Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has been characteristically unapologetic about his claim that “thousands and thousands” of New Jersey residents cheered as the World Trade Center fell on Sept. 11, 2001, even though contemporaneous news reports don’t support it.
And his insistence on that recollection, which has no basis in fact, shows just how expert he is at roping together conspiracy theories, urban legends, and rumors that lurk on the fringes of the Internet and bringing them into the mainstream.
Rumors of groups of people celebrating the attacks in “tailgate-style parties” popped up in national publications like The Washington Post and Associated Press, but were never confirmed as true. A highly publicized video of Muslims cheering and flashing victory signs on the day of the attack was shot in the Israeli-occupied West Bank of Palestine, not in the Garden State. A video of American Muslims celebrating the terrorist attack doesn’t appear to exist and none of the unconfirmed reports of such an incident comes anywhere near the scale that Trump describes.
Here are four possible sources for Trump’s mistaken recollection.
On the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, five young men were stopped by FBI agents while crossing the George Washington Bridge. As The New York Times and many other outlets reported at the time, they were carrying $4,000 in cash, box cutters, and, in one man’s case, two passports. The group had been spotted snapping photos of the burning Twin Towers from the roof of their van by onlookers on the Jersey side of the bridge, who had contacted authorities. The Times reported that FBI agents found images of the smoldering buildings on their cell phones. In one image, one of the men, Sivan Kurzberg, held up a lit lighter with the ruins of the towers in the background.
As it turned out, the five men were Israeli Jews who worked for Urban Moving Systems, a household moving company that operated in New York and New Jersey. None of them had any connection whatsoever to the day’s attacks. They were held for 27 days at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center before being deported for overstaying their visas.
The Times pointed out that contemporary news reports left “the wide impression that the authorities had detained a group of suspicious men taking pictures or rooting for the terrorists from the New Jersey side of the bridge.” Those reports also were exaggerated and perpetuated on fringe blogs that took to calling the men the “dancing Israelis.”
Several news reports in the aftermath of the attacks made vague reference to “rooftop parties” in New Jersey where people were allegedly celebrating the catastrophic event. The allegations recall the general state of paranoia and Islamophobia that became a hallmark of post-9/11 life.
A Washington Post article from Sept. 18, 2001 mentioned an investigation into people throwing “tailgate-style parties” in New Jersey in the hours after the attacks. The article said law enforcement “detained and questioned a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks.”
Trump drew attention to the Washington Post’s 2001 story on Monday, asking the newspaper for “an apology” on Twitter.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 23, 2015
The newspaper reported Monday that the journalists who wrote the piece cannot recall if those allegations were ever confirmed.
An Associated Press story from Sept. 17, 2001 described “rumors of rooftop celebrations of the attack by Muslims” in Jersey City as “unfounded.”
New Jersey philosophy professor Irfan Khawaja and sociologist Gary Alan Fine collaborated on an essay investigating the impact of the rumors about Arab Americans’ reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Though they painstakingly searched for domestic incidents of people celebrating, they could point to only one lukewarm example.
“There is some evidence that a few Arab-American adolescents briefly relieved their political frustration in front of a library in largely Arab South Paterson, New Jersey, in a way that might be defined as ‘celebrating,’” Khajawa and Fine wrote.
“No evidence exists of an organized or sustained celebration of the terrorist attacks,” they continued.
Though there appears to be no video record of American Muslims reveling on Sept. 11, 2001, footage taken by Reuters journalists of Palestinians laughing and cheering in the streets of East Jerusalem was widely circulated at the time. Individual Palestinians celebrated the attack because the US provides millions in military aid to Israel, which occupies territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“Thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip cheered the attack, distributing candy and firing weapons in a show of glee over what they described as a retaliatory blow against U.S. cooperation with Israel,” read an article in The Washington Post. “Palestinians in refugee camps in Lebanon fired weapons into the air in celebration.”
The overwhelming majority of Arab nations and citizens condemned the attacks, holding candlelight vigils and issuing condolences to the victims.
Watch the Reuters footage, which aired on CNN, below: