(This story has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark a series of coordinated terrorist attacks by AL Qaeda against the US on 11 September 2001, which led to the collapse of the World Trade Centre.)
Twenty years ago, on 11 September 2001, two aircraft crashed into New York’s twin World Trade Center towers and changed global alchemy forever…
Even now, it’s hard to fathom the chain of events that produced the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil in history, and the international upheaval it triggered. Nineteen Islamic jihadis, trained by Al Qaeda and inspired by Osama bin Laden’s war against the West, boarded four different commercial US jetliners, following a carefully crafted plan to turn them into suicide missiles.
None of the nineteen appeared on the FAA’s ‘no fly’ list, which consisted of only twelve names – the operation’s alleged mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, among them; two – Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar – graced the State Department’s 61,000-person ‘TIPOFF’ list, but the FAA had no access to that list.
Most of the hijackers came from countries at least nominally allied with the US; three had entered the country on visas easily obtained through an expedited programme in Saudi Arabia requiring no interviews with US officials. One, Hani Hanjour, had been rejected from a Saudi flight school before earning his pilot’s licence in Arizona.
On that sparkling morning, they carried chemical sprays, utility knives and box-cutters through airport security. And when they broke into the cockpits mid-flight to hijack the aircraft, only one team faced enough resistance to prevent it from reaching its target.
United Flight 93 crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing all forty passengers aboard. The other aircraft struck their targets with sickening precision, abetted by an alarming lack of communication and coordination among US government agencies on the ground.
One plane plowed into the side of the Pentagon, creating a gaping hole in the heavily-guarded headquarters of the US military, and killing 125.
In New York, the twin towers of the World Trade Center – that glittering icon of Western prosperity – were hit seventeen minutes apart; in perhaps the day’s most incomprehensible horror, they buckled under the heat from the fiery crashes and crumpled to the ground. In all, nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks, including more than 400 emergency service workers.
The New York Stock Exchange, which never opened on 11 September, remained closed for the rest of the week – the longest shutdown since 1933. When it reopened on Monday, 17 September, the Dow Jones Industrial Index plummeted nearly 685 points; by the end of that week, those losses had more than doubled. Bond trading halted, too; Cantor Fitzgerald, which had occupied four of the top floors in the North Tower, bore the unfortunate distinction that day of losing more employees than any other company: 658.
Markets plunged in Europe and North America, and the dollar fell against the euro, the pound and the yen. Official estimates put the immediate property losses at roughly $16 billion. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimated that the attacks cost the city between $33 and $36 billion in lost earnings, property damage and cleanup. New York City’s private sector lost 147,000 jobs – nearly 5 percent.
Washington’s response to 9/11 – an aggressive combination of military action and economic measures – was meant to preserve American hegemony and stabilise the US economy. Instead, it paved the way for the 2008 financial crisis and the biggest geopolitical shift since the end of World War II.
Pakistan & India, Thousands of Miles Away, got Sucked into the Epicentre
For President Pervez Musharraf, the tragedy marked an irresistible opportunity to end Pakistan’s diplomatic isolation and repair its relationship with the US, which had suffered since he seized power in a coup two years earlier.
He agreed to provide intelligence and logistical support for US forces in Afghanistan in exchange for a hefty aid package and an end to the economic sanctions imposed after Pakistan conducted a nuclear test in 1998. At a joint press conference in November, President Bush thanked Musharraf for condemning the terrorist acts of 9/11 and for the ‘even greater courage and vision and leadership’ he’d shown since then. He called the Pakistani dictator the ‘strong leader’ of a ‘strong ally’.
For India, the US war on terror – and especially Pakistan’s role in it – created new challenges as well as opportunities. India, which was among the first countries to respond after 9/11, pledged full ‘ideological and diplomatic support’, though it stopped short of providing direct military aid.
A Gallup poll conducted just ahead of the invasion of Afghanistan found that out of thirty-seven countries, India was one of just three – along with the US and Israel – where the public supported military action instead of extradition and trial for the 9/11 suspects. That Indians joined Israelis in supporting America’s armed response to the terrorist acts demonstrated a stunning shift in historic alliances: Delhi had only established diplomatic relations with Jerusalem in 1992, after initially opposing the creation of a Jewish state in 1948. But India shared significant connections with Israel: born of religion and steeped in bloodshed, the two democracies were established within six months of each other, and both were accustomed to battling hostile neighbours and internal terrorist attacks.
Indeed, Delhi saw the US war on terror as a chance to fortify its strategic position, in part by bolstering its own fight against Islamic militants. Pakistan’s renewed role as US ally complicated those plans.
Though Indians recognised Washington’s need to enlist Islamabad – and understood they would be among the big winners if the Al Qaeda network was disrupted – it still stung to see the US once again cozying up to the very source of India’s own terrorist troubles. Some Indians fretted that Pakistan’s acquiescence to the US might marginalize Delhi’s relationship with Washington, and that in any case the Pakistani government couldn’t be trusted to uphold its word.
India’s Dramatic Vindication
Yet India remained calm and supportive, demonstrating its growing maturity as a democratic partner. It didn’t hurt that India also reaped some economic benefits from Pakistan’s cooperation: when Bush eliminated sanctions on Pakistan, he did the same for India – which had conducted a nuclear test around the same time – because ‘parity had to be maintained,’ as a 2003 Congressional Research Service report put it.
Among the controls loosened for India was Washington’s export of ‘dual use’ – civilian and military – nuclear technology, a move that was downplayed but symbolically significant.
The denouement came full circle when Pakistan’s ultimate perfidy was revealed ten years later. Osama bin Laden’s last hiding place stood less than a mile from the premier Pakistan military academy, the equivalent to West Point or Britain’s Sandhurst. By the time a team of specially trained US Navy SEALs blasted their way into the unassuming compound on 2 May 2011, America’s most wanted terrorist had been holed up there for six years. India stood dramatically vindicated.