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9/11 Fifteen Years After: What Might Have Been

Fifteen years ago on 9/11, Al Qaeda terrorists changed the course of history, and the consequences of what happened on that day are still very much with us, and are arguably even growing more complex and more dangerous.

On 11 September 2001, 19 young Arab militants affiliated to Al Qaeda who had received rudimentary flying instruction in the United States hijacked and flew two passenger aircraft at the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, one at the Pentagon in Washington and another aircraft was allegedly also flying towards the White House or the Capitol but it was brought down before it reached its target.

Nearly 3,000 innocent people were killed as the result of those terrorist outrages. In response, America launched the “War on Terror” that has killed upward of a million people, destroyed many Middle Eastern countries, ruined the lives of tens of millions, killed nearly 7,000 US troops and injured another 50,000, and has cost the United States a staggering six trillion dollars.

This was the first time in US history that the American mainland had been attacked after the British troops had set fire to the White House in 1814 during the war between the United States and England. Even during the Second World War the continental United States did not receive any direct attacks, and the closest that the Japanese got was to attack the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.

Of course, during the past few decades there have been numerous terrorist attacks on the US and other targets, the most notable being the attack carried out by Timothy McVeigh on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which claimed 168 lives and left over 800 people injured. McVeigh too had religious motivations for his attacks.

He was a religious fanatic and a follower of David Koresh, and he bombed the federal building on the anniversary of the destruction of the Branch Davidian camp in Waco by federal forces, as the result of which Koresh, 54 other adults and 21 children were burnt alive

One can think of the massacre of close to a million Tutsis and Hutus in Burundi and Rwanda. A Human Rights Watch analysis estimated that 77% of the Tutsi population of Rwanda was slaughtered in the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.

Apart from the initial slaughter of hundreds of Palestinians and the ethnic cleansing of nearly 70% of the Palestinian population in 1948, we had the slaughter of as many as 3,500 Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila Camps in Lebanon by the Christian Phalangists between the 15 and 16 September 1982, under the supervision of the invading Israeli forces led by Ariel Sharon.

However, the 9/11 attacks have assumed a significance far greater than all other terrorist acts in the world.

Most Americans believe that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were unprovoked and came out of the blue. However, a quick glance at the history of American military involvement in the Middle East shows that many Muslims in the Middle East had been on the receiving end of many violent American invasions and attacks.

To name just a few, during the First Persian Gulf War, (2 August 1990 – 28 February 1991), codenamed “Operation Desert Shield”, more than 100,000 sorties were flown dropping 88,500 tons of bombs, many against Iraqi targets not only in Kuwait but in Baghdad. Between 20,000 and 26,000 Iraqi military personnel were killed and 75,000 others were wounded, and there were at least 3,500 civilian fatalities from bombing.

Apart from the attack on a bunker in Amiriyah, causing the deaths of 408 Iraqi civilians who were in the shelter, there was the attack on the fleeing Iraqis between Kuwait and Basra (known as Highway of Death), when between 1,400 and 2,000 vehicles were hit and up to 10,000 soldiers and civilians were killed.

The U.S. soldiers who bombed Iraqi forces even after they had surrendered on the field of battle in Operation Desert Storm laughed about their actions, calling the strafing “a turkey shoot,” and likening it to “shooting fish in a barrel.” As one American officer put it: “It’s the biggest Fourth of July show you’ve ever seen. And to see those tanks just ‘boom,’ and more stuff keeps spewing out of them … it’s wonderful.”

There was an earlier 9/11, namely the US-supported coup in Chile and the bombing of La Moneda on 11 September 1973. President Richard Nixon had ordered economic warfare against the elected Socialist President Salvador Allende, culminating in a military coup led by army chief, Augusto Pinochet. Tens of thousands of people were arrested during the coup, many hundreds were detained, questioned, tortured and in some cases murdered.

It is important to remember that the CIA played a significant role in the creation of the Mujahedin fighters, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. When Soviet forces attacked Afghanistan in December 1979, the United States and her regional allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, created, trained and armed the Mujahedin (Holy Warriors) to fight against Russian forces.

The Soviet war in Afghanistan lasted for ten years with some 14.453 Soviet forces killed and tens of thousands wounded. Between one and a half and two million Afghans were also killed. There were two million internally displaced persons and another five million became refugees in Iran and Pakistan, and the country was devastated.

In addition to the Afghan Mujahedin, a large number of Muslim militants from neighboring Arab countries were also organized and sent to Afghanistan to join the fight against Soviet forces.

Osama bin Laden, a member of a wealthy family in Saudi Arabia, became a prominent organizer and financier of those foreign volunteers, with enormous assistance from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and tacit support from the United States. Under the CIA’s “Operation Cyclone”, from 1979 to 1989, the United States and Saudi Arabia provided $40 billion worth of financial aid and weapons to almost 100,000 Mujahidin and “Afghan Arabs” through Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence.

After the defeat and withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden turned his attention to the other superpower, the United States, with the aim of allegedly freeing Muslim lands from Western occupation. In a message issued on 23 February 1998, announcing his intention to fight against what he called “the crusader armies”, bin Laden complained: “…despite the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the crusader-Zionist alliance, and despite the huge number of those killed, which has exceeded one million… despite all this, the Americans are once again trying to repeat the horrific massacres, as though they are not content with the protracted blockade imposed after the ferocious war or the fragmentation and devastation. So here they come to annihilate what is left of this people and to humiliate their Muslim neighbors.”

Of course, what Osama bin Laden said was morally reprehensible. At the same time, many militant Muslims find some remarks by Western politicians equally worrisome and insensitive. For instance, when the then Secretary of State Madeline Albright was asked on camera if the death of half a million Iraqi children as the result of the sanctions had been worth it, her response was an emphatic “it was worth it.”

The aim of referring to other atrocities apart from 9/11 is not to belittle its significance, but merely to point out that it was not the only terrorist or violent act in the course of recent history. It is also to point out that the “War on Terror” was not the best way of dealing with an event, which was merely a criminal act carried out by a few deranged fanatics.

After all, Osama bin Laden had said that one of his main aims was to lure American forces to wars in the Middle East so that they could bleed in the same way that Soviet forces had bled. Unfortunately, President George W. Bush fell into that trap.

Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Stanford University, was criticized for anti-American remarks when he simply said: “If Osama bin Laden is confirmed to be behind the attacks, the United States should bring him before an international tribunal on charges of crimes against humanity.”

Had Osama bin Laden been treated as a violent criminal, and had he been tried and brought to justice instead of President Bush launching a “War on Terror”, he would have been exposed and condemned in the eyes of his supporters, millions of lives and trillions of dollars would have been saved and the world would not be facing the intensified scourge of terrorism that has been mainly an outcome of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course, it is not possible to set the clock back, but we can only contemplate what could have been if a different course had been pursued, and also we can learn a lesson about the fight against terrorism in the future. After all, ideas, even distorted and extremist ideas, cannot be bombed away.

The only way to fight against them is to hold a dialogue, educate and enlighten the fanatics, and above all to hold fast to our principles. And most importantly, to understand why people become terrorists in the first place and do something about the reasons they do, if we can.

What will defeat the terrorists is adherence to law, freedom, democracy and a society that accommodates all the different voices.

As Mike Lofgren stated in his book The Deep State, ”The tangled, millennia-old story of Syria and Iraq or Afghanistan, or the complex ethnic hatreds of the Balkans vanish before a few sonorous phrases like ‘regime change,’ ‘responsibility to protect,’ or ‘humanitarian intervention.’ This mind-set leads to predictable disasters from which the political establishment never learns the appropriate lessons.”

If we wish to avoid further disasters we must learn the appropriate lessons from our mistakes.

More articles by:

Dr. Farhang Jahanpour, Oxford University, is a member of the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research’s board.

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