Two decades have passed since the deadliest-ever terrorist attack took place on U.S. soil.
Two hijacked commercial airliners brought down the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York.
Another plane struck the western side of the Pentagon outside Washington, and a fourth, believed to be bound either for the U.S. Capitol or the White House, crashed into a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania after passengers fought the terrorists onboard.
A total of 2,977 people were killed and over 20,000 injured, and the course of history was changed.
Then-U.S. President George W. Bush ordered invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Americans have concluded the hijackers were members of al-Qaida, and that the attacks were orchestrated by the organization’s leader Osama bin Laden.
Still, 20 years later, skepticism and suspicion regarding the attacks continue to percolate among some high-profile Americans. Former President Donald Trump is seen by many as having introduced, advanced and nurtured one bizarre theory after another.
Many Americans have cast doubt on several events in their history, from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to the moon landing.
The Middle East is no different: Twenty years on, 9/11 conspiracy theories continue to find credence in the region where the 19 attackers came from.
Several investigative reports have subsequently come out pointing the finger saying the jihadist group was responsible for the carnage.
But thousands of miles away in the Middle East, many still doubt the findings, going as far as to question that the terrorist attacks even took place.
Conspiracy theories flourish in the Middle East. It seems as if every event or phenomenon has a hidden story behind it, and the official explanation is never the truth.
Almost everything is subject to doubt and to a conspiracy theory that entails secret benefit to Israel, the U.S. or the ruling elites in the Middle East.
Ahmad Rafiq Awad, president of the Center for Jerusalem Studies at Al-Quds University, told The Media Line that distrust in Washington’s policies toward the region and the existence of social media and online outlets such as YouTube provide a platform for people to spread these ideas and theories.
“The people of the region are no different than the Americans; they doubt almost everything and are never satisfied with the official narrative. They have had bad experiences with them,” explains Rafiq Awad.
With the advance of technology, “how conspiracy theories disseminate has changed, which adds to the increase in followers of conspiracy theory,” he says.
“Social media provided people spreading their doubts an opportunity to speak directly to the masses without being questioned,” says Rafiq Awad.
Omar Hamdi, a Jordanian who says he watched the collapse of the twin towers on television in disbelief, was in shock for weeks after.
He told The Media Line that after extensive reading and listening to myriad opinions and thoughts on the event, he is not satisfied with the findings and that there is still hidden information.
“Do you want me to believe that al-Qaida was behind the attacks?” Hamdi ponders aloud. “We are talking about America! How can a group like al-Qaida do all this without the knowledge of the Americans? That’s nonsense.”
This line of thinking can be found everywhere in the region, including cafés, diwaniyas (gatherings, traditionally of men only, where political and other issues are discussed), and social gatherings at home.
Saudi national Khalid al Dosri told The Media Line the explanation the U.S. government provided for what happened on that fateful September morning doesn’t add up.
“The U.S. government has a track record of lying to its people and hiding the truth from them. What happened on 9/11 is no different,” he says.
The U.S. had been waiting for such an excuse to be free to implement its policies in the region without opposition, Dosri says.
He never believed the official narrative. Instead, he thinks the attacks were orchestrated to justify the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the war in Iraq that followed.
“We live in an important area of the world that is rich in oil and strategically located. The alleged attacks provided a legitimate excuse for the U.S. to come in and establish a military presence,” Dosri says. “All you need to do is look around you.”
Qasem, an Iranian Shia Muslim, says that at the time the U.S. needed an excuse to invade Arab and Muslim countries and establish a foothold for its military in the region.
“In order to have tight control of the area, America needed to be here. But because of local opposition, they had to find a way to do it. The attacks were it,” says Qasem.
The U.S. wasn’t popular in the region before the 9/11 attacks, but following them, sympathy and unconditional support for Washington poured in from allies and adversaries alike.
American foreign policy saw a major shift, especially in the Middle East.
Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan to get rid of al-Qaida, and two years later he sent U.S. troops to Iraq under the pretext of ridding the country of weapons of mass destruction that were never found.
U.S. popularity in the region subsequently took a nosedive, and people continue to believe that none of the actors Washington blamed for 9/11 had anything to do with it.
“The U.S. wanted to come to the area and help Israel,” says Na’im, a Palestinian teacher from Hebron in the West Bank.
The two strategic allies work together to “maintain Israel military superiority,” Na’im told The Media Line.
“They didn’t come here to bring us democracy like they said. They want to install their own people and the attacks provided the perfect scenario.”
“They fabricated what happened to serve their interests. Now after 20 years, the region is suffering from the US’ selfish policies,” Na’im says.
Rafiq Awad says that as long as people continue to distrust the U.S., conspiracy theorists will have a field day and find a receptive audience.
“Arabs and Muslims will keep on seeing America as someone that will do anything to advance its own interests. No matter what [the U.S. says], they won’t believe it, and this will fuel conspiracy theories,” he says.