June 12, 2002

In the post-9/11 era, the real is surreal – or is that vice-versa?

In an earlier column, I theorized that when the hijackers rammed those planes into the World Trade Center, they must've torn a hole in the space-time continuum, opening the door to another dimension – the Bizarro World – an alternate universe where everything is grotesquely inverted. But now it seems that the Great Inversion may have occurred far earlier, well before the hijackers succeeded in their hellish plot. The news that Mohamed Atta and friends paid a visit to the Department of Agriculture in order to apply for a government loan – after all, terrorism on the scale he imagined didn't come cheap – goes waaaay beyond bizarre, all the way to phantasmagoric. How else can we describe Johnelle Bryant's story of her close encounter with Atta, in which the terrorist mastermind walked in demanding a $650,000 government loan to fulfill his "immigrant's dream" and start a crop-dusting business?

"He wanted to finance a twin-engine six-passenger aircraft … and remove the seats. He said he was an engineer, and he wanted to build a chemical tank that would fit inside the aircraft and take up every available square inch of the aircraft except for where the pilot would be sitting."

According to Bryant, a 16-year veteran of the department, her weird run-in with Atta occurred "sometime between the end of April and the middle of May 2000," and there were several aspects of the interview that made it, uh, memorable – although it's only now that she decided to report it. Bryant tells us that, initially, Atta refused to even speak with her, disdaining her as "but a female." After she assured him that she was, indeed, in charge, he relented, but still kept insulting her. But that didn't stop the ever-helpful Bryant from trying to help him in any way possible. After he explained his "immigrant's dream," Bryant told him about the application process, and he became "very agitated." It seems that Atta, the devilishly clever ringleader of the most successful terrorist plot in modern times, "thought the loan would be in cash, and that he would have no trouble obtaining it to purchase an aircraft." If this expectation seems slightly puzzling, then Atta's crazed behavior during the interview seems calculated to draw attention to himself as a dangerous nutball. At one point, he noted that the building seemed to lack security. Bryant says he pointed at the safe behind her desk, and

"He asked me what would prevent him from going behind my desk and cutting my throat and making off with the millions of dollars in that safe."

As to why Bryant didn't call security – such as it was – then and there is beyond me. Instead, she explained that the safe contained no money, the Department of Agriculture is not a bank – oh, and by the way, I'm "trained in karate." After this little dust-up, however, all was forgiven, apparently, and they got back down to business. Bryant tells us he asked questions about how he could get training, and whether his travel plans – "I think he said he needed to go to Madrid, and somewhere in Germany, and then there was a third country" – would interfere with the application process. Bryant turned down Atta's application – not because he said scary things, or because he had "scary eyes," black and intense, but on the grounds that, as a foreign national, he "didn't meet the basic eligibility requirements." Which just goes to show that you can appear to be a homicidal maniac, and still get a government grant, provided you're a citizen of this great country. Isn't America wonderful? Don't let anybody tell you different.

Oh, but here's my favorite part of this ABC News "exclusive":

"Being turned down for the loan altered the hijackers' plans. According to law enforcement officials, packing twin-engine planes with explosive chemicals, making it a flying bomb, had been the terrorists' plan since the mid-1990s. When Atta reported to his group that he could not get a loan to buy smaller planes, the plan was switched to hijacking passenger jets, according to what Abu Zabaydah, a top lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, has told American interrogators since his capture.

 "So in the fall of 2000, the hijackers who had been learning to fly small planes began to seek simulator training in the large jets they would fly into the World Trade Center and Pentagon."

Get outta here! So now they're telling us that the fabulously wealthy Osama bin Laden, with all the resources of a worldwide terrorist empire at his disposal, was too cheap to put up a mere $650 thousand? Given all the long-range planning and additional resources he poured into the preparations for the 9/11 attacks, this hardly seems possible. Even more unbelievable is the idea that the hijackers had been counting on that government loan to finance their plans, and, when they didn't get it, had to radically shift course. What a load of malarkey! If true, that would have to mean that, on 9/11, myriad agencies of the US government were outfoxed by terrorists who are total retards.

While we're on the subject of total retards – Bryant also tells us how, before leaving, Atta became "fixated" on a photo of Washington, D.C., as seen from the air, hanging on the wall:

"'He pulled out a wad of cash,' she said, 'and started throwing money on my desk. He wanted that picture really bad.'

 "Bryant indicated that the picture was not for sale, and he threw more money down.

 "'His look on his face became very bitter at that point,' Bryant remembers. 'I believe he said, 'How would America like it if another country destroyed that city and some of the monuments in it,' like the cities in his country had been destroyed?'"

Oh, and which country is that? There is considerable controversy over Atta's nationality, and the mystery has yet to be cleared up as far as I can tell, but most speculation places him somewhere in North Africa: possibly Egyptian, or Algerian. We know he studied architecture in Cairo. Only one North African country has had its capital city "attacked" by the US, and that is Libya, in 1986, when Tripoli was bombed – but the city was hardly "destroyed." Atta's exit speech is the kind of extravagant touch one might expect in a cheap paperback thriller: indeed, this whole narrative has a pulp-novelistic feel to it, like bad art imitating life. Conveniently, Atta also launched into a rant about Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and "boasted about the role they would play one day." Of the latter, according to Bryant, "he said this man would someday be known as the world's greatest leader."

It's stories like this that make one wonder if the Office of Strategic Influence – remember them? – really disbanded after all. Or was that just their way of strategically influencing us? The only believable aspect of this tall tale is Bryant's claim of complete ignorance:

"I didn't know who Osama bin Laden was … He could have been a character on Star Wars for all I knew."

That I believe. As for the rest of it….

The rest of it we have on the word of Abu Zabaydah, who is supposed to be a "top lieutenant" of bin Laden's – and also the source of the information that led to the capture of the so-called "dirty bomber," Jose Padilla, who calls himself "Abdullah al Muhajir". According to government officials, Jose-Abdullah was supposed to obtain weapons-grade uranium, somehow, from a university, and then go out and rig up a "dirty bomb." Gee, he must be some kind of scientific genius, the Einstein of world terrorism – but is he?

No way, Jose.

Jose-Abdullah is a street punk whose knowledge of the scientific method is limited to calculating the impact of a crowbar on the back of somebody's skull. Citing court documents, John Kass of the Chicago Tribune describes the young terrorist's early years:

"His career started with a knifing in an alley. By then, he'd joined a gang with a threatening name, something like the Maniac Latin Psychos or the Psycho Latin Maniacs. … Padilla began his career as a juvenile, with a knife and a baseball bat in an alley off 16th Street and Kedvale Avenue in August 1985. The victim, Elio Evangelista, had the misfortune to carry some cash that Padilla and a friend wanted for themselves."

Here is what we know about the alleged "dirty bomber": This is a Puerto Rican kid, born in Brooklyn, who becomes a little gangbanger when the family moves to Chicago. A series of arrests follows his release from juvenile hall, and several confrontations with authorities in South Florida, where he moved in 1990, paint a portrait of an erratic nobody headed for oblivion. His behavior leading up to his arrest and imprisonment in Florida can only be described as psychopathic: he fired a revolver at another driver in what is being called an incident of "road rage," and then reached for his gun as the officers came to his house to arrest him. He spent a year in the Broward county jail, and supposedly converted to Islam only after being released, according to the Miami Herald.

Then, suddenly, he disappeared only to turn up in the terrorist training camp of Osama bin Laden somewhere in the wilds of Pakistan and/or Afghanistan. According to deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz:

"He researched nuclear weapons and received training in wiring explosives while in Pakistan, and he was instructed to return to the United States to conduct reconnaissance operations for al Qaeda."

Did Jose-Abdullah even graduate from high school? Somehow, I doubt it. But we're expected to believe that he "researched nuclear weapons"? Yeah, right. So a baseball-wielding street punk is suddenly transformed into the terrorist equivalent of Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller all rolled into one? Okay, so you don't have to be a genius to detonate a "dirty" nuclear bomb – but surely it takes something a little above the level of street smarts. So Jose-Abdullah was just supposed to walk into a university, somewhere, and cop some weapons-grade uranium – no doubt they'd be real impressed with his credentials. Hey, the Psycho Latin Maniacs – it sure beats the heck out of Harvard. Naturally, it's a complete coincidence that this great triumph of interagency cooperation comes at a time when our besieged law enforcement agencies – not just discredited since 9/11, but utterly disgraced -- most needs a "victory." As USA Today put it:

"Some U.S. officials described Al Muhajir as a relatively minor would-be terrorist. They suggested that the FBI and CIA, which have come under criticism in recent weeks for failing to uncover the Sept. 11 plot, were trumpeting a success story to fend off criticism."

And of course, Attorney General John Ashcroft's dramatic announcement had nothing to do with the commencement of the much-heralded congressional investigation into 9/11, and the new focus on the events leading up to that fateful day.

We are living in the Age of Malarkey, an era where no tale is considered too tall but that the authorities won't try it out on the American people. The government has become like that mildly sadistic camp counselor who gets a charge out of scaring his young charges half to death with gruesome "ghost stories" told around a campfire – or, more accurately, like some prison guard who tries to whip his charges into line by threatening them with being put in "the hole." Things could get worse. That's the core message we're supposed to heed, with this addendum: and they will, if you don't shut up and do as you're told.

Reading about the Dirty Bomber and Atta's visit to the Department of Agriculture, I keep hearing the voice of Rod Serling somewhere in the background:

"There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears, and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call…."

… The Malarkey Zone!

As for me, I don't believe a word of it.

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.