Lawyer seeks “justice” for Mauritanian man held in US military prison after “extraordinary rendition”.
It is an image rarely seen on TV nowadays. It is regarded as too shocking, too awful to repeat. But everyone remembers the moment the second plane hit the second of the Twin Towers in New York, an event which is seared on the world’s consciousness as much for the moment itself as the moments that followed.
It marked the start of a decade defined by fear, by fighting. The ripples of what happened that late summer day in New York have touched many places, many lives.
When George Bush visited what quickly became known as “Ground Zero” after the tragedy, he did so as a war time president. America had come under attack and he knew he had to respond. As he spoke to workers clearing the site, someone called out that he could not hear him. Bush responded bullishly: “I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you … and the people who … and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
The attacks were driven by Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network. Initially he denied involvement, worried about upsetting his Taliban hosts in Afghanistan. But then – with all the evidence pointing in that direction – he admitted planning, financing and approving the operation to kill, maim and humiliate. By bringing down the towers, the attacks were more successful than his wildest expectations but failed to rally Muslims to his cause the way he hoped.
In fact, across the world there was huge sympathy for America. One French newspaper summed up the global position with its headline “We are all American”. The sympathy lingered even as President Bush launched his global “War on Terror”, targeting groups seen as a threat and regimes that supported them. It was a policy born out of fear and power. In an address to a joint session of congress he outlined his doctrine with a warning: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
Afghanistan was first. The Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden and al-Qaeda. An offer to put him on trial in Afghanistan was rejected. It was a government with few friends; only three countries in the world recognised it. And so they were removed. The battle was swift. The result was inevitable, but the victory is not yet complete. Ten years on, American troops are still fighting the country’s longest war.
A mistake in the planning and execution of the operation around Tora Bora mountains meant the biggest target, bin Laden himself, escaped over the hills to Pakistan. He was free, for now.
When al-Qaeda fought back – it was not in the hills of Afghanistan – but on the Indonesian island of Bali. The place locals described as “heaven on earth” was turned into a hell as a series of bombs around nightclubs in the tourist area of Kuta left 202 dead. For many there was a frightening realisation that now everywhere was a possible target. Nowhere was safe. Osama Bin Laden issued a message from his hideout, warning of more to come. Broadcast on Al Jazeera he said: “You will be killed just as you kill, and will be bombed just as you bomb” and “Expect more that will further distress you.”
Then the US changed focus. Winning in Afghanistan was no longer the priority; the top target became Saddam Hussein. In the hours after the 9/11 attacks, his name was mentioned, discussed as a possible target but dismissed because of the immediate evidence linking Afghanistan to what had happened. But the respected figure of Colin Powell made the case to the UN on behalf of the administration. “The facts and Iraq’s behaviour show that Saddam and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction”, he said despite others warning the intelligence was flawed, the thinking skewed and the obvious ignored.
The Bush administration believed a pre-emptive war would spread democracy. It would cut terrorism and remove the threat of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction they said. Millions believed what was planned was illegal and took to the streets across the world to protest. The politicians ignored the calls and “shock and awe” followed. Thousands died on all sides.
There were no weapons of mass destruction; instead across the Arab world and beyond there was bitterness, resentment, even anger towards the US. The war in Iraq, finally gave al-Qaeda the battle it wanted; the chance to inflame and inspire.
Al-Qaeda inspired cells
The battle was taken to the streets of Europe, targeting those who played a part in the invasion. First Spain, in March 2004 as a series of co-ordinated bombings on commuter trains killed 191. An official inquiry blamed an “al-Qaeda inspired cell” for the killings.
Then there was the UK. Bombers hit the transport system. Three bombs on underground trains and one on a bus killed 52 people and the four bombers. In a suicide video, one of those behind the attack, Mohammed Sidique Khan, a British-born Muslim of Pakistani descent tried to justify the attacks: “Your democratically-elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible.”
Tony Blair hurriedly abandoned a G8 meeting in Scotland to head back to London but he insisted: “It’s important that those engaged in terrorism realise that our determination to defend our values and our way of life is greater than their determination to cause death and destruction to innocent people around the world, in a desire to impose extremism on the world”.
America wanted change, to bring democracy to the Middle East. But to opponents, it seemed concerned only with states that did not support them. It wanted to extend democratic values and increase civil liberties.
But it had Guantanamo Bay. The US base on the edge of Cuba was the response to the new threats, a place out of the public eye. People were abducted and transferred here. Only that became known as extraordinary rendition. They were held without trial, often without access to a lawyer or their family. And then there was what became known as “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Those who lived through it, experienced it, called it torture. One favourite technique was to restrain prisoners and place a cloth over their face. Water was then poured onto the face, over the mouth and nose, creating the sensation of drowning.
After leaving office, Vice-President Dick Cheney defended the tactics used in Guantanamo. “The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do.” He insisted lives had been saved by the actions.
With a new president, there was a hope things would be done differently, that America was different. The phrase “War on Terror” disappeared from the lexicon used by officials. A Nobel Prize winner for the hope that he brought rather than the results he delivered, President Barack Obama tried to hit the reset button on America’s relations with the Arab world. “I have come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.”
Yet little changed. Guantanamo remains open, the measures introduced by the Bush administration largely remain in place, the war in Afghanistan continues. People live with fear, anticipation and worry.
Before 9/11 – America’s military, political, economic power was undoubted, its supremacy unchallenged. Failures in Iraq and Afghanistan have been costly and not just in terms of money. Al-Qaeda has not been conquered but no longer carries the threat it once did.
But things are different. Osama Bin Laden is dead, tracked down and killed in Pakistan. In Tunisia and Egypt, changes came. Others in the Middle East would like to follow. The changes came not from the actions of al-Qaeda, or from the White House, but from people who wanted a better future they would decide for themselves.
America will mark the anniversary of the attacks – and reflect on the 9/11 decade; one of lost lives and lost opportunities.
Follow Alan Fisher on Twitter: @alanfisher