The Pantomime of Terrorism

Contains Distressing images

Rivers of blood are weaving their way through the streets of New York, a place of vibrant life has been transformed by violence. The towers spew fire, the flames lick the shimmering building as the plumes emitted by a thousand fires split the morning sky, a once beautiful opaque blue distorted and corrupted by black smoke. An assortment of papers and white ash, seared timber, charred vehicles, and human flesh decorate the pavements, a twisted portrait woven together by debris, metal and brick. The stench of jet fuel, smoke and blood and the screams fill the air as police and ambulance sirens screech and wail unable to muffle the cries and the pain which sweeps the city.  Men and women tumble from the towers suspended in mid-air before plummeting, scattering across the concrete hundreds of feet below, their bodies shattering onto concrete with a horrifying whip crack. Medics and co-workers scoop up pieces of head, crushed torsos, and the shredded, pulverised bodies of the civilians blown from the towers and of those who faced the horrifying decision to jump in the face of suffocating dust, smoke and searing heat of the fires. Civilians emerge from the World Trade Centre dazed and confused, many who appeared were horribly burnt, others are covered in blood or carrying the lost limbs of others. Those who appear unharmed are shaken and in a state of panic, shock and fear. It is 9:59 am.

Screams pierce the air. The south tower is collapsing, a toxic mixture of concrete, asbestos, lead, fiberglass, fragments and the vaporised remains of civilians and paper produces a swirling grey cloud as the skyscraper falls upon itself, spilling and cascading floor by floor. The cloud consumes New York, engulfing civilians, emergency workers and buildings alike. It was as if a ferocious volcano were emitting a deadly pyroclastic flow, sweeping up streets and alleys claiming everything in its path.  An unnatural darkness has fallen over swaths of central New York.  It is 10.28 am. The second tower is collapsing. The dead lie silent beneath what was once the World Trade Centre.  How many are dead? Six thousand? Twenty thousand? Thirty thousand? The victims of mass murder now lie entombed within tonnes of concrete, debris and twisted metal. Despair and a stunned disbelief is beginning to grip the United States and a watching world. The towers have gone. Nothing remains but a nation's trauma.

The fires of September 11 burned for one hundred days. The final death toll of the September 11, 2001 attacks totalled two thousand seven-hundred and forty nine innocent people while six thousand more were wounded. Three thousand and fifty one children have lived without a parent since four hijacked planes, each packed with 9000 gallons of jet fuel, crashed into the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and Shanksville as nineteen members of Al-Qai'da carried out the most devastating suicide bombings in history.

The survivors live with the memories and scars of that day and of attacks which remain scarcely comprehensible to eye-witnesses in their ferocity and audaciousness. The resulting 9/11 Wars, a term coined by Jason Burke, have shattered millions of lives across the globe, a direct consequence of the crisis catalysed by Osama Bin Laden's jihādist cell, a threat which had not been taken seriously by innumerable politicians and policymakers in the Western world. 

Following the horrific September 11 attacks and the death of its civilians, Washington's priorities changed as the Bush administration declared 'The Global War on Terror'. Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qa'ida, perpetrators of the atrocities, claimed they had done these acts in response to U.S support for Israel, the significant presence of U.S troops in Saudi Arabia, and sanctions against Iraq which had killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. The September 11 Wars had begun as U.S forces spread across the world to hunt down Al-Qa'ida and its sub-cells.

Photo by Matthew Williams

Photo by Matthew Williams

Nearly ninety percent of the punishment dealt upon the United States that day came from citizens of its allies in the Gulf States. Fifteen of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirates, one from Lebanon, and one from Egypt. The declassification of the 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission in 2016 further revealed Saudi Arabia's role in supporting the September 11 attacks:

  • "The September 11 hijackers may have been in contact with other Saudi Government officials in the United States prior to the September 11 attacks; and

  • Saudi Government officials in the United States may have ties to Usama Bin Ladin’s terrorist network."

Two individuals known to the FBI prior to September 11, 2001 – Omar al-Bayoumi and Osama Bassnan—may have provided assistance or support to al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar while the two hijackers-to-be were living in San Diego. While the documentary evidence that al-Bayoumi provided assistance to al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar is solid, the files contain only limited evidence that Osama Bassnan had contacts with the two individuals.

When al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar moved to San Diego, al-Bayoumi provided them with considerable assistance. Before the hijackers moved in with the long-time FBI informant, they stayed at al-Bayoumi’s apartment for several days until al-Bayoumi was able to find them an apartment. Al-Bayoumi then co-signed their lease and may have paid their first month’s rent and security deposit.1 After al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar moved into their own apartment, al-Bayoumi threw a party to welcome them to the San Diego community. He also tasked Modhar Abdullah, another individual from the Islamic Center of San Diego (ICSD), to help them get acclimated to the United States. Abdullah served as their translator, helped them get drivers’ licenses, and assisted them in locating flight schools.

During the post-September 11 investigation, the FBI discovered that al-Bayoumi had far more extensive ties to the Saudi governmnet than previously realised. In fact, according to an October 14, 2002 FBI document, al-Bayoumi has extensive ties to the Saudi government."

From the vantage point of history, it is clear that the Bush administration advanced forward with a series of agendas following the murder of its civilians and used the September 11 attacks as a political opportunity to reshape the Middle East. With an innately Cold War psychosis, the Bush administration plunged into a world and chased enemies it did not fully understand. George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice and other members of the administration, their right-wing commentators, academics and activists painted Al-Qa'ida and "terrorism" as a monolithic brand and advocated and pursued a catastrophic foreign policy. Its air of permanency is the most potent legacy of the neoconservatives operating within the White House during these dark years where Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded and its societies destroyed, torture was utilised by the CIA and sanctioned by the Bush administration to pursue its enemies, and thousands of civilians were killed. 

The "Global War on Terror" (promptly rebranded "Overseas Contingency Operations" by the Obama administration) frequently pursues abstracts and shadows. Critics can continue to write thousands of pages on the catastrophic failures of the Bush administration, yet the basic tenants of Western policy have not changed. That is our greatest failure. The language of violence remains the same as we continue to chase shadows in the post-9/11 world. The Obama administration has escalated its wars in Yemen and the Afghan-Pakistani theatres which as Jeffrey Addicott, a former legal adviser to Army Special Operations, states is, alongside the drone strategy, "creating more enemies than we are killing or capturing." Syria and Iraq have seen a surge in suicide bombing and attacks by jihādists as European, Russian, Asian, African and Middle Eastern foreign fighters pour into the region. ISIS, Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula and Jabhat al-Nusra have established territories in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. In some respects, ISIS became more powerful and influential than Al-Qa'ida in instigating violence in the name of jihād.

Wrapping military actions in "terrorist threats" and "counter-terrorism" narratives is presenting a problem and a tactic to act as a check against that problem. Tactics are only really successful if they are accompanied by a broader and sustainable strategy. Hannibal Barca performed outstanding military tactical manoeuvres against the Romans at Cannae, Trebia, and Lake Trasimene. In the end, however, as his armies melted away on the plains of Zama, it was clear his political strategy did not work and he underestimated the mentality and sheer depth of the Roman civilisation to endure despite heavy losses. War has changed remarkably since then, but in many aspects it remains the same. In the 21st century, international policymakers and politicians continue to underestimate the Arab world's mentality and perspective, its cultural nuances and the historical injustices driving many of its people from Iran to Lebanon to Palestine to Iraq.

Since the September 11 attacks, military strategies and tactics being utilised are deployed in such a way that they are worsening the challenges across the spectrum from refugee crises to socio-economic reforms and the multiplication of enemies all of which have been precipitated by the collapse of many states across the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa. Societies of fear are becoming institutionalised in Europe, where civilians are told that they remain under constant and imminent threat of terrorist attacks. Whether or not many of these threats become a reality or not, the hysteria surrounding the term "terror" has become engrained in political and policymaking institutions, the media and general public debate to the point it has side-lined alternative explanations for Europe's slide into economic stagnation and political disrepute which demand scrutiny and analysis. Events of the post-Cold War in places such as Africa, the Middle East and South Asia are shaking the world with causes which are historically far-reaching and factors which are fuelled by the draconian cultural and geo-strategic reengineering of international powers throughout the 20th century. These have fused to the more direct challenges of the contemporary world including the impact of globalisation and technological revolution alongside regional and local factors driving the conflicts. 

Osama Bin Laden, the perpetrator of the atrocities, is dead yet thousands more have emerged, some more ferocious in their ideological thinking as has been demonstrated by the schism between Al-Qa'ida and ISIS, the grim atrocities of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi during the Iraq War and the escalation in attacks across Europe and the Middle East. The September 11 attacks still remains the climax in delivering this grotesque formula for success with the intent to deliver with devastation to lure governments and policymakers into wars that could last years, kill more people and enflame public opinion in the Arab world. The casualties of the 9/11 Wars dwarf those lost on the terrible day of September 11, 2001. The labels "terrorist" and "terrorism" are distributed with such regularity that it impedes objective examination of situations and events occurring. "Terrorism" whitewashes context and simplifies contemporary and historical events. "Terrorism" is a by-word for conducting state violence with relative impunity and it has become embedded within Western political culture. "Terrorism" has even become a dehumanising pejorative.

The September 11 attacks are significant because of their consequences and the further blood, fire and despair they brought to the countries such as Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The events and wars catalysed by the attacks have not answered any questions, they have created more questions, more injustices and more enemies. Answering those questions and reanalysing the attacks objectively as a historical event is critically important. If we do not, we become hostage to the theatre of terror which the likes of Bin Laden have created for us where we cannot assess attacks objectively, where we react to atrocities instead of investigating and understanding the perspectives of militants and attackers. 

9/11 must have a place in history, but the attacks must not dictate it nor should it maintain total hegemony over how we interpret events which preceded and followed the harrowing day. This cannot be done if the media persists in using it as banner around which we rally to promote the war against "terrorists". Events unfolding in the Middle East, the Arab Awakening, the rise of ISIS and the resurgence of Al-Qa'ida, the revolutions and counter-revolutions unfolding, and the attacks across Europe do not simply revolve around September 11.  The attacks have their place amongst other factors in understanding the world we live in today.

 Matthew Williams