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Day of reckoning

Many saw disaster coming, including Philip Hensher, but no one did anything

3 September 2011

12:00 AM

3 September 2011

12:00 AM

The 9/11 Commission Report: The Attack from Planning to Aftermath Philip Zelikow

Norton, pp.544, 9.99

The Eleventh Day: 9/11 — The Ultimate Account Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan

Doubleday, pp.604, 20

No one could say that we didn’t have warning of these events in the most specific terms. A month before 11 September 2001, the President’s daily intelligence brief was headed ‘Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.’ Other official warnings from this time and earlier were so specific, and so specifically ignored, that a former National Security Adviser at the White House, Sandy Berger, would on four separate occasions in 2002 and 2003 abstract official top secret documents from the National Archives by stuffing them in his socks. (Because of Berger, we now don’t know what these warnings consisted of).

There were any number of commentators, too, who saw exactly what was coming. Peggy Noonan wrote in Forbes magazine in 1998 that terrorists agreed that the great city of the United States is … the dense 10-miles-long island called Manhattan … If someone does the big terrible thing to New York or Washington, there will be a lot of chaos … it could happen tomorrow.

After the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, a US Defense Department panel gathered views, and a prescient panellist called Marvin Cetron observed that air-liners could easily be flown into large public buildings:

Targets such as the World Trade Center not only provide the requisite casualties but, because of their symbolic nature, provide more bang for the buck. In order to maximise their odds for success, terrorist groups will likely consider mounting multiple, simultaneous operations with the aim of over-taxing a government’s ability to respond.

These are only the most specifically accurate predictions. Many more commentators were saying, before September 2001, that disaster was coming. I myself wrote after the Taleban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in the spring of that year that large and spectacular acts of destruction would come to us, and this act of vandalism would pale into insignificance. My friend Thomas Ades, invited to write a piece for the New York Philharmonic to celebrate the millennium, submitted a bad-taste cantata called America: A Prophecy to Mayan texts, including the words ‘Your cities will burn’. The sense of something big coming down the track was apparent to every thinking person in vague or specific terms.

And if anyone had been paying heed to the activities of the perpetrators, their purpose would have become clear. Osama bin Laden’s declaration of jihad in August 1996 did draw attention, one American listener saying of the disconcertingly elegant Arabic that ‘it sounds like Thomas Jefferson … it reads like our Declaration of Independence.’ Bin Laden had the habit of interrupting family weddings to recite poems that ran: ‘The pieces of the bodies of infidels were flying like dust particles/Had you seen it with your own eyes you would have been very pleased.’ And there was the distinctly peculiar behaviour of the hijackers acquiring the necessary skills. One dozy pair, learning to fly, told their instructor that they wished to fly jets — Boeing airliners — although they had no previous experience. They had no interest in take-offs or landings. When taken up in a Cessna, one of them began praying loudly.

The 9/11 Commission Report, first published in 2004, was greeted rapturously at the time and became a bestseller. John Updike said, with pardonable exuberance, that ‘the King James Bible was our language’s lone masterpiece produced by committee, at least until this year’s 9/11 Commission Report’.

It is now reissued in a new edition, including an afterword by Philip Zelikow, the Commission’s executive director. If it remains authoritative, certain areas of its study have started to seem incomplete, and the restrictions of its purpose have become clearer — some articulated by Zelikow.

Various readers, for instance, at its publication, were concerned about the account of the career of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the so-called ‘mastermind’ behind the attacks, offered in chapters 5 and 7 of the report. It appeared that he had been everywhere, from Khartoum to Bosnia, and had heard everything. A caveat was offered up by the Commission that this account rested on Khaled Sheikh Mohammed’s testimony, produced under torture — the ‘sensitive interrogation process’, as it was euphemistically referred to in the report.

We could draw our own conclusions about its reliability. The Commission’s attitude to interrogation and torture is now made clearer by Zelikow, who says that ‘how the United States handled the detention and treatment of Muslim captives … was a problem doing more damage to US interests in the world than any other.’ The Commission recommended that the US adopt ‘the minimum standard of humane treatment found in the Geneva Conventions.’ It was one of the few recommendations that Bush’s government openly rejected.  

Other areas of the Commission’s purpose, restricted by intention, by remit, or, quite possibly, by political concerns, have left the way open to some awkward questions. Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan have written a very decent and inquisitive account of 9/11 which draws attention to real gaps in the official account. The Commission declared that it hoped to avoid the wisdom of hindsight, now peculiarly  reiterated by Zelikow — ‘rather than assuming 20/20 hindsight, we instead assumed … that hindsight blinds.’ The Commission’s general tendency to present evidence of prior briefing and knowledge, but not to blame, certainly displeased some very knowledgeable agents who felt that their warnings had been thoroughly ignored. Summers and Swan have no need to be similarly restrained: Richard Clarke, the White House ‘counter-terrorism co-ordinator’ for his part, claimed that ‘most senior officials in the incoming [Bush] administration did not know what al-Qa’eda was’.

The role, too, of Saudi officials in the attacks was left by the Commission at the status of ‘We have seen no evidence to suggest …’ Summers and Swan have no hesitation in suggesting that individuals connected to Saudi public services were in it up to their necks, and that two of the hijackers, Mihdhar and Hazmi, were in the employment of the Saudi Intelligence service — as it turned out, apparently, not as double, but as triple agents, keeping an eye on what the Saudis and the Americans knew about al-Qa’eda.

On a literary level, for reasons of factual accuracy and hoping to assert nothing that cannot be rooted in the evidence, The 9/11Commission Report remains solidly external in its observations. Summers and Swan are able to say that someone ‘thought’ something, when they really mean ‘said, when questioned some years later, that he believed he had thought.’ The Commission Report never elides like this. Perhaps more fruitfully, however, Summers and Swan are free to venture into the personal motivation of the hijackers in ways which the Commission evidently regarded as indecent.

One striking example of this is the Commission’s observation that ‘Ziad Jarrah alone among the hijackers appears to have left a written farewell — a sentimental letter to Aysel Senguen.’ Sentimental is the word we use for an emotion we are declining to share, which is fair enough in this case. But Jarrah, who died on United 93, is the one hijacker whom it is possible, on the evidence, to understand

Almost all the rest were ignorant zealots with no feelings, and they can justifiably be passed over with scorn. But Jarrah was an anomaly, and a recognisable human type. He was Lebanese, and had lived a busy life in the fleshpots of Beirut before turning to his insane faith. He had a long-standing on-off relationship with a Turkish woman, Aysel Senguen, largely driven by her impatience with his demands that she should become more observant in her religion.
But his youthful extremism would surely have passed in time. And his letter, dismissed unquoted in The 9/11 Commission Report, is given in full by Summers and Swan. It is not really sentimental, just stupid, childish and dreamy:

We’ll have a beautiful eternal life, where there are no problems and no sorrow, in palaces of gold and silver … Ich bin deinen Prinz … deinen Mann fur immer.

One look at the handwriting shows how unformed Jarrah’s character was, leaning to left and right, linked up and separated. He could, one feels, so easily have walked away from the whole thing, as his 3,000 victims could not, and we are in Summers’ and Swan’s debt for allowing the imagination to proceed in that direction.

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