The morning of September 11, 2001, dawned clear and bright. On the east coast of the United States, it was a lovely autumn day with not a cloud in the sky.
Just before 8am, American Airlines Flight 11 lifted off from the runway at Logan Airport, Boston. Climbing into the heavens, the plane turned west towards the great American prairies — and kept going.
Six hours later, Flight 11 touched down on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport. The passengers disembarked, collected their bags and walked away into the rest of their lives.
Their morning could have unfolded very differently. According to documents found in the ruins of a terrorist camp in the mountains of Afghanistan, this was the date initially selected by the Islamist terrorist group Al Qaeda for a massive, coordinated attack on the U.S.
Al Qaeda’s plan identified Flight 11 as a potential target. Taken over by a team of hijackers, it was to be crashed into the World Trade Center as part of a devastating, concerted attack on major U.S. public buildings.
Had the plan been carried out, thousands of people would have died. The shock and horror are almost impossible to imagine. And the history of our times would have spun off course, with consequences we can barely begin to contemplate.
But the attacks never happened. For whatever reason, the operation was cancelled and September 11, 2001, remains just another date.
What happened next? For younger readers, here’s a reminder. The 43rd U.S. president, George W. Bush, had come to office in January 2001 pledging to end the age of liberal intervention.
Al Qaeda’s plan identified Flight 11 as a potential target. Taken over by a team of hijackers, it was to be crashed into the World Trade Center (pictured). But it never happened
He promised to serve as a ‘clear-eyed realist’, ending the tendency for the American military to act as the ‘world’s policeman’.
In reality, Bush largely stuck to the foreign-policy template of his predecessor, Bill Clinton.
In the first two years of his presidency, he ordered several air strikes on Islamist terrorist camps — most famously the bombing of the Al Qaeda base in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, after U.S. embassies in Asia were attacked in 2002.
But although some hawks suggested launching a ground invasion of Afghanistan, a few even calling for a global ‘war on terror’, Bush was having none of it.
The United States, he maintained, had no vital interests in Afghanistan and he would not risk the life of a single U.S. marine to kick out the Taliban.
Another continuity was Bush’s attitude to the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who had been subject to Western sanctions and perennial air strikes since the 1990s.
The sanctions continued; so did the air strikes, intensifying to a crescendo in the first weeks of 2003.
That spring, the Bush administration made the catastrophic decision to back a CIA-planned invasion by a small force of Iraqi exiles, gambling they could rouse local support, storm Baghdad and overthrow Saddam.
But Operation Iraqi Freedom, as it was called, proved an unmitigated disaster. There was no local uprising and Saddam’s Republican Guard rapidly mopped up the invading force.
Even a ferocious U.S. and British bombing campaign failed to make a difference, leaving Saddam more entrenched in power than ever.
For many critics, the shambles of the Iraqi operation was entirely typical of the Bush administration.
Again and again, his Democratic opponents insisted that he was failing to take the threat of radical Islam seriously, while his much-vaunted domestic reforms ebbed into the sand.
In November 2004, the U.S. electorate delivered a harsh verdict, ending the Bush presidency after a single term — the same fate that had befallen his father.
The following January, Al Gore took the oath of office on the steps of the Capitol, having avenged his nail-biting defeat four years earlier.
Was the Gore presidency a golden age, then? Not a bit of it.
Although Gore promised to concentrate on fighting climate change, other issues soon overwhelmed him. Chinese competition was eating into American manufacturing, Russia’s war against Georgia triggered talk of a new Cold War and the uprising against the Taliban in Afghanistan sent more than two million refugees fleeing across Asia.
Then came the financial crisis of 2007-8. Gore insisted that his swift economic intervention had ‘saved the world’. The American voters clearly didn’t agree. After a narrow defeat by the populist Mike Huckabee, he went down as yet another failed one-term president.
Similar aftershocks were felt in Britain. Here, Labour’s Tony Blair had spent much of the early 2000s chafing at what he saw as U.S. passivity abroad, though his critics insisted this was merely a deflection from the timidity of his own reform agenda at home.
After winning a third landslide victory in 2005, Blair initially promised to step aside — but then changed his mind.
A backbench coup two years later came close to bringing him down, but at last he summoned the courage to sack his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who had supposedly been orchestrating the discontent.
Insisting that he must stay in Downing Street to ‘maintain confidence’ during the financial crisis, Blair led Labour into a fourth successive general election in 2010 and proved he still had the Midas touch.
Defying the polls, he won three more seats than the Tory leader David Cameron and formed a minority government with informal Lib Dem support.
The Tories gave Cameron the boot, paving the way for the emergence of a new leader in the Right-wing David Davis. And in 2014, Davis won a narrow victory over Blair’s hand-picked successor David Miliband, boosted by the promise of a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.
We all know what happened next. By a 52-48 margin, the British people narrowly voted to remain.
Davis resigned, and in a surprise outcome the Tory leadership passed to Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, whose position on Europe had remained ambiguous throughout.
The European issue soon faded, though, overshadowed by the long-running chaos in the Middle East.
Had the plan been carried out, thousands of people would have died. The horror are almost impossible to imagine. Pictured: Firefighter at scene of World Trade Centre on September 11
At the end of 2010, a protest against high unemployment on the outskirts of Baghdad escalated into a general uprising against Saddam Hussein, unleashing a wave of similar protests across the region.
Soon, however, this Arab Spring turned into a bloodbath, with Saddam and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad joining forces against the rival Kurdish, Islamist and Shia groups trying to bring them down.
As suicide bombings and chemical weapons attacks escalated, hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed in the chaos. Meanwhile, volunteers poured in from Muslim countries around the world.
Among the Islamist radicals sucked into the conflict was a construction magnate’s son from Saudi Arabia, who had spent years on the run after his brief spell of notoriety in the early 2000s.
Having fled Afghanistan after the mass uprising against the Taliban, Osama Bin Laden had spent years hiding in Pakistan. His long-cherished dreams of attacking America had come to nothing, but in the chaos in Syria and Iraq he saw a new opportunity to make his name.
For five years Bin Laden tried to carve out his own fundamentalist emirate in the Iraqi desert, vowing death to all who opposed him.
But on September 11, 2016 — 15 years after the date chosen for his organisation’s abandoned attack on New York and Washington — fate caught up with the Saudi-born militant.
Cornered in his hideout by Iraqi special forces, he was dragged back to Baghdad and summarily executed. Some say it was the septuagenarian Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, who fired the fatal shot.
Such, then, is one version of a world in which 9/11 never happened. In reality, of course, we’ll never know what might have been because the attacks did happen. The planes crashed into the towers, the World Trade Center fell, and 2,996 people lost their lives.
The consequences, though, were obviously far greater than the events of a single day. To take one clear example, George W. Bush had campaigned for the presidency in 2000 on a largely domestic agenda, rejecting the idea America should remake the world in its own image.
Without 9/11, he would probably have focused his energies on domestic reform. It’s telling that when the planes hit the World Trade Center, he was in an elementary school classroom in Sarasota, Florida, listening to children learning to read.
All that was forgotten, however, as Bush transformed himself into a wartime president. Under his leadership, U.S. and British forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, determined to root out Bin Laden.
Then, in the spring of 2003, they launched an invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Saddam was hiding weapons of mass destruction that could cause a second 9/11.
Without 9/11, probably neither of these things would have happened. It’s impossible to imagine Western forces intervening in Afghanistan — a country in which they had no obvious economic or political interest.
And it’s very difficult to imagine Britain — let alone other Nato countries — supporting a ground invasion of Iraq without the shock of 9/11 less than two years earlier. No Afghanistan, then, and no Iraq. But other things would have remained much the same.
The threat of Islamist terrorism would have remained, since its root causes — alienation, poverty, resentment, fanaticism — would not have disappeared. China would have continued to expand at an astonishing rate.
Russia would still have bared its claws, though it might have been more cautious in a world where the West was not bogged down in two Asian wars.
The financial crisis would have happened anyway, since its roots stretched back to the deregulation of the 1980s and the mortgage bonanza of the 1990s. And the other seismic challenges of our time — climate change, de-industrialisation, even Covid — would have happened regardless.
In some ways, then, it’s tempting to argue that 9/11 was not such a turning point after all. Outside Afghanistan and Iraq, life in an alternative universe might look almost identical.
Perhaps the only obvious difference might be that you would face less security on planes and at airports — though even that is debatable, because some experts argue that even if 9/11 hadn’t happened, a similar Islamist atrocity would have taken place eventually. Yet I believe 9/11 did matter and will echo in history.
Not so much because of the attacks themselves, spectacular and horrific as they were, but because of the way the West responded. At the beginning of the 2000s, the reputation of the West had never been higher.
It was barely a decade since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Communism was dead and liberal democracy seemed to be carrying all before it.
In reality, we’ll never know what might have been because the attacks did happen. The planes crashed into the towers, the World Trade Center fell, and 2,996 people lost their lives
China had yet to discover its strength. Russia was in the doldrums. Boosted by the digital revolution, American capitalism had rarely been more buoyant.
Here in Britain, Tony Blair was positively gleaming with modernising purpose. That decade, roughly between Blair’s election in 1997 and the first signs of the financial crisis in 2007, was a precious, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The leaders of the Western world had a chance to lay the foundations for decades to come, thinking seriously about the economic and environmental challenges ahead, and proving the virtues of the democratic, capitalist model.
But thanks to 9/11, they blew it. For entirely understandable reasons — New York had been attacked, thousands of innocent people had been killed and Americans demanded justice — George W. Bush and Tony Blair chose to unleash wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that both ended in disaster.
Given the Taliban’s refusal to hand over Osama Bin Laden, no U.S. president could have stayed out of Afghanistan in late 2001. That much was inevitable.
What was not inevitable was the failure to set clear, long-term objectives; the mismanagement and corruption; the blustering and bullying; and, above all, the catastrophic, reckless, utterly unforgivable decision to launch a second war just two years later.
These 9/11 wars, as some scholars call them, cost the lives of at least 6,000 British and American servicemen, as well as perhaps 200,000 Afghans and a similar number of Iraqis.
Perhaps even more significant — as cold-blooded as that sounds — is that they did horrendous, irreversible damage to the image of Western democracy.
Despite the initial outpouring of sympathy, America’s reputation never really recovered from the appalling revelations of torture and mistreatment in prisons such as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
And the invasion of Iraq — based on a false premise, designed to seize weapons that never actually existed — shattered millions of people’s trust in their democratically elected leaders.
‘The advance of human freedom — the great achievement of our time, and the great hope of every time — now depends on us . . . we will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail.’
Those were the words of George W. Bush, delivered to a joint session of Congress nine days after the attacks, with his friend Tony Blair looking on from the gallery.
They make painful reading today. We know now they didn’t rally the world by their efforts. They did tire, they did falter and they did fail.
The Taliban rule Afghanistan today. Iraq is a blood-soaked ruin, still scarred by violence. And across the world millions regard the West and its leaders with hatred and contempt, and look instead to the strongmen of the East.
That, I fear, is the real legacy of 9/11. A terrible, heart-breaking atrocity, it cost the lives of almost three thousand men and women.
But it also served as the prologue for some of the most grievous policy failures in modern history, from which the reputation of the West will take years to recover.
They didn’t have to happen; but they did. And as painful as it is to admit it, they represented Osama Bin Laden’s greatest victory.