The day that shook the world

Published in The Observer (September 11th, 2011)

The Eleventh Day by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan (Doubleday); The 9/11 Wars by Jason Burke (Allen Lane); Granta 116: Ten Years Later edited by John Freeman  (Granta)

A few weeks before the shock warriors of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network pulled off their most murderous stunt, the acting head of the FBI was trying to get his nation’s attorney general to focus on the looming danger facing the US. He didn’t get very far. “I don’t want to hear about that anymore,” responded John Ashcroft, one of the most unimpressive figures in an administration overfilled with inadequates, incompetents and ideologues. “I don’t want you to ever talk to me about al-Qaida, about these threats. I don’t want to hear about al-Qaida anymore.”

With that display of insouciance he headed off on a fishing holiday – though he took a chartered jet rather than a commercial flight because of the high state of alert. His president, meanwhile, travelled to Italy for a summit with anti-aircraft guns lining the runway, airspace closed and fighters flying overhead because of intelligence warnings that Bin Laden was planning an attack using “an aeroplane stuffed with explosives”.

Since then, of course, we have heard a lot about al-Qaida as a result of events that took place 10 years ago today. Perhaps even too much – and definitely too much that has been ill-informed. But one thing is certain: no one can say America was not warned about the biggest attack on its soil since Pearl Harbor.

As Anthony Summers and his wife Robbyn Swan make clear in The Eleventh Day: The Ultimate Account of 9/11, the red alerts flashed up from scores of sources with alarming regularity. They were ignored in what amounted to a betrayal of the American people due to scarcely believable ineptitude, infighting among intelligence agencies and political priorities lying elsewhere.

Little wonder George Bush looked so stunned when his reading lesson in a Florida school was interrupted with news that terror had descended on New York and then Washington from that clear blue autumnal sky. He had, after all, received a CIA briefing paper entitled “Bin Laden determined to strike in US” just one month earlier, but did not let it spoil his holiday. Upon receiving it, he responded with a dismissive, “All right, you’ve covered your ass now”.

With the subsequent inquiries came evasion and lies. The national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told people she was not with the president the day that crucial briefing landed – but CIA director George Tenet confirmed she was there in a formal letter to the investigating body. In his own sworn testimony, Tenet denied seeing the president for the whole of August, only for it to emerge he had twice met him in Texas.

Then there was the dogmatism that proved so destructive and scarred the decade. By the time Bush made it back to the capital and met key aides in his underground bunker, there was finally a belated focus on al-Qaida. But even then, just hours after the attack, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was heard to comment: “You know, we’ve got to do Iraq.”

Such nuggets pour from Summers and Swan’s highly readable review of America’s darkest day in living memory, although it is easy to be deterred by a cover and title more in keeping with a Hollywood disaster movie. The human tragedies are poignant despite their familiarity, the marshalling of data punchy and generally perceptive, the daft conspiracy theories demolished as surely as the twin towers themselves. But in truth, apart from the strength of their inquisition of Saudi links to the plot, there is little here that has not been aired before and a few too many blind alleys.

More interesting is Jason Burke’s sweeping and compelling look at the way the world changed in the wake of the mass murders. He places the past decade under the headline of The 9/11 Wars, which is somewhat contrived but allows him to wander from major conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq to riots in France, the stabbing of a radical film-maker in Holland, and suicide bombings in places as far apart as Britain and Bali.

With an open mind and the calm detachment of a man who knows his terrain, Burke charts a series of struggles that defy the usual easy assumptions, crass cliches and seductive simplicities. He picks apart localised conflicts caught up in a complex and constantly shifting mesh of generational and globalised concerns and concludes that, as yet, the west has merely avoided defeat in a long struggle.

In 2004, shortly after Bush’s re-election as president, the quadrennial review of US intelligence agencies foresaw continued American dominance for many years to come. Four years later, it judged the nation was on the brink of no longer being able to “call the shots” in a fragmented world. “The limits of the ability of the USA and its Western allies to impose their will and vision on parts of the world have been very publicly revealed,” concludes Burke.

The strength of the book lies partly in fine reportage with telling anecdotes and instructive human stories. Typical is the story of  Abu Mujahed, an Iraqi bureaucrat and Bon Jovi fan who ended up an insurgent leader, bombing the America liberators he once welcomed. The process of disillusionment was rapid, a succession of slights, slayings and cultural insensitivities turning him into a rebel. Such foot soldiers in the 9/11 wars could never be called Islamic militants.

On top of this comes some smart analysis, whether Burke is pointing out the parallels between radical extremists and teenage gangs in London, giving us a well-informed take on the implosion of Pakistan or offering his observations on the Arab spring, with its unequivocal rejection of al-Qaida propaganda.

Such themes also percolate through the short stories, poems and reportage in Granta 116: Ten Years Later, edited by John Freeman. The collection begins brilliantly with the first published story of a US marine veteran named Phil Klay, a razor-sharp tale about the dislocation felt returning home after months at war. Thereafter, it isn’t quite so impressive, although Nadeem Aslam’s engaging story of a hapless kidnap victim in Afghanistan and Declan Walsh’s musings on repeated follies in Pakistan’s tribal belt are well worth reading.

Walsh quotes the former British viceroy to India, Lord Curzon, on his solution to unrest in the region: “Not until the military steamroller has passed over the country from end to end will there be peace.” A familiar delusion that shows how little we learn from history.

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