44. Al-Qa’ida and 9/11



September 11, 2001 and the two wars that flowed from 9/11 – first Afghanistan and then Iraq – were the defining moments on an international plane for Blair and his government. The carnage in New York and Washington DC, resulting from the suicide air attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, was a world event like few before.

It is said that everyone who lived through this can remember where they were when the news of this event came through, as with the assassination of US President John Kennedy. I was busy packing a suitcase, in expectation of flying the next day to visit Costa Rica via Miami, to discuss with a group of Trotskyists who appeared to be open to the analysis and ideas of the CWI. I had one eye on the television because Blair was due to speak at the TUC that day. The news that the New York World Trade Center had been hit was stunning but as we witnessed – live on television – the second attack, it was even more so. Blair was forced to change his agenda. He cancelled his prepared speech to the TUC, apart from a few perfunctory remarks, and immediately returned to London. I continued packing, naively expecting that I would be able to proceed with the arranged visits, if not on September 12, then a few days later. The trip was eventually cancelled, with few flights out of London for weeks and even for a month to some destinations.

The CWI rushed out a lengthy statement a few days after September 11, in which we condemned the slaughter and sought to draw some immediate conclusions. We wrote: “New technology and the speed of modern communication allowed millions of people on every continent to follow the horrific events as they unfolded. This resulted in an outpouring of emotion, a deep sense of concern and revulsion throughout the whole of the planet. In the neo-colonial world, particularly in the Middle East, there are also expressions of open regret that innocents have had to suffer but this combines with the feeling that this is the result of the crimes of US imperialism in the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

“These events have colossal repercussions for the US and its aftereffects are still reverberating globally. Thousands of people have been killed and countless others maimed on the bloodiest day of violence on US soil since the battle of Antietam in the civil war in the 19th century. More than 300 firefighters, who heroically rushed into the World Trade Center (WTC) to rescue victims, were killed. Many emergency service workers perished. It is not possible to remain unmoved by the scenes of devastation and death.”1

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the airliners revealed a terrible human tragedy in all its dimensions. The firefighters were heroic with one survivor commenting that as he was frantically rushing down the stairs to escape, they were going up to rescue those trapped above. They subsequently perished when the World Trade Center collapsed. The scenes of people jumping from windows – with one couple holding hands as they did so – in a desperate attempt to cling to life, were etched into the consciousness of the world. The remarkable story of a man who fell 83 floors and survived is another example. There was also the tragic case of a firefighter rushing to save people who were killed by somebody who jumped out of the World Trade Center windows.

This added to the basic human feeling of the horror at these events. These sentiments are shared by Marxists who in no way turn their eyes away from the terrible conditions which motivated the suicide bombers and who refused to line up with the hysterical hypocrites of Bush, Blair and the capitalist rulers of the world, who banged the war drums in preparation for military action, not just against the perpetrators of these actions but many innocents as well.

The bombing attacks were completely indiscriminate. Ironically, included amongst many of the thousands of US workers killed at the World Trade Center were those of many ethnic and national backgrounds from the neo-colonial world. The CWI condemned these and similar bombings. They were reprehensible and played into the hands of the ruling class in the US and internationally and the consequences rebounded on the masses particularly in the neo-colonial world.

The repercussions from a ‘security’, economic, social and political standpoint were greatest immediately in the US. This was a worldwide event which left no part of the world untouched by its repercussions. This was the biggest attack on the US ever.

Comparisons were drawn with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 but even that paled before the suicide attacks of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Just over two thousand were killed in the Pearl Harbour attack but the estimated numbers who perished in the World Trade Center were greater. Moreover, the Pearl Harbour attack took place on a Pacific island. This was the first attack on the US ‘mainland’ since the 1812-14 war with Britain. The US had not experienced this type of attack before (leaving aside the failed attack on the World Trade Center in 1993), despite the fact that it went through the Second World War, the Cold War, including the Cuban missile crisis, and the Gulf War.

“A handful of suicide attackers armed with knives managed successfully to devastate the financial centre of the US and, therefore, of the world – the WTC, downtown Manhattan and, indirectly, Wall Street – and the military power of US imperialism concentrated in the Pentagon. At the same time, the crashed airliner in Pittsburgh, presidential spokesmen claimed, was possibly targeting the White House, Camp David or even Airforce One, with Bush on it at the time. New York City, which was paralysed for days in the aftermath of the bombing, was one of the richest cities on the globe independently ‘raking in more annually than all of the world’s most advanced states. In 1998, the city’s budget exceeded that of some major countries, including Russia.”2

New York was more than just a wealthy city of eight million people. It was the financial capital of the world’s largest economy. As the significance of what happened in New York sank in across the country, America’s smaller exchanges closed down one by one. But it was the New York stock exchange that moved global financial events. This was the first time since the Second World War that the New York financial markets were closed for two consecutive working days.

Even before the full effects of this tragedy were digested, the questioning and divisions within the US ruling class and worldwide had already opened up. Questions were being posed, such as, how was it possible for US imperialism and its ‘security agencies’, with its battery of the latest hi-tech equipment, with an army of ‘counterspies’ to seemingly have no warning of these events? This is despite the fact that Osama bin Laden, the main culprit, according to US spokesmen, and the author of these events, “warned as recently as three months ago of retribution against the US for the ‘crimes against the peoples of the Middle East and Islam as a whole’.”3

Moreover, other states, such as France, had received recent warnings and had taken action against attacks from Islamic militants. We commented at the time:

“Mixed in with the bewilderment and anger at the bombings and their perpetrators is a growing realisation and a perplexity that the US is not perceived as the ‘defender of liberty’ internationally but is hated by significant sections of the world’s population for its role as an oppressor, particularly in the neo-colonial world. It is the foremost power and champion of untrammelled global capitalism…

“Gone like the snows of yesteryear is the concept now of ‘Fortress America’. The effect on the consciousness of the US people, and foremost among them the US working class, will be felt in the medium and long term. Paradoxically, the idea that the fate of the majority of the US population is tied to that of the peoples in Africa, Asia, Latin America, never mind in Europe and Japan, will grow. But in the first instance, a patriotic and maybe even a xenophobic mood will develop and be whipped up by the US ruling class.”4

The world bourgeoisie, beginning with the US, sought to use these events to vilify the anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation protesters and, at the same time, bolster the repressive apparatus of the state. In the aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing, measures were used to tighten up ‘security’. However, it was not just in the US or in air travel, either internally in the US or internationally, that the capitalist states sought to strengthen their role. Serious attempts were made to undermine individual and personal liberties including the freedom to travel. For example in Germany, the then opposition Christian Social Union suggested that the German army should be deployed in an internal security role, a prohibition eventually lifted in 2012. The National Guard and army were deployed in New York and Washington DC with their panoply of tanks and armoured cars.

While we issued a warning against the war preparations of the bourgeoisie – which were evident almost immediately after 9/11 – at the same time, we unreservedly attacked the terrorist methods used by the perpetrators. We wrote of the event:

“This underlines the argument that Marxism has always made against terrorist methods carried out by conspiratorial groups, which, no matter what the underlying causes – oppression, discrimination, poverty… – always has the opposite and reactionary effects to that which its perpetrators anticipate.

“In the past, Marxists, who base themselves on mass action, had to oppose ‘individual terrorism’, usually action by individuals or small groups to assassinate individual representatives of the ruling class, who would simply be replaced by new leaders. The attacks in the US, however, are a form of mass terrorism carried out by a conspiratorial group, not only striking a blow at the symbols of US wealth and power but also indiscriminately claiming the lives of thousands of ordinary people.

“The denunciation of ‘terrorists’ in the mouths of Tony Blair, Bush, Ariel Sharon, Vladimir Putin and the rest of them is pure hypocrisy. They are the greatest perpetrators of mass terror, usually against mostly defenceless peoples…

“The veteran expert on the Middle East, Robert Fisk, commented in the British daily, The Independent: ‘Ask an Arab how he responds to 20,000 or 30,000 innocent deaths and he or she will respond as decent people should, that it is an unspeakable crime. But they will ask why we did not use such words about the sanctions that have destroyed the lives of perhaps half a million children in Iraq [a Palestinian journalist in The Guardian has put the figure as one million children who have died from the effects of depleted uranium and starvation]… [12 September]

“Leaders of the G7 sat down for talks with Putin in Genoa, Russia’s prime minister at the time of the final Russian assault on Grozny, Chechnya, in 1999 which resulted in the slaughter of thousands of people.

“We oppose ‘terrorism’ but we use this term in a different sense to the pejorative fashion in which the bourgeoisie uses it. For Blair, Sharon and Bush it does not apply to them when they use mass terrorist methods. However, they argue it is legitimate to use this term, when a subject people, take up arms to defend themselves against an oppressive regime. By this reasoning, the South African masses had no right to resist the apartheid regime armed to the teeth. The Palestinian masses are expected to lie down and meekly accept the unspeakable social conditions, the denial of legitimate democratic and national rights, the torture, and the daily bombardments and killings including of women and children…

“Similarly, no matter what the motivation of the suicide bombers was, the net result, as is already evident in the few days following these events, has been to create the conditions to allow the ruling classes of the world to begin to strengthen and justify repressive measures aimed not just against ‘terrorists’ but against working class movements, radicals and those who intend to protest against the inequality and injustice of the capitalist system.”5

Bin Laden was a creature of US imperialism’s intervention, particularly through the medium of the CIA (who financed him), in the proxy war they organised through the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union’s presence in Afghanistan. The sins of the past of US imperialism were being revisited on the heads of innocent American men, women and children today. We stressed that we should also remember that Bin Laden and al-Qa’ida are not in any way progressive forces and are even to the right of the theocratic regime in Saudi Arabia.

War hysteria was whipped up in the US and to some extent worldwide. One New Yorker on the day of the attacks declared: “I feel like going to war again. No mercy. We have to come together like ‘41, go after them.”6 Rather than countering such sentiments, if anything, the ‘sober’ spokespersons for US capitalism appeared to be stoking this mood. The Washington Post declared: “The nation must prepare itself to fight its first war of the new century— one that will begin with identifying and punishing the authors of yesterday’s mass murder, but one that must continue until the sources of support for the terrorists have been eliminated and the country’s defenses against such unconventional warfare decisively strengthened.” Speaking of the new “enemy”, it went on to state that the US “must seek to assemble an international alliance to identify and eliminate all sources of support for the terrorist networks that would wage war on the United States. If necessary, it must act alone.”7

Kissinger, with the blood of thousands of Chilean workers on his hands from the coup which he inspired and helped organise against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in September 1973, jumped on the bandwagon to denounce ‘terrorism’. He demanded US forces and their allies should be prepared for an invasion of offending states: “Any government that shelters groups capable of this kind of attack, whether or not they can be shown to have been involved in this attack, must pay an exorbitant price.”8

Through Britain a NATO coalition, similar to that assembled at the time of the intervention in and bombing of Serbia during the Kosova war, was prepared for action. Indeed, US imperialism was trying to go even further. Just days after the attacks, they attempted to assemble an even wider coalition, similar to that established at the time of the Gulf War.

Gerhard Schröder the German chancellor, who criticised US imperialism at the time of the Gulf War, fell into line and sent troops to serve with NATO in Afghanistan, as he had done in Kosova. Blair had no need to change his position as traditionally he acted, as had all representatives of British imperialism since 1945, as the poodle of American capitalism. Even Russian capitalism, in the form of Putin, fell in solidly behind US imperialism on this issue. Even if the ‘coalition’ would not hold in the mid and long term, it nevertheless, at this time, enormously strengthened US imperialism’s hand to use whatever measures it deemed necessary to strike back.

As we wrote, this provided the chance to prepare for “at the very least some kind of military intervention, possibly not just air strikes but the use of ground troops, will be deployed against bin Laden’s ‘bases’ in Afghanistan… This would have repercussions not just in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan, with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, which the Musharraf government is impotent to combat. The Pakistani regime is armed with nuclear devices, as is India, and it has been an enduring concern of American imperialism that conflict in this theatre could spiral out of control and result in a limited nuclear exchange.”

We could point to the retrogressive effects of terrorism:

“In Britain, for instance, Blair faced a revolt of the trade unions at the September TUC congress on privatisation. It was widely canvassed beforehand, that he would face the most hostile audience since coming to power four years [previously]. However, just before he was due to speak, the attacks took place in the US and he promptly cancelled his speech. There was no debate, therefore, at the TUC congress on privatisation.

“Thus this key issue facing the British working class and labour movement was not even aired properly at the TUC. Moreover, the conference was wound up early for the first time since 1939 (when the Second World War was declared), adding to the ‘war atmosphere’ which the British ruling class along with the ruling classes worldwide want to create. One of the by-products of this ‘non-class’ or ‘all-classes-together’ attitude will be the capitalists’ intention to carry through with the minimum of opposition fundamental attacks on the living standards and the rights of the working class. The Bush administration is being pressed to immediately cut ‘capital gains’ tax.”

In Germany the slogan used for the rally at the Brandenburg Gate was: “No power to terror – solidarity with the USA.” It was interesting that the bourgeoisie and the social democratic leaders had to borrow some of the language of the working class – ‘solidarity’ – in order to justify the expression of unity with the employers and with their system which, of course, is responsible for spawning the conditions which have given rise to terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The only reason why the British TUC did not call a similar demonstration was probably the fear of setting a precedent, as well as their lack of influence in general in society and amongst their members. If a demonstration had been called, it would undoubtedly be invoked in the future as an example of what could be done on burning social issues such as cuts and privatisation.

The atmosphere of hatred and intimidation whipped up against the seven million Muslims in the US and in other countries is typified by what was reported from Chicago. Many taxi drivers came from Muslim countries and one fleet ordered drivers to go home on Tuesday following a proliferation of abusive comments from passengers. Moreover, many Muslim colleges and mosques remained under guard. In Europe there were examples of verbal abuse directed against Asian people. It remained an important task for ‘Socialist Alternative’ (the US co-thinkers of the CWI) where possible to seek to defend verbally and in action this minority which could be witchhunted and persecuted in the next days, weeks and months.

On what bearing these events would have on perspectives, we conceded that it was possible that the anti-globalisation movement would be temporarily thrown off balance; some people who had participated in the movement or joined in demonstrations may be discouraged and drop away. “But the objective situation which led to these movements will not go away; on the contrary, it could worsen with the overall position of capitalism undermined.”

However, the general situation, at least in the short term, would not be now as favourable as we anticipated, perhaps particularly in the US. “In the medium and long term the fundamental weaknesses of US and world capitalism will be compounded by these events. For instance, if as expected US imperialism explodes in a military interventionist fashion, with the thousands of victims that will result from this, that will in turn have a powerful effect on the consciousness of the already worldwide anti-globalisation movement. The issue of war and peace will come much more to the fore with the possibility of powerful peace movements coalescing with the anti-corporate, anti-global capitalism movement. It should be remembered that, notwithstanding the military might of US imperialism, while it can pursue military-police operations including invasions and temporary occupations of countries or parts of countries, it cannot, as Napoleon discovered, sit on bayonets to hold whole nations in chains.”

Everything depended on whether US imperialism would be able to establish a military ‘victory’. International military incursions, even if they were carefully calibrated, would only compound the problems in the Middle East and, particularly, Israel/Palestine which remained a powder keg. Under cover of these events, the Israeli ruling class temporarily moved in and occupied two Palestinian towns and then subsequently withdrew. Sharon, the Israeli prime minister at the time, announced the intention to establish a buffer zone between the West Bank, Gaza and Israel proper.

This conflict was given a further twist by the involvement for the first time ever of an Israeli Arab in a suicide bomb attack, which heightened the conflict within Israel itself. It also reinforced the tendency of a section of the Israeli ruling class to contemplate the doomsday scenario of a repartition of the area, involving the driving out of the million Arabs in Israel, the consolidation of a number of the Israeli settlements already in the West Bank into Israel, and the erection of a cordon sanitaire around Israel. The exclusion of all Palestinians from Israel, we argued, would enormously compound the social and economic problems of the West Bank and Gaza and provide a festering source for another round of vicious terrorism, from which America, with the rest of the capitalist world, would once again suffer. This running sore would be a guarantee of a further round of terrorist attacks, including on the US, and counter-measures.

Therefore, no matter which route US and world imperialism was to choose, it would find no solution to its problems. Temporarily, class and social issues could be pushed to the background by these events. We emphasised that there would be a minority, and a significant minority at that, who would look for explanations and could eagerly embrace the analysis and programme that we put forward.

We stated bluntly that: “This period will be a testing time for our US collaborators in particular, and for the CWI as a whole. But we must not be blown off course.”9 We would remain firm in the face of what could be another vicious round of bourgeois ideological warfare which aimed to demonise all who stand against their system as ‘terrorists’. However, the relationship of class forces would not be fundamentally altered by these events. The economic situation and its political repercussions would be felt in the political arena ultimately. The CWI had established very important points of support and could grow substantially, especially in the medium and long term, if we ideologically came to terms with this new situation. This was a very important turning point in US and world history. How we faced up to this position would be an important test of socialists and CWI members and supporters.

Blair and Bush seized on the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to prepare, within days, a war in Afghanistan. In his book Blair writes: “In the Arab world, condemnation was nearly universal, only Saddam ensuring that Iraqi state television played a partisan song, ‘Down with America’, calling the attacks ‘the fruits of American crimes against humanity’.”10 By dragging in Saddam, he indicates that he and Bush already saw military action in Afghanistan merely as a preliminary foray for the real war in Iraq later.

However, ruminating later on the war, he writes: “If I had known then that a decade later we would still be fighting in Afghanistan, I would have been profoundly perturbed and alarmed.”11 Amen, say the peoples of Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East as a whole and the majority of the world’s population. The truth is that the attack on the World Trade Center was a pretext for military intervention, which Blair and Bush thought would involve a quick military action and then a victorious withdrawal. They were to learn a very harsh lesson, one that all invaders of Afghanistan have experienced: Alexander the Great, the British Empire and Russian Stalinism. The mountainous terrain and the scattered population were ideal for a protracted guerrilla war, making outright military victory well-nigh impossible. Blair admits later: “I knew little about Afghanistan, but I did know it was a country that over the centuries had been invaded, occupied and plundered yet always seemed eventually to swallow and spit out the invaders.”12

Yet despite this, he committed himself with Bush to “remove the Taliban, and a reconstruction plan for Afghanistan”.13 The world is still waiting for the achievements of these two ‘war aims’. In the meantime, Afghanistan has been laid waste, as has Iraq and the Middle East as a whole. The population of Iraq are now so besieged by uncontrollable terrorist attacks that they look back wistfully to the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Blair also comments: “I left the stage of the TUC – ironically given a better reception than any I ever enjoyed…”14 This completely bears out our warning that terrorist methods in general would not strengthen but weaken the working class. Blair details the war preparations: “The next weeks were spent in a frantic but essentially well-organised process to put together the military operation to remove the Taliban.”15 Yet despite the colossal expenditure in lives, as well as the treasure of the British and the American people, that task remains as yet to be completed. When the invasion took place, the Taliban just melted away, regrouped and prepared for a protracted struggle. US imperialism has now largely withdrawn, as have the British, although huge military bases like Bagram were retained to ensure a continued presence in the country and allow swift intervention if necessary.

Even before the war in Afghanistan began, a polarisation was taking place with undoubted support from perhaps the majority of the US population, but with a significant minority opposing the rush to war. Socialist Alternative intervened in the growing anti-war movement.

In Britain, 63% indicated in a poll that they were prepared to see British troops, ships and planes take part in action, but there was also significant unease about Britain being plunged into a prolonged war.