After days of anticipation, television viewers the world over witnessed the grand premiere of the mystery tape in which, according to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, "bin Laden confirms his guilt" and consequently "totally vindicates the action that we, the U.S. and the international coalition have taken in Afghanistan."
The tape, the proverbial smoking gun, was found late November in a house in Jalalabad under circumstances enshrouded in mystery. The Pentagon which, apparently, spent two weeks agonizing over its release, proffered the tape to the networks with a translation of the material.
The Pentagon gives us the setting for the tape. "In mid-November, Osama bin Laden spoke to a room of supporters, possibly in Kandahar, Afghanistan."
A paraplegic Sheikh visits bin Laden. "We came from Kabul", he tells his host. "We asked the driver to take us, it was a night with a full moon." Later, he places the conversation in context to "this holy month of Ramadan". The full moon of Ramadan occurred around the 30th of November, not mid-November - exactly around the time the tape was allegedly found.
The transportation service in war-ravaged Afghanistan must be extraordinary. First, the tape moves from Kandahar to Jalalabad at a speed that would make Fedex envious!
Then, our paralyzed tourist, who regrets he could not move between mosques in Mecca to gauge reactions because "My movements were truly limited," conveniently transports himself from Kabul to Kandahar at a most inconsiderate time for travelers. The Northern Alliance surrounds Kabul looking for 'Arab Taliban', and as the on November 30th edition of Dawn (Pakistan) reports: "Near the southern city of Kandahar, more marines and equipment have been ferried in to bring their strength to slightly more than 1,000, (Pentagon's) Clarke said in a Thursday briefing."
But the marvels of Afghan communication do not cease there. Ten thousand bombs have had little effect on the luxuries in the valley, for as Sulayman (Abu Guaith) tells us: "I was sitting with the Shaykh in a room, then I left to go to another room where there was a TV set. The TV broadcasted the big event." Osama tunes in to the radio, Sulayman is on the TV. Maybe Ali was on the internet? Ah! Thank goodness for AT&T Broadband!
Mazar-i-Sharif has fallen, Kabul has been captured, and the world reacts with horror at the great massacre at Qala-i-Jhangi. But while both CNN and Fox blurt out 24 hours on news of the war, Osama appears calm and unruffled - and the historic conversation does not drift to the war at all!
And then comes the glaring confession - the Christmas wrapped pronouncement that will allow Mr. Ashcroft to nail bin Laden to the military tribunal door.
Osama narrates from the prosecutor's dream script: "We calculated in advance the number of casualties We calculated that the floors that would be hit ... I was the most optimistic of them all. (...Inaudible...) Due to my experience in this field, I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit ..."
Lead the prisoner out, General, the firing squad is ready!
The damnation continues: "We were at (...inaudible...) when the event took place. We had notification since the previous Thursday that the event would take place that day. We had finished our work that day and had the radio on. It was 5:30 p.m. our time."
"Our time!" An editorial comment so as not to confuse the average American reader, who will be confused that the attack commenced at 8:30 AM EST.
Ask yourself this: Have you ever created a home video where the effects were this bad? Here is OBL with his billions of dollar funds, and all he gets for Christmas is this Video Camera that can't shoot straight!
"The tape was of such poor quality and Bin Laden's words so difficult to discern that viewers took away from it what they wanted," writes Michael Slackman for the LA Times. He continues with a quote from one Rashwan from the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "'It's a real scandal,' he said, laughing. Bin Laden is a multimillionaire, a man said to posses extraordinary technological capabilities, a man who released previous videos that were slick and well produced, he said, so how could this be his work? "
He continues: "But Rashwan also saw other problems in the tape: When a visitor from Saudi Arabia arrives, his voice is clear and there are frequent close-ups. But Bin Laden's voice is always muffled and the camera never zooms in on him."
Truly, the sound is atrocious. In many parts, the transcript reads: "OBL: (...Inaudible...)," and to add to the poor quality of audio, a persistent cough permeates the background. Hafiz al-Mazari of Al-Jazeera TV, appearing on ABC's nightline, talked about problems of voice and video synchronization.
Mr. Mazari also mentioned that he had interviewed Mr. Ashcroft three days prior to its release, but the Attorney General admitted he had not seen the tape. Apparently it did not pose enough interest to America's chief prosecutor!
To add further confusion to the already murky audio, video and poor translation, the sequence of the events is reversed on the tape. It begins with the end of the visit, a helicopter site visit occupies the middle, and the ending sequence of the tape brings up the beginning of the visit!
And then there is the constant riddle why the tape was left lying around so carelessly, after all the pains to film it at a moment of siege, by a man reported to be so paranoid, and rightly so, that he does not sleep in the same place twice.
Indeed, those who were convinced of bin Laden's guilt from the day Mr. Bush declared he was wanted 'Dead or alive', find their belief strengthened by the mystery tape. As Judith Miller of the NY times writes, "What now seems indisputable after the release of the tape is Mr. bin Laden's responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks."
Those caught in between, are still doubtful. Charles Shoebridge, reporting in London's Guardian believes "The video is not quite the smoking gun the Americans claim it to be."
Can it be entirely coincidental that the tape was found so shortly after the US government sought the cooperation of Hollywood to assist it in its War on Terror? The Australian daily The Age poses the question: "If computer-generated graphics can fake Forrest Gump shaking President John F Kennedy's hand and the late John Wayne hawking beer, how can viewers be sure that a videotape of Osama bin Laden bragging about the September 11 attacks is real?"
If this was indeed a Hollywood production, one cannot but regret that instead of modeling its magnum opus on visual effects of The Matrix or The Mummy (quite appropriate in the Arab context of bin Laden), they chose the Blair Witch Project instead.
Yusuf Agha lives in Boston, MA.