Initially Osama bin Laden was reported to have denied responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. Pravda carried this brief report, for instance:
That sounds emphatic, if a little remote: Pravda reporting what Khabrein say a Taliban source has told them that bin Ladin said. And the Taliban are an obvious weak link in that chain. They would not have wanted to be bombed into oblivion by the US, so had a strong incentive either to ask bin Ladin to deny responsibility, or perhaps issue it themselves.
There are other denials, too, however. The most detailed and commonly quoted comes from an interview by a Pakistani newspaper, the Daily Ummat.
This is a very clear statement, but can we be sure of its authenticity? Perhaps not:
Only written replies? How can anyone know who provided those, and why is it that these particular statements appear to be accepted by so many without any question at all?
Certainly the Ummat line that “Islam does not allow the killing of innocent people, men, women and children” doesn’t sit well with earlier bin Ladin interviews. Here’s what he told John Miller in 1998 (our emphasis):
No great sympathy for civilians here, so perhaps there’s another reason for bin Ladin’s reticence in accepting responsibility for 9/11. Claiming responsibility immediately would have given America an instant pretext to attack Afghanistan, for instance, that would have been readily accepted by the rest of the world. By denying them instead bin Laden ensured a degree of uncertainty, meaning the US is more likely to be criticised if they took any action against the country.
Alternatively, bin Laden may simply have been under pressure from the Taliban to deny responsibility. After all, they had publicly said in 1998 that he was not in Afghanistan "to conduct political or military activities", and so admitting he was behind the attacks would inevitably cause serious problems:
bin Laden was certainly keen to defend the Taleban to Al Jazeera:
But as defences go, this is rather weak ("I did not plan" is a step back from saying he was not involved, and the US government position is also that he didn't plan the attacks). And Hamid Mir, bin Laden’s Pakistani biographer, revealed a very different story in an account given to Peter Bergen:
The idea that bin Laden wouldn't immediately claim responsibility is claimed to be implausible by some, however his past record shows this is how bin Ladin works. He rarely claims direct involvement, as this extract from an interview reveals:
This is a curious thing, a denial of responsibility that also seems to want to take some of the "credit". A John Miller interview from the same time spells this out a little more:
It's not a clear claim of responsibility, but not a total denial of involvement, either. And with his refusal to comment more about Wali Khan, for instance, it's not difficult to conclude that bin Laden knew far more about these cases than he states here.
Once you've seen how he talks about previous attacks, then some of his comments about 9/11 begin to make more sense: he's not "responsible", but has incited others to take part in an attack:
Over time many further statements were released by bin Ladin and other Al Qaeda members, variously accepting that Muslims were involved in 9/11, that they were those named by the US, or that Al Qaeda were directly responsible.
The initial bin Laden denial of responsibility would not hold for long. Soon he was conceding the attacks came from Muslims; then he accepted that he "incited" them; finally we had the admission that this was an al Qaeda attack.
7th October 2001: bin Ladin
In this statement he appears to be saying that the attacks were committed by Muslims, and threatens the possibility of more.
October 9th, 2001: Suleiman Abu-Ghaith
Just in case that’s not enough, another Al Qaeda spokesman makes the threat explicit:
14th October: Suleiman Abu Ghaith
And the same message is repeated a few days later. Why would someone who knew nothing of, and disagreed with the attacks threaten more?
27th December 2001, bin Ladin:
February 2002, bin Ladin:
Now he appears to be accepting that the attacks were carried out by the Muslims named by America, but claims he did no more than "incite" them:
April 4th, 2002: al Qaeda statement
Statements like “hiding all trace of the agents of the operation was not something we considered” are obvious indicators of their involvement, as of course is the effort to justify them in the first place.
Read a detailed analysis of the statement here.
April 2002, Ahmed al-Haznawi:
Undated, believed to be 2002, "Sulayman Abu Ghayth"
September 10th, 2002: bin Ladin and others
"Two days before the anniversary of the September attacks and at a time the U.S. is using its war on terror to launch an attack against Iraq, Qatar’s Al-Jazeera satellite channel on Monday, September 9, aired video-clips in which it says Osama bin Ladin claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks on the United States"...
Apart from Atta, bin Ladin named Lebanese Ziyad al-Jarrah, Marwan al-Shehhi from the United Arab Emirates, “who destroyed the second tower” of the World Trade Center, and Hani Hanjour (from the Saudi city of Taef) “who destroyed the Pentagon.”
Al-Jazeera showed photographs of Hamza al-Ghamdi (alias Julailib al-Ghamdi), Saeed al-Ghamdi (alias Mutaz al-Ghamdi), Wael al-Shehri (alias Abu Suleiman) and Ahmad Naami (Abu Hisham), whose names, like those cited by bin Ladin, figure on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) list of hijackers.
Al-Jazeera also aired footage of one of the hijackers saying in his “will” that he was trained by Laden.
“May God reward all those who trained me and made possible this glorious act, notably the fighter and mujahid (Islamic warrior) Osama bin Ladin, God protect him,” said Saudi kamikaze Abdul Aziz al-Omari.
Al-Omari, who according to the FBI was one of five hijackers who slammed an American Airlines Boeing 767 into the north tower of the World Trade Center, was shown wearing a grey robe with his shoulder-length hair turbaned in a keffiyeh (chequered headdress).
The September 11 attacks were “a message to all infidels and to America to leave the Arabian peninsula and stop supporting the cowardly Jews in Palestine,” he said.
“Let it be known that we can bring you and other enemies down,” Al-Omari said, addressing the United States.
September 2002: Ayman Al Zawahiri
October 2002: Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed
In an interview by Al Jazeera reporter Yosri Fouda, Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed admit responsibility for 9/11, and describe their planning. These interviews were audiotaped, and segments broadcast on Al Jazeera.
In the second part of a documentary aired by the Arabic television news network Al-Jazeera, two al Qaeda terrorists wanted by the United States give an account of their planning of the September 11 attacks and describe the actions of some of the main hijackers in their final days...
View a transcript of what I believe is one of Fouda's tapes in this 9/11 Commission document.
March 2003: bin Ladin
May 2003: Ayman Al Zawahiri
September 21, 2003: Abu Muhammad al-Ablaj
August 2004: Abu-Jandal
October 30th 2004: bin Ladin
September 12th 2005: American Al-Qaeda operative Adam Gadahn:
May 24th 2006: bin Ladin (unconfirmed?):
June 13th 2006: Al Qaeda statement:
December 2006: al-Zawahiri statement:
November 2007: bin Laden statement:
On 29th November 2007, al Jazeera aired a portion of a bin Laden tape (YouTube) containing the following statement:
Laura Mansfield translation:
Full transcript of the original English subtitles:
April 2008: Ayman al-Zawahiri:
July 2008: Senior al-Qaeda commander Mustafa Abu al-Yazid:
September 2009: Possible bin Laden:
November 2011: Ayman al-Zawahiri:
Bin Laden's October 2001 interview with Al Jazeera includes lengthy discussions on the attacks.
al Qaeda Videos
al Qaeda claims of responsibility for 9/11 are based on more than just words. They've also released videos about the attacks.
They (or bin Laden) named and spoke about the hijackers in "The Nineteen Martyrs".
The "Knowledge is for Acting Upon: The Manhattan Raid" video named Ramzi Binalshibh as the "coordinator of the attacks" and "Zakariyya al-Housawi" as the "head of logistical support", then discussed planning, training, and more.
And in November 2007 a bin Laden audio tape was played on al Jazeera, where he essentially said Afghanistan should not have been invaded in response to 9/11 because the attacks were his responsibility.
Hijackers video wills
Since 9/11, al-Qaeda have released footage of several of the hijackers. These include a number of video wills, where they talk about jihad and attacking America. Reportedly all but one of the hijackers made a will, so we'd anticipate that others will appear in future 9/11 anniversary releases.