Brigades, based only in Gaza, is operational and has carried out deadly attacks against Israel.
A spokesman for the NRB, who identified himself only as Abu Khaled, says he learned of the attacks through the media as well as the “ridiculous” claims of involvement via DFLP officers outside Palestine.
Asked if commanders prepared for a US attack in the aftermath of the reports, Abu Khaled said “I didn’t think the US would retaliate because al-Qaeda had already threatened such attacks” as the ones on 9/11.
And the prospect that his small group had the means or the will to pull off such an operation on another continent “was ridiculous. So, there was no strong reaction from our side. We dealt with it rationally.”
Whoever made the claim that day “wanted to export the crisis to the DFLP.”