The ‘false flags’ of the Boston bombings

Oussama Romdhani

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For days, attitudes towards the Boston bombings and their unfolding drama were very restrained, in official circles and large segments of the public. Behind such restraint, there was general wariness, both in the U.S. and the Middle East, about the consequences were Arabs or Muslims to be found guilty of perpetrating the first major terrorist crime on American soil since the 2001 attacks. But in both the United States and the Arab world, there were also people who seemed on a separate planet – wildly speculating and exploring conspiracy theories.

Despite the media pressures, the world of U.S. officials was one of self-restraint and well-chosen words. President Barack Obama even avoided describing the bombings as an “act of terrorism”, at least at first.

Sifting through all kinds of leads, law enforcement officials in Boston were careful not to speculate about the identity of the possible culprits or about their motives. “The range of suspects and motives remains wide open,” FBI spokespersons kept on saying. One television network, CNN, which ventured to speculate that the suspect was “a dark-skinned male”, was overwhelmingly chastised.

In North Africa and the Middle East, leaders strongly condemned the attacks and expressed their sympathy with the victims. Even the media debate was relatively tame. There was a consensus among various political formations to condemn the heinous act of terrorism. In Egypt, for instance, all shades of the Islamist spectrum, from the ultra-conservative Salafists to the more moderate Islamic formations, strongly denounced the bombings. So did their opposition.

Wishing the fears away

In the United States, nobody was jumping to conclusions. People seemed aware that accusations, even the hint of suspicion, carried consequences. The premature prognostications about the possible involvement of Middle East terrorists in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings have had a prejudicial effect on Muslim Americans. Very few people wanted to wantonly rekindle the memories of al-Qaeda’s 2001 terror attacks, or revisit the trail wars and conflicts they caused for more than a decade since then.

U.S. public opinion seemed in fact almost inclined to wish the fears of possible Muslim involvement away. In a Fox News poll, 62% of Americans felt “homegrown terrorists like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh” were “more likely to be responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings”, against 20% only who were inclined to place the blame on “Islamic terrorists”.

There were even those, like columnist and author David Sirota, who overtly expressed the “hope” that the Boston bombers are eventually found to be “white American”, so as to avoid any backlash against “non-white developing-world suspects.”

This trend did not please everyone, obviously. Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh was even a bit annoyed. “Nobody thinks this has anything to do with al-Qaeda, nothing to do with Saudi Arabia, nothing to do with Muslims..While at the same time speculating that this has to be some right-wing group,” he said.

In the Arab world, too, many fretted about the consequences, if the Boston bombings were proven to involve Arabs or Muslims. In an informal poll, more than 50% of the readers of a leading Egyptian newspaper predicted “that the Boston bombings will pave the way for new American wars in the Middle East”. On some of the Facebook pages in North Africa there were even black humor “bets” about the country which could eventually bear the brunt of America’s wrath.

The wild world of conspiracy theorists

The real revelation of the Boston bombings was however that the world of conspiracy theorists was alive and well.

The first question which Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick was asked in a press conference immediately after the attack was: "Was this another false flag staged attack to take our civil liberties?"

The questioner wanted to know if the Boston bombings were in fact a covert operation by a U.S. government agency. He was using an expression referring to an old naval warfare practice of hoisting false flags to mislead the enemy before engaging in battle. It was not the last time the hypothesis of a “false flag” operation would be raised in the context of the Boston bombings.

Conspiracy theories tend to come easy in the Arab world. And the Boston bombings were no exception.

Oussama Romdhani

For proponents of the “false flag” theory, the U.S. government could have staged the attack, in order to tighten its grip on its own citizens. The most notorious proponent of such a theory in the context of the Boston bombings was rightwing radio host Alex Jones. He argued that the U.S. government staged the bombing in order to expand the powers the Transportation Security Administration in major sports events. “False flag” theories are to a great degree rooted in the tradition of suspicion of the federal government by on the fringes of the American political spectrum.

In an age, where every citizen is able to use the internet to convey even the most outlandish theories to the largest possible crowds, there are obviously no limits to conspiracies. Hours after the Boston marathon explosions, Conspiracy advocates were already discussing all kinds of theories. According to such conspiracy theorists, North Koreans “had something to do with the attacks”; or maybe the U.S. government was “covering up” for Saudi involvement in the bombings. An even more colorful theory was that the bombings were related to a Roman ritual of fertility held every April 15th, and involving originally the sacrifice of a pregnant cow to Tellus, the ancient Roman goddess of the Earth. “Such theories are said to help people come to terms with events in their lives that they cannot control”, believes British social psychologist Karen Douglas. International relations and national security issues have become so complex; some people have found in conspiracies a more comfortable short cut.

It might be so. But some experts in the United States are starting to take conspiracy theories seriously. They feel such theories could have real political and social implications in the future. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center sees a “mind-boggling” trend. “It's not merely that some nutty people on the fringe of the fringe believe very far-out things that have no basis in reality. It's that these beliefs make their way right into the political mainstream and into the heart of our political system," he says.

Because the Internet can offer conspiracy theorists a shield from accountability, many previously-fringe theories are turning mainstream. An interesting example has been the notion that President Obama is a Muslim. That theory was shared by no less than 17% of American voters according to a 2102 poll.

New turns in an old legacy

Conspiracy theories tend to come easy in the Arab world. And the Boston bombings were no exception.

Among Arab political activists there were wild speculations and leading questions about the bombings and who stood to gain from them: Will the bombings push the U.S. government to reverse its favorable stand regarding the participation of Islamists in post-Arab Spring politics? Will the terror attacks implicate Syria’s Jabhat al-Nosra so as to put it beyond the pale of Syria’s “legitimate opposition”? Will the bombings help justify Israeli or American air strikes against Iran?

It is ironic that most of the conspiracy theories in the Middle East somehow sound like offshoots of the “false flag” theory brandished by the extreme-right wing in the U.S. It is a Middle East variant of the “false flag” mindset that makes conspiracy-minded individuals in the region believe that a Middle-East-centric and absolutely unscrupulous U.S. government will not shy away from evil deeds that serve its designs, even if it means hatching a bloody plot that kills and maims innocent victims among its own population. Suspicion of U.S. motives in the region is nothing new. It has been traditionally premised on the perceived bias of the U.S. against Arabs in previous wars and conflicts, their overreliance on hard-power and their complicity with authoritarian rulers.

But there is probably more than that. Decades of estrangement from decision-making processes have deprived many of Arab societies from a real sense of ownership of their fates. “Conspiracy theories are highly corrosive, because they represent the most radical form of distrust in government possible,” says Jamie Bartlett, head of the Violence and Extremism Program at the Demos research group in London.

Estrangement from domestic political processes has led many in the Arab world to believe that their collective destinies were shaped by forces beyond their control. In many of the closed-door wheeling and dealing sessions, that was probably the case all too often. But in the more transparent post-Arab Spring world, there should be less reasons to feel that powerless.

Conspiracy theories are also a poor substitute for accurate knowledge of the dynamics truly shaping the world today and defining the place of any group of people in it. Australian conspiracy theory expert Matthew Gray believes that Arab societies have trouble understanding “how people in power” operate; and this fosters the “perfect environment for conspiracy theories to emerge”. In the Boston bombings case and other unsettling events, suspicion of the U.S. reflects a lack of understanding of the American decision making process s and of the means of influencing American foreign policy. The real danger in conspiracy theories is that they betray an inability to engage the world. The mythical world they create has nothing to do with today’s globalized economy or with the rules of engagement in the world’s interconnected politics.

The most worrisome addition to the conspiratorial legacy of the Middle East is the propensity of some of the activists and political operators in the region to use tragic events in Boston to settle scores with their political rivals or “explain” problems at home. Although he strongly condemned the Boston attacks, Essam el-Erian, vice-chairman of Egypt’s governing “Freedom and Justice Party”, stirred a polemic by suggesting there is a mysterious common actor behind the Boston bombings, recent developments in Mali, Syria, Somalia and Kurdistan as well as the attempts to spoil the democratic transition in Egypt. On the other end of the political spectrum, Mohamed Abdel Naim, president of Egypt’s “National Organization for Human Rights”, said President Obama is to blame for the bombings… because of his “support to political Islam”.

The least thing Arab political operators, old and new, can do is refrain from using the tragic terrorist events of Boston, or any other tragedies in distant lands, to further propagate the already dangerous civil-strife mindsets at home or to try to drag foreign powers into their internal destructive feuds. Lowering all “false flags” and raising the colors of civil peace, dialogue and reconciliation, will probably make more sense.

Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. He was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.