Of the many events marking the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks this week, one of the most peculiar is the scheduled publication of the English-language edition of a French best seller asserting that the official version of the tragedy is a total fabrication by the U.S. government.
9/11: The Big Lie argues, among other things, that no airliner crashed into the Pentagon, that the planes that hit the World Trade towers were steered by remote control and that the towers fell because of explosives planted in them.
Most crucially, writes author Thierry Meyssan, the attacks were plotted not by Osama bin Laden but by a clique of right-wing conspirators in the U.S. military.
It is easy to dismiss the book as ridiculous claptrap. After all, when asked by interviewers what became of American Airlines Flight 77 if it didn't hit the Pentagon, Meyssan has shrugged and said that, as a solo researcher, he can't track down everything.
But some scholars and advocates say the book's success overseas is a worrisome measure of anti-Americanism. They say theories blaming the United States for the attacks, like the competing myth that Israel was responsible, could become a canard distorting history in parts of the world for decades.
They point to the fact that in France, the book published in March as L'Effroyable Imposture (The Frightening Deception) spent weeks on best seller lists and sold more than 220,000 copies at $18 apiece, selling strongly in Quebec as well.
Arabic and Spanish translations are out, and rights have been purchased in 16 countries, according to press reports.
Meanwhile, Meyssan, who runs a left-wing research group in Paris, has lectured on his theories in the Middle East. His message - that the well-documented facts of Sept. 11 are merely a dubious "official version" - has been picked up and repeated in newspapers and on Web sites throughout the Islamic world.
"I think it does a lot of harm," says Robert S. Robins, a Tulane University political scientist who has studied political conspiracy theories. "It weakens the moral authority the United States gained from being the victim of such an attack."
Based on the European sales figures, Robins says, "Unfortunately, I don't think it's confined to a small group of lunatics. I think such beliefs are very widespread."
If Meyssan is the most successful Sept. 11 conspiracy theorist, he is not the only one. A book just published by Virginia writer Len Bracken, Shadow Government: 9-11 and State Terror, advances similar ideas, as has fringe political candidate Lyndon LaRouche.
An elaborate Web site is devoted to unidentified flying objects that allegedly show up in video footage of the second airliner hitting the south tower. Many print and online sources have repeated the false claim that "4,000 Jews" were warned not to show up for work at the World Trade Center that day, an assertion usually presented as evidence that the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, was behind the attacks.
For Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, such fabrications are part of a familiar pattern set by deniers of the Holocaust and devotees of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic forgery purporting to reveal malevolent Jewish plots that has circulated for a century.
When the first rumors of the "4,000 Jews" appeared days after the attacks, Foxman says, "Most of us chuckled at the absurdity of it. A year later, it's taken hold. It's taken over half the world. It's the mother of all conspiracy theories."
Meyssan's book avoids anti-Semitism; while claiming that some World Trade Center employees must have been warned of the impending attack, he does not identify them as Jewish. But Foxman says that by questioning the facts of Sept. 11, the book clears the way for anti-Semitic variations on Meyssan's theme.
"It licenses and legitimizes the absurdities," Foxman says. "This is his theory, that the military-industrial complex did it. But they [anti-Semites] say: We know better, because we know the military-industrial complex in America is controlled by the Jews."
Conspiracy theories tend to appear and spread fastest when they lend credence to people's prejudices. The anti-Americanism of Meyssan, a former leader of France's Radical Socialist Party, is widely shared in France, says Jean-Robert Leguey-Feilleux, a French-born political scientist at Saint Louis University in Missouri.
"In France, we still have that undercurrent of resentment of the United States and its pre-eminence," he says, noting that the French in the 19th century similarly resented another superpower, imperial Britain. The unilateralism and arrogance seen by many French citizens in the Bush administration's foreign policy has intensified the resentment, he says.
But Leguey-Feilleux, who specializes in the Middle East and international terrorism, says French anti-Americanism is mild compared to that in the Islamic world.
In April, speaking at an Arab League think tank in the United Arab Emirates, Meyssan said the FBI, rather than truly investigating, had merely launched "a manhunt which in the eyes of much of the United States public quickly took on the appearance of an Arab hunt."
His theory fell on fertile ground. According to a March Gallup poll, the assertion that "groups of Arabs" carried out the Sept. 11 attacks was not believed by 89 percent of Kuwaitis, 86 percent of Pakistanis, 58 percent of Lebanese and 43 percent of Turks.
Last week an Iranian newspaper praised Meyssan's "well-researched ... tireless efforts" to refute official accounts of Sept. 11 - and then stated as fact that "4,000-odd pro-Israeli Jews stayed away from work at the WTC."
"Despite the massive propaganda being dished out almost every day from the United States about the alleged involvement of [bin Laden and al-Qaida]," the newspaper Kayhan International wrote Sept. 5, "fewer and fewer people around the world are believing what they have begun to call 'trash from America.'"