COVER STORY: Remembering the day that shook the world
by John Miller
News Weekly, September 17, 2011
September 11 this year marked the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC — a day of infamy that has seared itself indelibly on people’s memories.
At 08:46;26, Eastern Daylight Time, American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 airliner, with 92 people on board, that had been hijacked in mid-air en route from Boston to Los Angeles, speared into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York, between floors 93 and 99, travelling at an estimated airspeed of 425 knots (790km/h), breaching the central core of the tower and severing elevators and three stairwells and engulfing the impacted area in a ball of flame.
Within two minutes, people above the impact realised that with the central core breached there was no possibility of evacuation, whereupon at least 100 commenced jumping to their deaths, although that figure could have been as high as 250.
By that time the U.S. authorities had been alerted to the danger of hijacked aircraft and President George W. Bush was informed of the tragedy by 08:55 am. The North American Aerospace Defense Command, alerted at 08:34, scrambled two F-15 fighter jets, seconds before the impact of Flight 11 and with no hope of interception.
Unknown to the authorities, United Airlines Flight 175, a Boeing 767 also en route from Boston to Los Angeles, with 65 people on board, reported Flight 11 some 16 kms south of its expected position at 08:37; but four minutes later, it was in the hands of hijackers and narrowly missed two other domestic flights in the immediate vicinity. Twenty-two minutes later, at 09:03, Flight 175 hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center. This was the only impact seen live on television, and the tower collapsed 56 minutes later.
At approximately 23:00 Australian time, local television took a live feed from New York to see the effects of the first collision, smoke pouring from the North Tower after the impact of Flight 11.
Horrifying as that sight was, at the same time two other aircraft were being hijacked. At 08:20, American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757 with 64 aboard, departed from Dulles International Airport, Washington DC, for Los Angeles, and at 08:42 United Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757 with 44 passengers and crew, left New York’s Newark Airport headed for San Francisco.
Within the span of 10 agonising minutes, both flights fell into the hands of terrorists. Flight 77 was lost to radar, turning south over Ohio, diverging from its flight plan and headed for Washington DC. It remained undetected for 36 minutes, before being reacquired by radar, 8 kms east-southwest of the Pentagon, making a 330-degree turn before accelerating to maximum power and slamming into the first-floor level on the Western side of the Pentagon at 09:37:46, travelling at an estimated 853km/h and producing a huge fireball that rose over 60m above and penetrating three outer rings of the building and killing 125 people in addition to all on the flight.
By then, only Flight 93 was still in the air. The hijacking had commenced at 09:28 and all indications point to an intended target in Washington. The terrorists were apparently in control of the aircraft within 10 minutes, killing both pilots; but, according to many accounts, including phone calls from the doomed aircraft and onboard recordings, the passengers stormed the cockpit in an attempt to re-take control of the aircraft.
The struggle was such that the airliner rolled onto its back and came down in a field just outside Scranton, Pennsylvania killing all aboard. Its intended target may never be known, although some have conjectured that it was the White House or the Capitol.
In just a few hours of carnage, nearly 3,000 people from 70 countries were killed by these brutally efficient suicide attacks, including 19 hijackers and over 400 emergency services personnel. Those are the bald statistics and are quite possibly an underestimate — we shall never know.
After initially denying responsibility for the attacks, al Qaeda claimed credit through its leader Osama bin Laden, who had declared a fatwa on the United States and its allies in the mid-1990s, calling for the destruction of Israel, condemning the presence of U.S. troops in his homeland, Saudi Arabia, and the existence of sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime.
The mastermind behind the deceptively simple plot was Kahilid Sheikh Mohammed, currently awaiting trial in the U.S. As we know, the U.S. response against Afghanistan and Iraq was swift and deployed forces which are still in the field today, making it the longest war in U.S. history. Eventually, bin Laden paid with his life on May 1 this year, while living in hiding in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Have we learned any lessons in 10 years?
To my mind this is the most damnably difficult question to answer, largely because political correctness and government policies loom large in the response. Furthermore to learn means actually heeding the lessons of history and not repeating mistakes, as George Santayana famously observed.
1) Al Qaeda declared war on the U.S., Israel and all Western allies well before 9/11 — it took that event to raise the alert.
2) Australians died in New York and later in the Bali and London bombings. As a consequence, Australia introduced strong counter-terrorism measures, including the anti-terrorist hotline; yet trendy left-wing intellectuals and commentators mocked and derided these policies and measures.
3) There have been at least five extremely serious terrorist plots nipped in the bud by Australian authorities since 9/11. The Lucky Country has been lucky, but there have been times when good work has not been recognised. Counterterrorism is dangerous work and those involved require support and encouragement.
4) Despite quibbles about some details, there is broad bipartisan political support for the measures taken, especially with regard to airline security. We have become patient about sometimes onerous changes to routine, but no responsible figure has called for dismantling or seriously diluting counter-terrorist measures. The soft wing of the civil liberties movement grumbles incessantly about both but without effect: that is their right under law. We do not need more authoritarian government except if the circumstances demand change, which should be constantly reviewed and subject to a “sunset clause”.
5) We have supported the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, following 9/11. While neither commitment has been popular, they have both been broadly understood and supported. After some initial and intolerable blunders, our war dead are treated with honour and respect, but the needs of military returnees could and should be improved. If our young people are deployed to fight, then they are owed a duty of due care if injured, while the families of the dead need appropriate assistance. We should realise that the civilian “nation-building” effort is important, but trying to bring mountain tribespeople into the 21st century is risky because of cultural differences.
6) Because there has not yet been a successful terrorist attack on home soil, there is too much complacency in certain circles, especially in academia and the legal profession and among those concerned with civil rights. They have a right to express their misgivings. However, this makes it even more incumbent on both Government and Opposition to ensure that the current national security measures are more clearly explained and understood by the electorate.
7) Continued Muslim immigration and the policy of multiculturalism remain in place, despite the fact that neither policy was ever put to the electorate. While few Muslims are terrorists, most terrorists are Muslims. There is still much to commend the John Howard doctrine that the people of Australia should decide “who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”. There is no place for a migrant who gains citizenship and a passport, then departs to be trained by terrorists overseas for operations abroad or at home. Swift deportation from Australia is the necessary step, without appeal.
8) Because a clear Australian identity is lacking, apart from a collection of government platitudes about mateship and a fair go, certain redneck elements are able to mobilise segments of the population, as for example after the 2005 Cronulla Beach riots. Violence and civil action by vigilante groups must be met with the full force of the law.
9) As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 comes around, we must realise that we are still very much at war. Quite recently, senior police and security officials have gone public with warnings about the possibility that an individual or group might succeed in launching a terrorist attack on our country. As a senior IRA operative once said: “We (the terrorists) only have to be lucky once; but the authorities have to be lucky all the time.”
Actions based on luck or perceptions of good fortune are no substitute for ongoing vigilance and steadfast intent. Statements from the U.S. that al Qaeda has been dealt a fatal blow have been dictated by domestic policy needs. Al Qaeda has lost key leaders, but a dispersed organisation is much harder to monitor, penetrate and defeat. Al Qaeda is as much a state of mind as an organisation. Focusing excessively on it and bin Laden has obscured other dangers faced by the Western allies from other entities such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jemaah Islamiyah and a veritable alphabet soup of other Islamic fundamentalist groups with terrorist wings and the same ideology.
10) The question of refugees coming to Australia by boat has been and continues to be a political football or hot potato. I make no excuses for holding the view that people choosing this method of arrival are desperate and I regard the term “processing” as being unacceptable, with Hitlerian overtones. However, there needs to be joint party agreement on some system that permits boats to land and the credentials of bona fide refugees to be checked. Nevertheless, we should not be afraid to deny refuge to individuals who have resorted to subterfuge to gain entry into our country.
Lastly, Australia is a liberal Western democracy, within the general definition of that term, and falls within the Judaeo-Christian ethos. If migrants wish to stay here, they should conform to our laws, norms and values.
There is no place for Third World countercultures, with sharia law and the retrograde marginalisation of women. Any resident in Australia convicted of planning or abetting a terrorist operation should be deprived of his visa or citizenship and be deported after jail sentences without extensive delays and legal malarkey. There is no place for Islamic “clergy” in jails: experience around the globe suggests that they assist in the radicalisation of prisoners.
Like other citizens, migrants have rights but also responsibilities. Australia is not to be re-shaped into a different image by political activists with hidden agendas, and our governments should make this abundantly clear by word and action.
This global conflict in which we find ourselves will not go away: truly the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.