This is an extract from Iain Overton’s, AOAV’s Executive Director, book: The Price of Paradise: how the suicide bombers shaped the modern age. It is published in memory of those killed two decades ago.
‘On a clear Tuesday morning . . .’
These are the first words of an overview of what happened on 11 September 2001, written on the website of the official memorial to that tragedy and echoed in many other reports since. Certainly, it was a day marked by blue skies. The sort of visibility pilots call ‘severe clear’: a cloudless one that sparkled.
Nineteen men shattered this peace. They hijacked four commercial aeroplanes, deliberately crashing two of them into the Twin Towers of New York City and a third into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Passengers on the fourth plane, Flight 93, launched a counter-attack, and the aircraft hurtled into an empty field in western Pennsylvania.
That day, 2,977 people were killed, 115 foreign nationalities represented on the list of the dead. The oldest was eighty-five, the youngest just two.
It was the greatest loss of life ever from a single terrorist attack; the most number of people killed in a suicide strike; the most suicide attackers to die in a combined mission; the most-witnessed mass death in the history of the world.
Suspicion was soon to fall on the group behind the trauma: the radical Sunni Islamist entity, Al-Qaeda – or ‘the Base’ in Arabic. Founded in 1988, and led by the Saudi-born Osama Bin Laden, the organisation had attacked the West before, on 26 February 1993. Then, men following their creed had detonated explosives in the garage beneath the same place they were to strike on 9/11 – the World Trade Center. They managed to kill six people and injure thousands more.
Over the following eight years, Al-Qaeda was to be implicated in a series of attacks on the United States around the world. These included: the shooting down of two US Black Hawk helicopters over Mogadishu, Somalia in October 1993; the killing of nineteen Americans when a military housing complex was bombed in Saudi Arabia in 1996; the suicide attacks on US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998, with 223 killed; and the suicide attack on the USS Cole in 2000 in the Yemen, leading to the deaths of seventeen servicemen.
These attacks were part of an orchestrated campaign that was steadily gaining momentum. In 1996, Bin Laden had called for his followers to ‘launch a guerrilla war against American forces and expel the infidels from the Arabian Peninsula’. And, soon after the 1998 embassy bombings, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had placed the khaki-clad preacher on their Ten Most Wanted list. A reward of $25 million was offered for his capture.
Still, the American public did not feel Bin Laden’s threat acutely. These attacks had been limited or distant. As the official report on 9/11 was to conclude: ‘Neither in 2000 nor in the first eight months of 2001 did any polling organization in the United States think the subject of terrorism sufficiently on the minds of the public to warrant asking a question about it in a major national survey.’
It was, indeed, a clear day for most. And then everything changed. I had been to New York many times before this. At fifteen years old, I had backpacked across the US, ending up in the chaos of that city, and visited the World Trade Center then. The name itself seemed so imposing, so confident, that it was a daunting trip and I felt uneasy going, as if I were visiting a cathedral of some faith without knowing what the religion was. After that, I shoved the place to the back of my mind and never gave it another thought, but now I was on the Metro B train downtown, headed to a place that had influenced my journalistic life far more profoundly than that teenage visit ever had.
An automated voice told us to be alert, to stay safe, and then I was off the train, and up to West Broadway, and the memorial came slowly into view – like a skyscraper had been laid down, a sleeping giant of glass and steel.
There it was: Ground Zero.
Ground Zero – a name first used to describe Hiroshima: that point directly beneath the aerial detonation of the atomic bomb. A name given by Americans to their violent response to the kamikaze attacks. Now it was used in sorrow, but Bin Laden had partly justified his mass murder of civilians here by arguing: had the Americans not done the same in Japan, had they not created wastelands with their own atomic blasts? The devastation first born in the Manhattan Project – the research project during the Second World War that produced the first nuclear weapons – had come home.
As I passed a roadside stall, there came into view another building that was shaped like the whitened bones of an enormous whale, its ribs flaring upwards like an architectural carcass: a massive shopping centre. To its right lay the 9/11 Memorial.
Here, two huge pools were set in the footprints of the original towers. People peered in. Thirty-foot waterfalls – the largest humanmade ones in North America – cascaded down, each into a void. A pair of chasms clad in granite, lined with a film of eternal, falling water. Inside lay a second void, its bottom hidden from sight, and it reminded me of that Walt Whitman line: ‘the huge first Nothing’.
I was also reminded of something the historian Julia Kristeva had once written: how ‘monstrous and painful sights’ could be so harmful as to damage our ways of mourning and representing loss; how the way we symbolise death finds itself hollowed out when faced with a perceived apocalypse. ‘On the edge of silence,’ she wrote, ‘the word “nothing” emerges.’
The cascade into these black depths was as far a cry from the classical forms of remembrance as I could imagine. I was used to the cenotaphs and plinths of war that dot Europe’s landscapes, but such traditional commemoration here was deemed inappropriate and insufficient. The inspiration for this memorial had to come from a Jewish tradition: a form of remembrance gouged out by the Holocaust.
Along the parapets, around the pool, ran the names of those who had died here, incised in bronze. They stretched 212 feet on every side. I looked for an order to the listings, but the names here had been arranged by relationship, not alphabet; the idea was to preserve the bonds of family and friendship.5 It meant this memorial did not have the orderly regulation of a military tomb.
At one time, this space had been commemorated differently. In 2002, eighty-eight searchlights had been turned to the sky and the beams had merged into two pillars of light, four miles high, the most powerful strips of luminescence ever created. But these phantasmal towers caused some to say they commemorated more the loss of the structures than the people, and the lights were turned off.
It is rare to have public memorials directly laid upon the site of death. Here, though, almost seven hectares had become a mass grave, one where 13 million square feet of ‘class A’ office space, housing 400 companies and several government agencies, had once thrived.
Now there stood just wavering lines of planted swamp white oaks and, among them, a Callery pear tree. They call it the ‘Survivor Tree’ because workers had found its damaged stump deep in the wreckage, nursed it back to health and replanted it here – ‘a story,’ one guide read, ‘of survival and resilience’. The trees, at least, seemed to offer a natural buffer between this sacred space of loss, and the everyday
profanities of the city beyond.
I walked towards the memorial exhibition building. I had arranged to meet Clifford Chanin, the executive vice-president there, and had to clear security first. Like all visitors, I had to pass through five airport security scanners– the legacy of fear of another attack –with guard dogs standing outside. Beyond this was a list of the board members of the memorial: fifty-one names (none Muslim, I noted), Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro among them. Honorary board members included four presidents – Bush Jr., Bush Snr., Carter and Clinton – then a longer list of the memorial’s founders: 119 in all, including the pillars of capitalism – J.P. Morgan, Amex, Goldman Sachs, Barclays, Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley, Walt Disney, Time Warner, Coca-Cola, Deloitte, HSBC, KPMG, Lehman’s, McDonald’s, PepsiCo. America’s authorities of power and wealth were guardians of this site now.
Stairs led up to a cinema and down to permanent displays and sites of remembrance. They included two core exhibitions: ‘In Memoriam’, which pays tribute to those killed in the attacks on 9/11 and in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and a three-part historical exhibition, which recounts what happened on the day, exploring what led up to the attacks, its aftermath and how it ‘continues to shape our world’.
Above was a balustrade, bearing the weight of a line of flags – each for a national that died that day. It was a nod to the 180 flags that hung in the mezzanine level of the original lobbies of the World Trade Center. A coalition of nations that, according to Bruno Dellinger, a French-born survivor of the attacks, ‘represented a Utopia that can only exist in New York’.
I sat down in the café and a few minutes later in walked Clifford. A bespectacled man with tight cut hair and a New Yorker executive’s trimness to him, he apologised for being late. We got straight to the point. He had been working at the memorial for over a decade now, so I asked him whether he sensed there was a loss of utopia in New York after the tragedy. He was not sure. ‘It was certainly a loss of a sense of safety and a growing sense of vulnerability,’ he said. Understanding and unpicking all that has happened since is hard, he said – Afghanistan, Iraq, and all the rest – but if you return to the day it all began, 9/11, a very clear sense of what happened was evident.
Certainly, this memorial has been a lodestar, not just for the ongoing War on Terror, but for others also trying to contemplate different tragedies. People had come to see how memorials were conceived and carried out – from those commemorating the massacre by the Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik, to authorities from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Others came, too – government intelligence officers, military and law enforcement – to see the point of origin of their daily concerns, a decade and a half later. Today the newest of their ranks are of an age that they don’t remember what unfolded on that day. So, in this sense, this memorial is for them, the genesis of their service, their potential sacrifice. I asked him what role religion had in the memorial – what role Islam played. Some people said that there was too much emphasis on the ideologies of the hijackers, others said there was not enough.
Clifford had been accused of fomenting hatred, as well as of covering up the reality of who was behind the attack, but in general the theme of ideological motivation did not lace throughout the exhibits here. He admitted the shortcoming, and said there would always be a lack of nuance when trying to explain the tragedy that this place witnessed.
‘We’re not putting books on walls,’ he said. ‘It’s inevitably more complicated than we can present. We could go to the beginning of Islam, or choose any starting point between that and 9/11. It could be the Iranian revolution, the 1967 war, the anti-colonial movement, the failures of the nineteenth century, the Enlightenment, the Crusades…’
‘You can’t disentangle these things,’ he concluded. And I thought, yes, perhaps not in a museum, but it’s essential – if we are to seek to stop history from repeating itself – at least to try.
One thousand two hundred and ninety-seven days before 9/11, on 23 February 1998, Osama Bin Laden issued a fatwa that was, effectively, to begin the War on Terror.
A decree filled with fiery rhetoric and bombast, it was much more emphatic than the threat he had made in 1996. He railed against US boots on the ground in the Middle East ‘occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula’, and described America’s involvement there as one of ‘crusader armies’ spreading like ‘locusts, eating its riches and wiping out its plantations’.
All Muslims, Bin Laden said, had a duty to kill Americans wherever they could. They should also strive to liberate Jerusalem. It was a call for death, including the sacrifice of those that would fight on the side of Allah: ‘What is the matter with you . . . ye cling so heavily to the earth! Do ye prefer the life of this world to the hereafter?’
That same year he was to give an interview to ABC News. The ghosts of previous suicide attacks – and responses to them – were present in that broadcast. He explicitly noted the impact of suicide bombers in Lebanon, saying how America’s ‘weak soldiers’ had proved their worth ‘in Beirut, when the Marines fled after two explosions’. He also took America’s military response to the suicide bombers of the past as an example of how the US was godless.
‘American history,’ he said, ‘does not distinguish between civilians and military, and not even women and children. They are the ones who used the bombs against Nagasaki. Can these bombs distinguish between infants and military?’
The threat of US aggression was also a central theme in his argument; what was needed, most of all, was a pre-emptive strike at the heart of American soil: ‘The only way for us to fend off these assaults is to use similar means.’
By the spring of 1999, Bin Laden had held a meeting with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Al-Qaeda’s number three, during which they started planning for such a strike inside America. It was a plan that was to take shape slowly. At first they considered targeting a nuclear power plant, but then decided against it, fearing things could ‘get out of control’. They settled on a suicidal aerial assault at the centre of American power, at its icons of military might and commerce – in their eyes, at its very soul.
Why was such a plan hatched? Where had such anger and thirst for suffering come from? In many ways, it was the logical result of what Bin Laden had always sought, ever since he had formed Al-Qaeda back in 1988. Even then he said the group’s central mission was to strike at the sponsors of regional tyrants in the Arab world. Their target was always the United States, for Bin Laden and his followers believed that if they could do what Hezbollah did to the US in Lebanon, they could turf America out of the Middle East. In turn, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey would fall to the new order that Al-Qaeda would usher in.
The plan of 9/11 was also the product of two other strands of thought that had emerged in Sunni Islam: the acceptability of suicidal martyrdom in jihad, and of targeting civilians in the process. These were radical shifts, as we have seen, born in Lebanon and Palestine, but something new was added to the mix with Al-Qaeda.
They aligned with another strand in Sunni Islam – the rise of what is known as Salafi-jihadism.
Deriving from the Arabic word salaf or ‘predecessors’, Salafists like Bin Laden yearned for a return to a way of life as practised by the Prophet Muhammad, his companions and the two generations of Muslims that followed them. They believed that only by returning to the fundamentals – the base – of Islam could they create an Islamic utopia. And, given the Quran and Hadiths were written at a time when strict enforcement of the rule of law was normal – with stonings and crucifixions commonplace – such a return demanded, in the eyes of Bin Laden, a conservative and rigid interpretation of the faith, overseen by an authoritarian theocrat.
Salafism itself was not a new idea. The dominant Salafist interpretation is that of Wahhabism, a religious practice conceived by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the eighteenth century and that, today, stands as the official Saudi state ideology and basis for the country’s conservative legal system. So it must be stressed that neither Salafism nor Wahhabism is – in itself – inherently violent.
But there are elements of both that can go, in part, to explain how, when contaminated with the rhetoric of jihad, such ideologies produced violence. Indeed, many Salafist-Wahhabists valorise the idea of military jihad. They are quick to excommunicate non-believers, and possess a stubborn black-and-white view of the world: believers on the one hand, non-believers on the other. Such dualism fuels their call for conflict because they see it as legitimate to take up arms in defence of Islam against non-believers of all kinds.
Again, it must be stressed that such extreme positioning is not the view of all Salafists, and not the view of the vast majority of Sunnis, but in the hands of enough determined jihadists it rocked the world.
The view of extremists like Bin Laden was a departure from the Islamic norm. If you walk down to a local mosque in most parts of the world and ask the imam there whether the Quran calls on Muslims to fight non-Muslims purely on the basis of their beliefs, the answer would be almost without exception: no. That, many would say, could only happen if Muslims were actively persecuted.
The justification for most of the twentieth century’s Islamic suicide attacks – in Iran, Lebanon, Palestine – was that it was self-defence, and while you may vehemently disagree with their use of martyrdom tactics to do so, it would be hard to deny that they had at least some justification in saying they were doing it to protect themselves and others.
Al-Qaeda, though, were seeking to do something very different. They ignored the 124 verses in the Quran that favoured a less aggressive approach towards non-believers. Instead their inspiration
was the line: ‘Fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them’, an instruction that had been largely ignored before because Islam’s spiritual leaders knew it would pit their religion against all others, and for its lack of humanity.
But not Bin Laden. As he was to say in an interview a month after 9/11: ‘I tell Muslims to believe in the victory of God and in Jihad against the infidels of the world. The killing of Jews and Americans is one of the greatest duties.’ Bin Laden’s desire to wage jihad – a highly political and bloody jihad at that – had deep roots. While the foundations of Shia jihad were nurtured in the holy Iraqi city of Najaf, his Sunni-Salafist impulse to jihad found its intellectual soul in the hectic streets of Cairo. Egypt has long been the source of a violent – and philosophical – struggle between East and West. Ever since the eighteenth century, when Napoleon invaded the lands of the Nile seeking the prestige of empire, there had been attempts to export the teachings of the Enlightenment to North Africa. When Napoleon sent over 150 French scholars there to analyse the ancient Egyptian civilisation, it was not just to learn from Egypt, it was to force the nation to move from the ‘barbarism and ignorant superstition’ of the Mameluke rulers to something that resembled France. But whereas what Napoleon saw when he clambered up the pyramids was the potential for conquest, many Egyptians did not.
They were to see and feel the beginnings of Western oppression and exploitation – and not just them, so did countless others faced with, and still facing in some senses, murderous colonial expansion.
It took many decades for the incursion of the modern into Egypt to bear fruit, but in 1928, dismayed at the venality of the Egyptian government and filled with a desire to return to a purer, simpler time, the Egyptian schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna formed the Muslim Brotherhood. Merging the conservative strands of religious belief in Salafism with a political vision, the Brotherhood sought to create an Islamic utopia. Al-Banna and his Muslim brothers built their own society, their own hospital, factories and schools. Such building was part of a wider plan, as al-Banna wrote: ‘It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations, and to extend its power to the entire planet.’
Slowly, over time, this notion was to grow, and the vision of that Islamic utopia was to find its most articulate form in the writings of another Egyptian, Sayyid Qutb. It was his 1964 book Milestones that many consider laid the foundations for modern Islamist militancy. To Qutb, the world was following an arc of history that was descending into hell, not rising to paradise. Hell, in this case, was a period of jahiliyyah, where ignorance and chaos would reign, where man’s laws would subvert, not enlighten. For him, only by returning to the teachings of the prophets would freedom come.
Qutb advocated a kind of ‘anarcho-Islam’, rejecting all kinds of government, both secular and theocratic. It was a dogma partly born out of a trip to the United States, where he saw ‘godless materialism and debauchery’.
Faced with such perceived sin, he was to develop a theory that the West was imposing its control over Muslim lands, taking advantage of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse after the Great War. The leaders in these Islamic lands might claim to be Muslims, he said, but they had long ago left the path of righteousness. When Qutb saw British troops around the Suez Canal, laughing and carousing in bars, hotels and nightclubs, or the Egyptian king, Farouk, driving around Cairo in one of his red cars, seducing young women, he saw the same corruption he had seen in America.
Qutb concluded that offensive jihad against the West and its supporters was the only way for the Muslim world to redeem itself. And even though Qutb was hanged for sedition in 1966, his ideas did not die. Men like Ayman al-Zawahiri, another Egyptian who is the current Al-Qaeda leader, saw potent meaning in Qutb’s view that men killed fighting for the return to purity in jihad would be honoured in paradise, to sit ‘among the noblest angels’.
Described as ‘the philosopher of the Islamic revolution’, Qutb’s ideas were so influential that the official commission of inquiry into 9/11 concluded: ‘Bin Laden shares Qutb’s stark view, permitting him and his followers to rationalise even unprovoked mass murder as righteous defence of an embattled faith.’
The notion of purity in Salafi-jihadism is important. It frames the very concept of who is and who is not the enemy with clarity, a dualism that is – in a way – reminiscent of the Zoroastrianism or Manichaeism of Iran. Secular terrorists might see their enemy as the agents of a specific government or rule, but Islamist terrorists have a wider view: they are pitted against a far greater foe. When Qutb re-energised the Quranic term jahiliyyah, the pre-Islamic epoch of ignorance in which paganism grew, and used it to portray any society not in his view Islamic, he was effectively to make the whole world the potential enemy.
Jihad, though, was only part of the complex strands that led to 9/11. Al-Qaeda needed, too, to find volunteers for that suicidal attack.
We have seen how the culture of self-sacrificial martyrdom that first began in Iran was later to emerge in Lebanon and then to infect the Israel–Palestine conflict. But it was among the Salafi-Wahhabists that the martyr’s mantra found its most fecund ground. For them, the suicide bomber became the equivalent of a medieval knight who throws himself valiantly into the enemy’s lines, knowing he is very unlikely to survive (known as al-inghimās fī ‘ṣ-ṣaff, ‘plunging into the line’).
Gibril Haddad, a hard-line Wahhabi sheikh, wrote that inghimās ‘must not be viewed as reckless self-destruction, but as the highest valour and courage’.
It was not so different from the kamikaze, but for the fact that the Salafi jihadist’s god was Allah and their enemy anyone who did not prostrate themselves to him.
Many Al-Qaeda theologians, and other Salafist jihadists, even began to consider martyrdom as an individual’s religious duty (farḍ ‘ayn) – elevating it to the same status as praying or going on pilgrimage. They not only embraced suicide bombing, but made it an integral part of their tactics. They also embraced the idea of Al-Qadā wa-l-Qadr, one of the six articles of faith in Islam, that states that God has already written and preordained whatever will happen. Such a theory asserts that nothing can hasten or delay one’s death; this meant that anyone who truly believes cannot refuse to participate in fighting. Indeed, Salafist scholars went on to say that whoever fails to believe in Al-Qadā’ wa-l-Qadr commits apostasy, for they doubt God’s almightiness. It is a sort of theological blackmail that causes fighters to embrace death, as it is already fixed.
Such theological approaches worked. Senior Al-Qaeda commanders were later to boast: ‘We were never short of potential martyrs. Indeed, we have a department called the department of martyrs.’
One place above all provided fertile soil for these ideas to grow: Afghanistan. For militant jihadism to flourish, it needed a battlefield and a victory. Afghanistan provided both. Following the Soviet invasion of 1979, and the subsequent nine years of conflict, Afghanistan became a magnet for would-be jihadists from all over.
Some 35,000 men, eyes bright with the fervour of religious rectitude, travelled to Afghanistan’s mountain peaks to wage war against the Soviet menace. They brought with them funding, training camps and support networks, and there, financed by millions of US taxpayer dollars through the CIA Operation Cyclone, they learnt the art of war.
This was not a time of suicide bombing – that was to come later.
But it proved the making of men like Bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. They found a type of macho utopia in their camps and mountain hideouts, a sort of ‘pure’ Islam, forged in violence, that offered a weighty sense of identity. This sense of identity was buttressed by events such as the Israel–Palestine conflict, which was framed as a battle between Jews and Muslims. That conflict, as well as wider dismay at American intervention across the world, helped cultivate international support for and awareness of a new type of martyr across a global Islamic community.
In 2002, while about three-quarters of Lebanese and Palestinians saw suicide bombing as justified, so too did about half of Nigerian, Bangladeshi and Jordanian Muslims. In this sense, then, the concept of suicide bombing as an acceptable form of violence seeped from Lebanon and Palestine to dozens of other countries. There it was to be taken up by Al-Qaeda – and not only suicide-terror tactics, but the entire strategy of istishhad (the deliberate death in jihad).
So there was a shift. Traditionally, the mujahidin in Afghanistan were careful not to lose men in battle against the Soviets; martyrdom was not part of their culture. In the 1980s, they even asked the Tamil Tigers if they could supply Sri Lankan suicide attackers in exchange for money. And when the CIA-sponsored Pakistan intelligence services tried to find a suicide bomber to detonate a vehicle bomb
in the 1.6 mile-long Salang Tunnel, seeking to destroy the crucial north–south Soviet supply route, there were no takers. Suicide, they said, was a sin.
The first recorded suicide terrorist attack by the Taliban may have been in 1992 in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, when the Salafi warlord Maulvi Jamil-ur Rehman was killed by an Egyptian fighter, but this seems to have been a one-off as opposed to a change in theology
It was not until the charismatic leader Ahmad Shah Massoud was killed on 9 September 2001, when Al-Qaeda operatives gained access to him by posing as journalists having disguised a bomb as a camera case, that suicide bombings began to enter the Afghan consciousness.
Still, martyrdom had its limits. For a long time, some fighters – influential Al-Qaeda commanders like Abdullah Yusuf Azzam and the morbidly obese Tameem al Adnani – had expressed concerns about taking armed jihad to nations outside the heart of Islam, and they had grave misgivings about targeting civilians. Death, though, silenced their cautioning words: Azzam was killed in Afghanistan in November 1989, while al Adnani died of a heart attack around the same time when visiting Walt Disney World in Florida. These two deaths liberated their protégé – Bin Laden – and it was he who helped thousands of Muslims flock to Afghanistan, who helped fund their fight, and who would provide inspiration to some 10,000 recruits from across the Arab world, from Saudi Arabia to Algeria to Egypt.
An influence that not only formed the base of Al-Qaeda, but of all the following jihadist groups it would help spawn.
What drove this Saudi zealot on? Perhaps, like Ayatollah Khomeini, early tragedy left a deep mark on him. Bin Laden’s father died when he was young, in this case in a plane crash when Osama was just ten years old – his fifty-nine-year-old father was on his way to wed his twenty-third wife the night he died.
But it was Afghanistan where Osama, the billionaire’s son, was to cut his jihadist teeth. High on the words of Qutb and others, he was said to have fought bravely in the mountainous war, leading charges against machine guns, even being wounded in a skirmish at Jalalabad airport – all events that added lustre to his image as the ‘Emir of al-Qaeda’. And it was in that furnace of violence that a belief hardened that only through faith and fury could the Great Satan of American be defeated.
The withdrawal of the Soviet Union, in Bin Laden’s eyes, was not because the Soviets had been beaten by the notoriously hard terrain of Afghanistan’s black mountains; not because the porous border with
Pakistan had bolstered the Taliban’s forces with a constant flow of arms and fighters; not because the climate and food had led to so many Russians soldiers dying from dysentery and disease; and not because Moscow saw glasnost as being preferable to endless Cold War. To Bin Laden, it was because faith made his mujahidin victorious.
So, when Osama returned to Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan’s soil barely off his boots, and he was met with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, he believed his faith and his fighters could take on Hussein’s army. But when the Saudi royal family asked the US government, not him, to stop the Iraqi army from reaching their country, Bin Laden was mortified. He pleaded, but the Saudi government rejected his motley crew of 1,000 fighters, and instead enlisted the help of the American infidel. This confirmed to him that the demonic hordes of America must be stopped at all costs. The removal of the US from the Middle East, he became convinced, would usher in a perfect pan-Islamic state, one governed by sharia law. It was a conviction whose extremism worried the House of Saud.
In 1992, the authorities, sensing Bin Laden’s plans to overthrow their government and establish an Islamic regime, forced him into exile, first to Sudan and, from there, back to Afghanistan. Returning to his old war haunts, he aligned himself with the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, and finally his anti-American rhetoric found its voice and the support he craved.
In the meantime, many in the Muslim world looked on. They saw the devastation wrought by the US in the ‘Highway of Death’ in Iraq. They noted that 200,000 Iraqi soldiers had been killed, compared to the American losses of 148 soldiers in battle. They knew over 100,000 civilians were also killed. They also saw the export of McDonald’s and Nike, Hollywood films and the influence of the greenback, and steadily and surely, Bin Laden’s support grew and grew.
‘The Emir’ began his wars against America slowly. First it was the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993; then the 1996 attack on a US military housing complex in Saudi Arabia; the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; and then the suicide bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. This attack on a US warship, while it was refuelling in Aden, killed seventeen US Navy sailors and injured thirty-nine more. As Bin Laden framed it: ‘The destroyer represents the capital of the West, and the small boat represents Mohammed.’ Such an analogy found support in the wider Salafist community. The Saudi cleric Hamud al-Shuaybi ruled, for example, that attacking American civilians was justified, based on the Islamic idea of qisas, essentially an Islamic version of ‘an eye for an eye’. If the West kills innocent Muslims, Muslims can kill innocent Westerners.
Another way these attacks on civilians were justified was through ‘vicarious liability’. Bin Laden wrote: ‘The American people have the ability and choice to refuse the policies of their government and even to change it if they want.’ In other words, civilians were held responsible for their governments’ actions, as their governments were freely elected by the public. Democracy made everyone culpable.
The stage had been set. The jihadists’ intellectual foundations had been laid in Egypt, the rhetoric of the sacrificial martyr forged in Afghanistan, and the urgency to defeat the satanic America seen in their incursion into Kuwait and their support of the Israelis in Palestine.
It was only a matter of time before such strands would come together to shock the world with terror. What Bin Laden now needed was to recruit those hijackers who would bring death to America’s heartlands. There were two types of fighter required for the operation: suicide-martyrs and jihadists. This is because, even though nineteen hijackers were behind 9/11, FBI investigators were later to conclude that eleven of them did not know they were on a suicide mission. Unlike the eight ‘lead’ attackers, who were all trained pilots, the remaining group did not leave messages for friends or family saying their lives were soon to be over. As one US agent said: ‘It looks as if they expected they might be going to prison, not paradise.’
The eight who knew they were on a suicide mission were led by an Egyptian, Mohamed Atta, the pilot who was to crash the first plane into the North Tower. The oldest of the entire team at just thirty-three, he had studied architecture at Cairo University, and continued his studies in Hamburg. There he had written an urban planning thesis on the building of a truly Islamic city; the best way to begin this process was to destroy all the city’s high-rise buildings, he said. He saw Islamic civilisation and Western civilisation as distinct and incompatible – only through the devastation of the latter could you build a future for the former. The place he based his thesis on was Aleppo in Syria.
For Atta, the destruction of a symbol of modernity to help create a perfect Islamic world must have been captivating, for he and the lead pilots of the three planes – the Emirati Marwan al-Shehhi, the Lebanese-born Ziad Samir Jarrah and the Saudi Hani Hanjour – all travelled to Afghanistan and, eventually, were to head to the United States for flight training. For them, the theories espoused and developed by Al-Qaeda were crucial. The pilots were fired up by the belief they could kill corrupted civilians and gain access to paradise at the same time. In a way, such logic was itself a consequence of globalisation and capitalism. The idea that the actions of men and women in offices half a world away had a direct impact on the suffering of the Islamic community in Gaza or Kabul was a product of mass media, global trade and an overpowering loss of perspective. Indeed, coming as they did from a wide array of countries, the men behind 9/11 were very much the products of a post-Cold War, global community: youthful Arab males who lived abroad, wowed by but alienated from Western modernity, and who then retreated back into the confines of a male jihadist group – there to cultivate a judgemental and fundamental piety.
Globalisation was both the thing they railed against and their cover: it enabled them to mingle in the US without arousing suspicions, visiting Virginia, California, Arizona and Florida. They even booked into a motel that stood right next to the American spy organisation, the National Security Agency. It enabled them to board planes, too, without much suspicion.
The hijackers’ behaviour in the days preceding 9/11 has been analysed in depth, and many have levelled the accusation of hypocrisy at them, just as they were to condemn Bin Laden for having pornography on his computers when he was killed. Two of the attackers met in Las Vegas, famously going to strip clubs for lap dances, perhaps imagining the virgins who might visit them in the next life. They drank alcohol, too; when one was confronted about a bar bill, he was to say: ‘There is no money issue. I am an airline pilot.’
The impossible thing to know is how they reconciled such ‘Western’ habits with their own beliefs. Perhaps they assumed their final act of martyrdom would purge their souls of all previous sin. Indeed, we know that those hijackers who had been tasked with crashing the jets, those who knew they were soon to die, were meticulous in purifying themselves in their final hours. In Islamic custom, the dead body is cleaned, prepared for the grave. As some of the hijackers knew they would have no such burial, they were given a prep sheet that told them to shave off their body hair and to wear cologne – to prove
their devotion to personal purity.
In the early morning hours of 11 September, the hijackers donned button-downs and slacks and slipped collapsible knives into their pockets. Surveillance cameras at the airports recorded them proceeding through security, footage now for ever tainted by the heavy comprehension of where they were headed. When Mohamed Atta checked in at Logan airport, in Boston, his name set off an alert on the airport’s security system, meaning his bags were never loaded into the plane’s hold. But he and the others still walked through, something the family’s victims were later to decry.
The jihadists seemed relaxed. Those that knew this was a suicide mission were looking forward to it. ‘Be cheerful,’ the preparation note had entreated, for once death comes ‘a happy and satisfying life begins.’ To those that knew the true nature of the attack, paradise had been promised to them, filled with ‘the prophets, the righteous, the good and the martyrs’. And, with a final entreaty to lace their shoes tightly, it sent them to their deaths. ‘Smile . . .’ it said, ‘for you are departing to the eternal paradise!’
As you descend the 9/11 memorial you are met by the posters of the missing that covered New York’s streets in the weeks after the event, projected onto a grey concrete wall. The words of Virgil, ‘No day shall erase you from the memory of time’, are written across another, forged from pieces of recovered steel from the wreckage of the building. Two thousand eight hundred and ninety-three blue watercolours, each for a lost life, surround that classical refrain. Watercolour and iron, modern font and ancient script; from the classical to the fleeting, the timelessness of memory to the agony of grief. Then, a small sign: ‘Reposed behind this wall are the remains of many who perished at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2011’ – and you were reminded that this was a repository, a mass tomb.
Beside it was a room filled with the faces of the dead. Rows upon rows of names and photographs of the victims; those that didn’t have a photo were remembered by the leaf of a swamp white oak. There was Tariq Amanulla from Pakistan; Waleed Iskandar from Lebanon; Yin Ping Wong from Hong Kong; there was Ignatius, Milagors, Jorge, Mychal, Ching, Igor, Shuyin . . .
Before visiting I had researched the numerology of 9/11’s grief. I knew the attacks had killed 2,606 in the World Trade Center, 246 in the aeroplanes, 125 in the Pentagon. But here, unlike any other mass memorial I had ever visited, every one of these numbers was named.
You scanned the room for connections. There were three men called Michael Lynch, just three of 146 Michaels killed on that day. There were 68 Williams, 55 Richards, and 52 Patricks, too. The number of photographs of men on the walls was notable: three times as many men died as women on that day, most of them in their late thirties.
These were photos that testified to the sadness that 3,051 children lost a parent that day. There were brief obituaries that showed 658 people all worked for the same company, Cantor Fitzgerald, just one of companies to lose a worker. The number of men in uniform told how 343 firefighters and paramedics died – running to the scene, not away from it. And, unphotographed, how there were eleven unborn babies that also died.
Such a room had an unfathomable resonance. It was said that 20 per cent of Americans knew someone hurt or killed in the attacks, and the weight of America’s grief felt heaviest right here. Beyond the memorial lay an exhibit, telling how the day unfolded, in the order that it did. It began with innocence.
Framed newspapers bore news of little weight. Elizabeth Jagger on the front-page of the New York Post. The New York Times reporting on the primary elections that were gripping the city, and beside it a portentous coincidence: the story of a teacher being charged with hijacking a jet plane in 1971. Beside these newspapers was a little receipt – a stamp on it marked the time: 8.47. It was the last transaction that day recorded in the North Tower – a minute after the plane had struck.
‘It went from that bright crisp morning to just total blackness, and then it felt like an earthquake,’ an exhibit read.
Next were the first television images broadcast of the smoking building. At first it felt almost benign: glittering around the Towers were clouds of paper – reams and reams of documents and minutes and legal briefs – like a ticker tape parade. But then, to the screams from the people holding the cameras, the impact of the second plane.
Only four people managed to escape from the floors above that strike. Further along, the exhibition had a screened-off section. Behind it were photographs of some of the most memorable horrors of the day: the jumpers. Those who, unable to withstand the ferocious smoke and heat, were forced to leap to their deaths – about 200 of them.
Their fall lasted as long as ten seconds, an ‘end-over-end tumbling to the ground’. They were to strike the earth at just under 150mph. Some jumped alone, some in pairs and groups. The first firefighter
to die that day was hit by a jumper.
A note read: ‘She had a business suit on, her hair was all askew. This woman stood there for what seemed like minutes, then she held down her skirt and then stepped off the ledge. I thought, how human, how modest, to hold down her skirt before she jumped.’ Another: ‘You felt compelled to watch, out of respect to them. They were ending their lives without a choice. And to turn away from them would have been wrong.’ Five images were shown of these headlong flights. Ten deaths displayed – suicide attackers forcing people to choose how to die.
The drama continued: terror in instalments. There came the concertina collapse, killing thousands. Over 100,000 pounds of burning fuel had superheated the upper steel columns to temperatures of over 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. When they buckled and fell, the weight of the upper floors took the rest with them. Few escaped the crush as millions of tonnes of steel and cement went straight down, filling up the New York air with pulverised particles – a lethal combination of asbestos, lead, silicon and worse. One man ‘rode’ the collapse down from the twenty-third floor, awakening three hours later atop a slab
of concrete fifteen feet in the air, with just a broken foot. But he was the exception: only twenty people above the blast made it out alive. The last survivor, Genelle Guzman, was found in the ruins of the North Tower twenty-seven hours after its collapse.
When the second tower collapsed, as Ian McEwan described, with ‘malign majesty’, it was so impactful it was recorded by the only American not on Earth during 9/11, astronaut Frank L. Culberston.
‘And tears don’t flow the same in space,’ a label read beside a photograph of the devastation that he took. He later learnt that a murdered pilot in one of the planes that day was a classmate from the US Naval Academy.
In Washington, the Pentagon was hit by Flight 77, slicing into a section of the building that had just undergone a $258 million rearmament, with strengthened walls and reinforced windows. Many of those walls right next to the plane’s point of impact remained intact, but still 125 workers there died, along with 59 passengers and crew.
Then Flight 93 crashed into an empty field. There were just four hijackers in this one, leading to a fightback that stopped even more devastation, as the hijackers crashed the plane before reaching their target. Forty passengers and crew died in that instant. ‘Allah is the Greatest’ was screamed nine times by that plane’s pilot before the transmission ended at 10.03 a.m., a transcript read.
In all, it was the largest loss of life by a foreign attack on American soil. In many cases, the victims vanished. Only 60 per cent of bodies were identified when the Twin Towers collapsed.50 Two hundred and ninety-one were recovered ‘intact’, the others made up of almost 20,000 body parts. Among the wreckage, making the task all the harder, were the remains of rats, pigeons and even T-bone steaks from the Windows on the World restaurant that had been on the top floor. During the search, rescue dogs found so few living people that it caused them to stress out because they believed they had failed.
Their handlers had to regularly hide in the rubble so as to give the rescue dogs a successful find, keeping their spirits up.
The rest of the unfound dead were issued death certificates by judicial decree, the only real evidence being their absence. And there are still question marks. ‘We have DNA profiles from remains that don’t match anything on the reference side,’ the assistant director of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has said.
Such absence pervades the entire tragedy. The memorial is a void, a cascade into the dark. The perpetrators are elusive shadows. Even one of the World Trade Center’s most vocal survivors, and president of its support group, Tania Head, was later found out to have lied – she was not even in the city on 9/11.
The dying did not end on that day, either. At least three people were later to succumb from smoke inhalation, and over 1,100 were diagnosed with cancer as a result of ‘exposure to toxins at Ground Zero’, with nearly 70 per cent of rescuers later to develop lung problems. An estimated 410,000 people were exposed to the dangerous toxin asbestos in the dust-filled air that clouded New York’s streets. Other tragedies followed. Ninety-one days after the attack, Pat Flounders, a widow from that terrible day, shot herself in grief – 9/11’s first direct suicide victim.
The displays tried to infuse the mountain of loss with a sense of humanity. Here were small items, intimate belongings: a mariner’s cross; hotel room keys; a Blackberry phone; slippers. But it proved hard to find meaning in such everyday objects. Then again, people seek meaning in something – anything – following such surreal trauma. The top search on Google the week following 9/11 was for the babbling prophecies of Nostradamus. In that end-of-days catastrophe, others saw, in the billowing smoke of the burning towers, the Devil’s face appear.
Church and synagogue attendance in Manhattan rose by 20 per cent. And, soon enough, conspiracy theories emerged: it was the Jews, the US government, the buildings were rigged with explosives.
Such a search for hidden meaning was understandable. The enemy was, at first, elusive. There were no strident political demands, no statements issued. At first Bin Laden even denied involvement. Perhaps he wanted to make it seem as if the planes were an act of God – a terrible visitation as a direct consequence of American foreign policy.
If it was not only meaning that people sought, it was life. Nine months after 9/11, there were 20 per cent more births in New York City compared to the same month in the years before. Within ten days of the attack the US magazine website Salon was to refer to ‘terror sex’ – the urgent need to engage, to feel. As Shortbus, a film about the search for sexual liberation in New York after 9/11, framed it: ‘It’s just like the sixties, only with less hope.’ Alcohol intake in Manhattan in the week after 9/11 spiked by 25 per cent compared to the year before; tobacco and dope consumption also rose. Many Americans say that something was lost on that day – a sense of self-confidence, perhaps. A turn away from America, as Nabokov would have it, as a ‘lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country’, to something else – one where a country emptied of good becomes a potential habitat for evil.
The broader reverberations were immediate. That day, all planes in the air – some 4,000 – were immediately ordered to land, the man doing the ordering on his first day on the job. The only private
plane allowed to fly after the attacks was one from San Diego to Miami transporting anti-venom to a man bitten by a deadly snake. It was accompanied by two jet fighters. Many planes were diverted northwards; Canada found itself housing and feeding over 33,000 waylaid passengers. Millions took to the roads instead; it has been estimated that 9/11 caused an extra 1,600 people to die in automobile accidents because they switched their travel plans from flying to driving.
So great was the change that scientists later analysed the weather following the three-day flight ban over the US; they found the days were a little warmer and the nights cooler, suggesting that the exhaust trails that planes leave in the sky shield the earth from the sun during the day and trap heat at night. Scientists also found that whales’ stress levels plummeted immediately following 9/11: all the halted ship
traffic reduced the levels of low-frequency noise in the oceans, the tone that whales use to communicate with.
There were other reverberations over the long term. With respect to financial cost, the United States’ wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria and the additional expenditure on Homeland Security and the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, have been estimated to be more than $5.6 trillion since 9/11. The direct losses associated with 9/11 were to top $80 billion – so great that they caused insurance companies to end automatic coverage of terrorist-induced damages. A total of $4.2 billion was spent on compensation to cover the health of those who worked at Ground Zero after the attacks. The US government also paid an average of $1.8 million to the families of the victims. Wall Street’s big institutions, though, were too big for the terrorists. According to the City of New York’s Comptroller’s office, in the first quarter of 2002, the city’s economy contracted by 4per cent. It went on to shrink for another two years. But New York’s famed resilience came to the fore and, by 2004, its economy was
growing again by nearly 5 per cent every three months.
The media’s response was predictable and engulfing. Almost 28,000 9/11-based articles were published by the British press alone in the year following the attacks. In the decade following the strikes, 1,742 books were written about the day. The CBS 9/11 programme, broadcast in March 2002, holds the record for the world’s highest audience for a TV documentary. And into the coverage seeped assumptions and stereotypes, nationalism and bellicosity. Over 150 songs were banned from the airwaves by one radio network in the months afterwards, including ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ and ‘Imagine’, for being too downbeat or pacifist. Anger was the order of the day – 338,000 copies of Toby Keith’s album Unleashed flew off the shelves in the first week of its release in early 2002; one song – ‘Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)’ – contained the line ‘We’ll put a boot in your ass / It’s the American Way’. Another song spoke of raising ‘our glasses against evil forces’.
The following morning, the New York Times ran a headline: ‘America’s Emergency Line: 9/11’. It was the first use in print of the nine-eleven name by which the attacks became known. Other words – the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, radicalism, Islamism, extremism, the Axis of Evil – also seeped into the lexicon of the everyday, but the word that stuck was ‘freedom’. It was used not just as rhetoric but as analysis. America’s liberties were seen to be part of the reason why the US East Coast had been attacked, and the notion of freedom became quickly intertwined with the language of vengeful violence – the Statue of Liberty was soon depicted hoisting an assault weapon in her copper fist. From French fries becoming ‘freedom fries’ to Operation Enduring Freedom, for President Bush, freedom was part of that divine battle he was waging: ‘the Almighty’s gift’.
There was a surge of patriotism and memorial. Flagpoles, dedications and crosses were made, many using steel from Ground Zero, and even more American flags appeared in front of millions of homes across the States than usual. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) even took metal from the rubble and used it on Martian rovers as a tribute to those who had died.
Such patriotism reflected a wider split that occurred. On the one side was the Salafi-jihadist movement: men who had prostrated themselves to the idea there was no free will, that Allah would dictate their future, one where violence would bring about a return to a premodern world. A side where the suicide bomb could usher in an Islamic utopia bolstered by draconian laws and purified by its rejection of capitalism.
On the other side was a world framed by ‘freedoms’. The free market, freedom of speech, the freedom of capitalism and democracy.
‘Al-Qaeda is to terror what the mafia is to crime,’ Bush was to opine. ‘But its goal is not making money; its goal is remaking the world – and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere.’ This was a rhetoric that was to mutate over time, to include the freedom to torture, to rip up human rights, to make money out of war and, even, to bomb cities far away under the banner of liberty. These two visions underpinned the competing ideologies of violence from the very beginning, and came to define much of what was to flow afterwards – what was, to some, a cosmic clash of civilisations.
As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said after the attack: ‘The fight against terrorism is an international struggle of the free world against the forces of darkness.’ An ‘Infinity War’, even; as President Bush was to say, portentously: the ‘war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there’.
When Bin Laden was eventually to speak to the world in the weeks following the attacks, he was to echo this shift. To him the world had entered a new era, where ‘life or death does not matter’. As he told
an interviewer: ‘The awakening has started.’
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