America's effort to enlist street-level support among Arabs and Muslims in the fight against international terrorism is running into a brick wall.
Although most people in the United States consider Osama bin Laden the prime suspect behind the Sept. 11 terror attacks, public opinion throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds is moving in a completely different direction. Most Muslims are entertaining alternative theories, and many are embracing one theory above all - that the attacks were carried out by Israel's clandestine intelligence service, the Mossad.
Such widespread skepticism about Mr. bin Laden's alleged involvement is the clearest proof yet that the US is badly losing the so-called PR war. Aware of the problem, the US and its Western allies are using more sophisticated methods to counteract bin Laden's exploitation of Muslim sentiment.
After bin Laden's latest statement was aired on Al Jazeera satellite news station Saturday, accusing the US of waging war against Islam and calling Arab leaders "infidels" for supporting the United Nations, a former US diplomat took to the same airwaves, watched by 35 million viewers, and provided a US government rebuttal in flawless Arabic.
While applauding the effort, Middle East experts say Muslims are looking for a substantive change in US policies (dealing with Israel, Iraq, and Afghanistan), rather than a more vigorous intellectual debate.
In the meantime, conspiracy theories proliferate, even among senior government officials of the Arab coalition partners.
"The level of conspiracy theories just makes you want to scream," says a Western diplomat based in Amman, who had just been lectured by a senior Jordanian official about the Mossad's "obvious" role.
The Syrian Defense Minister, Mustafa Tlass, shared the same view with a group of visiting academics from Britain last month.
Such suspicious attitudes and conspiracy theories are nothing new in the Middle East, where the Mossad is often seen as an evil force lurking behind otherwise inexplicable events. In the case of bin Laden, these attitudes have substantially undermined President Bush's attempt to translate worldwide sympathy for the 5,000 innocent victims of the attacks into a concerted international campaign against terrorism. "We are just not even in the ballpark here, and the Bush administration is aware of this," says Michael Hudson, director of the Arab studies program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
The lack of direct evidence proving a bin Laden connection - combined with what many Arab and Muslim analysts see as a US rush to judgement - is spawning a flood of elaborate theories.
Among theories advanced by Arab newspaper columnists in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, London, the West Bank, and elsewhere:
The attacks were the work of "the great Jewish Zionist mastermind that controls the world's economy, media, and politics."
Bush ordered the hijackings and attacks as a means to solidify his hold on power in Washington and erase any memory of the election controversy in Florida.
Japanese extremists carried out the terrorism in retribution for US nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Members of the American militia movement were behind the attacks in answer to the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
China or Russia launched the attacks to undermine efforts by the US to develop a missile defense shield system.
Conspiracy theories are an inevitable consequence in countries where the flow of news and information is controlled by the government. To compensate, analysts attempt to discern the truth by reading between the lines. Frequently, the resulting speculation is based on the question: Who benefits?
"It is a lack of information and candor that feeds conspiracy theories, as people attempt to use their own wit in trying to figure out what is being hidden from them," says Jon W. Anderson, an anthropologist at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. "There is a serious failure of public diplomacy [by the US], which is feeding the generation of conspiracy theories."
To counter this information disconnect, the Bush administration is hiring private public relations experts to wage media campaigns in the Middle East.
Middle East experts are skeptical. "To think of this in terms of advertising is missing a really big point," says Mr. Hudson of Georgetown University. "It is not really 'the medium is the message,' it isn't," he says. "You have to have something to say."
Rather than viewing the US as a force working for a just and lasting peace, many Muslims question whether America's real agenda is to wage a war against Islam in order to render the region safe for Israel. Bush's use of the word "crusade" in an early speech is still cited by Muslims as proof of this.
At the street level, there is a near total distrust of US government policies and aims.
The most prominent theory in circulation is the false suggestion that Jewish Americans were given advance warning not to report to work at the World Trade Center the morning of the attacks. This is the so-called "proof" that Israel's Mossad was behind the attacks.
"Why hasn't the media stressed the 4,000 Jews who did not turn up for work on Sept. 11," asks Lina, a Palestinian college student here in Amman. Her two friends, both wearing head scarves, nod in agreement.
"The Israelis are the ones who have the most to gain," says Samer, a dress-shop clerk.
Under this analysis, the Mossad conducted the Sept. 11 attacks to goad the US into what would become a joint US-Israeli military operation against Islam - with the US targeting bin Laden in Afghanistan and Israel targeting Islamic militants in Palestine.
Another line of analysis among some Muslims is that bin Laden lacked the ability from his cave hideout in Afghanistan to carry out such a complex terror attack.
"Bin Laden is being framed for these attacks," adds Mahmood, a Saudi attending college in Jordan. "There is no evidence of his involvement."
In fact, there is substantial and growing circumstantial evidence pointing to involvement by those associated with Al Qaeda. But it remains unclear whether US investigators have uncovered any direct links to bin Laden.
Some Arabs say it is already too late, that they have no confidence in the US to reveal the truth. "We believe Osama bin Laden didn't do this, even if the evidence shows that he did," says Ahmad, a restaurant worker.
Nida, an eye doctor in Amman, agrees. "If there is no [direct] proof, it means it was not bin Laden, but the Americans will not accept it," she says.