Shards of glass and dust from the World Trade Center towers sit on professor Steven Jones's desk at Brigham Young University in Utah. Evidence, he says, of the biggest cover-up in history -- one too evil for most to believe, but one he has staked his academic career on exposing.
The attacks of Sept. 11, Jones asserts, were an "inside job," puppeteered by the neo-conservatives in the White House to justify the occupation of oil-rich Arab countries, inflate military spending and expand Israel.
"We don't believe that 19 hijackers and a few others in a cave in Afghanistan pulled this off acting alone," says Jones. "We challenge this official conspiracy theory and, by God, we're going to get to the bottom of this."
While this sinister spin strikes most American academics as absurd, Jones, a physics professor, is not alone. He is a member of 9/11 Scholars for Truth, a recently formed group of around 75 US professors determined to prove 9/11 was a hoax. In essays and journals, they are using their association with prominent universities to give a scholarly stamp to conspiracy theories long believed in parts of Europe and the Arab world, and gaining ground among Americans due to frustration with the Iraq war and opposition to President Bush's heavily hyped "war on terror."
Their iconoclastic positions have drawn wrath from rightwing radio shows and caused upheaval on campuses, triggering letters to newspapers, phone calls from parents and TV cameras in lecture halls.
In the Midwest, 61 legislators signed a petition calling for the dismissal of a University of Wisconsin assistant professor, Kevin Barrett, after he joined the 9/11 Scholars for Truth. Citing academic freedom, the university provost defended Barrett, albeit reluctantly.
A Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll taken during the summer indicates that Americans are increasingly suspicious of the government's explanation of the events of 9/11: 36 percent said it was "very likely" or "somewhat likely" that federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, or took no action to stop them, "because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East".
For most of the world, the story of Sept. 11 begins at 8.45am on Sept. 11 2001, when American Airlines flight 11 smashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. But, tumble down the rabbit hole with Jones, and the plotline begins a year earlier, in Sept. 2000. A neo-conservative group called Project for a New American Century, which included the US defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and the US vice-president, Dick Cheney, brought out a report arguing for a global expansion of American military and economic supremacy, and for the US to transform itself into a "one-world superpower." The report warned that "the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event -- like a new Pearl Harbor".
The group, in concert with about 20 others, orchestrated the attacks of Sept. 11 as an excuse for pre-emptive global aggression against Afghanistan, then Iraq and soon Iran, the academics say. And they insist that they have amassed a wealth of scientific data to prove it.
It is impossible, says Jones, for the towers to have collapsed from the collision of two airplanes, as jet fuel doesn't burn at temperatures hot enough to melt steel beams. The horizontal puffs of smoke -- squibs -- emitted during the collapse of the towers are indicative of controlled implosions on lower floors. The scholars have collected eyewitness accounts of flashes and loud explosions immediately before the fall.