It was lunchtime, 11th September 2001. I was doing bicep curls in the Broadgate Exchange gym in London. Toby, a web designer colleague came over and tapped me on the shoulder. "Paul, you gotta come and see this, someone's flown a plane into the World Trade Center. It was 13:53 (8:53am in New York) and by the time I got to the treadmill in front of the TV one tower was burning. At the time it was thought (according to the scrolling commentary at the bottom of the screen) that it might have been just a massive misjudgement by a pilot. What happened 10 minutes later proved that in itself to have been a similar massive mijudgement of the situation.
By the time I got back to the office, the TVs were all on and the staff were gathered around them watching in stunned silence. During the next hour I remember dealing with collegues exhibiting a range of emotions. Some of them wanted to go home, some of them were angry, some of them were terrified, some of them were bewildered. We heard that London might also be a target and Canary Wharf was being evacuated. I called my boss, the MD of the company, to ask if I should let people go. He insisted that we didn't panic. Given we were located in a non-descript, old building near Liverpool Street which I had already wryly concluded any terrorists flying around looking for targets would think had already been hit he was probably right.
But I do remember one of the girls who worked on customer service saying something in anger which was a sign of just how effective the attack would be in its aims. "I tell you what, if I see a bhaji on the train goin' home I'm gonna given him what for" was what she said. Putting aside the ridiculousness of using a pejorative term for an Indian to denote who she thought was responsible, this was exactly the reaction Osama Bin Laden was looking for. Not just in normal people either. He was hoping to goad the politicians who ran the Western World into wanting to 'give Muslims what for'. Or at least to be appearing too. I doubt even he could have thought he would be so successful. Maybe he knew George Bush and those around him better than many give him credit for.
Bin Laden had tried for years to rouse the Muslim community into action through his words, detailing the grievances they should have with the West. His actions, including the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the US Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 and the USS Cole in the same year, had been aimed at attempting to rouse Bill Clinton's USA government into precipitous action in revenge. Bin Laden's ultimate aim was to goad the Western World into actions against the Muslim community which would in turn goad the Muslim community to rise up in defence of itself - a "Holy War" or "Jihad" as he called it. But it hadn't worked.
9/11 was different. 9/11 worked. 9/11 got the over-reaction he wanted, and then some.
Going into Afghanistan without a credible exit strategy or understanding of the unlikeliness of there ever being one was the first. We forget now but the Taliban were given 30 days to hand over Osama Bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda fighters they were harbouring, at the end of which the USA and many other countries went in, backed, remember, by the United Nations, to find them. But you have to really understand Afghanistan to know the extent to which it is a collection of disparate tribes with little to bind them together. Suddenly there was a common enemy to bind them together against. That was what Osama Bin Laden wanted.
Meanwhile, on the streets of the USA, hundreds of Arab Americans, Muslims and, lets not forget, turbanned Sikhs were targetted in revenge attacks. A man has only recently been executed for killing a convenience store clerk during a 'revenge rampage'. That was what Osama Bin Laden wanted, mainly because had it carried on without being stopped by law enforcement, the Arab American community would have had to defend itself.
Then there's Iraq. I have written about the Iraq War in previous blogs. I remember trying to use international relations theory to try and explain it and finding it just about impossible. It will probably remain an anomaly in global political theory because in 100 years politics teachers without an agenda will still struggle to explain to their students why it happened. I imagine in his wildest dreams, and I imagine he DID have some pretty wild dreams, Osama Bin Laden never thought he would be handed such a propaganda coup on a plate. From that point, every swivel-eyed idealogue had one word to speak to prove to those they were trying to radicalise that the Western World were against them.
On 21/7 , which was the failed bombing of the Underground, only a fortnight after the successful first, I have to admit Bin Laden nearly got me. What I mean by that is that for about 2 minutes, when the thought entered my head that we might be dealing with bomb attack after bomb attack and I decided that it might be better if the country had no Muslims in. 2 minutes. That's all it was. I'm not proud of it, in fact I'm very embarrassed, but I understand how it happened. By constantly trying to catalyze these actions, Bin Laden was trying to get the British people to attack Muslims around them, thus causing a backlash. But, to the credit of the British people, it didn't happen.
Because, and let's never forget this, the atrocities I talk about were carried out by people who say that they are doing so in the name of the Muslim people, but actually they besmirch the name of those they claim to represent.
Bin Laden's aim was to make us forget that. Bin Laden's aim was to draw the Western World into a Holy War. He came very close. But as long as sensible Westerners remain proud of the liberal democracies we live in, he will fail.