20th anniversary of 9/11 – a personal reflection

By Paula Kitching, published 1st September 2021

20th anniversary of 9/11 – a personal reflection

I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing as the news began to reach me about there being a terrorist attack in the United States. It didn’t seem real and if I hadn’t been working in Westminster where these things are taken very seriously, I might not have believed it until I got to a screen.

This was for many people the ‘I remember exactly where I was’ moment for the 21st century that the assassination of JFK had been for my parents’ generation. Of course, one of the key differences was that when the images began to appear on our computer and TV screens the events were not over; we watched in horror as they continued to unfold. As we held our breath another aircraft was heading for the already smoking Twin Towers, while the news came in of whole civilian aircrafts being hijacked and the Pentagon under attack. If it was an age-defining moment here in the UK, then I can’t begin to imagine how it must have felt if you were in the US, especially for New Yorkers and those in Washington DC.

It seemed to be only a matter of hours before TV journalists and politicians started to talk about retaliation – but against whom; who were the attackers? In the UK, a country used to terror attacks from the IRA, this new danger seemed scarier than previous threats, and certainly where I then worked this new threat led to an increased police presence and higher entry security to all buildings; this was far more than the waste bins being removed from the streets of central London.

The next few days we sat and watched with horror the aftermath in New York. Rescue teams flew in from across the world, countries with expertise in terrorist attacks such as Britain and Israel, alongside those used to earthquake recovery such as Japan, were essential on the ground helping to find people and secure damaged buildings. News of people trying to find lost relatives and of hero fire crews filled our newspapers. The attack devasted New York, and Americans questioned their relationship with the wider world and counted their friends.

The 9/11 attack was a huge show of aggression against civilians and an attack designed to inflict massive loss, physical damage and to have an impact previously unrealised by terrorist groups. It wasn’t long before every two-bit terrorist group with a grudge against the US and the West generally started to claim they had done it but no-one believed most of them. The attack was too orchestrated, too planned, too big to have been just anyone – this needed organisation and finance.

While the US and international security agencies played the blame game for ‘how could this happen?’ and the people of America began to add up the victim list into the thousands rather than the hundreds, one group started to be talked about as being behind the attacks – al-Qaeda. Most of us had never heard of this group or its leader, a man called Osama Bin Laden, but very soon the stories of who they were began to emerge.

Within a matter of days plans were underway as to how the instigators and organisers could be tracked down and brought to justice. There were discussions at the UN and the phones in Presidential and Prime Ministers’ offices across the world didn’t stop ringing. After all this wasn’t just an attack on the US, a country unused to foreign terrorism on its own soil, but an attack on all democracies. Furthermore, if they could inflict such a huge attack on the US what could they do to other countries, closer to Muslim countries and with far easier borders to cross?

Soon the link was made between this particular terrorist group and the country of Afghanistan. The terrorists and other groups similar to al-Qaeda hadn’t come from Afghanistan but they were using that country as a base, a conduit, a place for meetings and planning, and a training site; and it was generally regarded as a free area for Islamic groups plotting the downfall of their enemies, especially those in the West. For most people outside of Asia, Afghanistan, if they had heard of it at all, was somewhere remote and wild where the Soviets had lost the last battle to quell the population and what had replaced them was the extremist Islamic group the Taliban, that had blown up the Bamiyan Buddhas and repressed women.

The link between al-Qaeda and Afghanistan was made and in October 2021, despite uncertainty from some of the UN, the US began air attacks on the country. Following this there was a ground invasion supported by the UK and in December 2021 the UN Security Council created the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The ground invasion supported the Afghan Northern Alliance who were long term enemies of the Taliban, having waged a war against them in the 1980s and 90s. The capital Kabul fell and the Western powers set up an interim Afghan, non-Taliban government. In 2002 the UK started to send in larger numbers of troops as part of its NATO role with the ISAF.

Over the next 20 years Afghanistan remained there often in the background of the news; sometimes when there was a British military death it would be front page, but it seemed to be quickly woven into a fabric of ongoing world affairs. British military deaths in Afghanistan numbered 457 by mid-2020 with thousands more suffering from injuries that ranged from the light to the life-changing. 

I visited the 9/11 memorial and museum in New York a few years ago – it focuses on those lost in the attacks and on the heroes on the ground who tried to save people, some of whom became the victims as the second aircraft hit and the buildings came crashing down. Twenty years later the New York skyline still bears witness to the events of 9/11 while the world as a whole still carries the scars of its impact.

It is not an exaggeration to say that 9/11 has had huge global repercussions for millions across the globe. It will continue to do so for decades to come.