Sep 11, 2019

9/11: looking back and looking forward

This piece is a bit of a cheat. Rather than an entirely new thought it is a cut and paste from the introduction to my fourth book An End to the War on Terrorism, published in 2018. Given that today marks the 18th anniversary of the single greatest terrorist attack in our planet’s history I felt it was a good idea to remind people not just of what that day meant to me and how it changed my professional career (and post-career) forever, but also to underscore what we need to do now.

Here we go.

September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday.  And a glorious Tuesday it was, the time between late summer and early fall in eastern Canada.  If memory serves me correctly it was sunny – blue skies and a temperature in the low teens (Celsius) in the morning.

I had walked to my job at CSIS – the Canadian Security Intelligence Service – as was my usual practice.  Thirty minutes to work, thirty minutes home, a daily routine that I had come to regard as precious since I started nine months earlier in a much different January climate.  I had come to CSIS after spending 17 and a half years at CSE – Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s signals intelligence agency – and can’t say that I missed the 45-minute-to-one-hour commute by bus to the office each day.

After my usual workout at the CSIS gym I settled into my daily tasks: checking email and seeing what had happened in Canada and internationally overnight to see what I may be asked to think or write about that day. I had come to the ‘Service’, as everyone calls CSIS around town, as a secondee, a ‘temp’ as it were although I later resigned from CSE and joined CSIS fulltime six months after that sunny September day.  During my years at CSE I had developed into a multilingual analyst with a specialization in the Middle East thanks to my proficiency in Arabic and Farsi (skills in both are now woefully rusty) and had negotiated a shift to CSIS for a change.  The Service needed a strategic analyst on Iran and, in light of my 15 years of experience on that nation, I was brought into the analysis branch.  For good measure my superiors had me keep a look on the Middle East in general, as it related to the CSIS mandate (threats to the security of Canada).

I wrote earlier that September 11 dawned as a ‘glorious’ day.  That of course is a terrible description for what ensued in New York, Washington, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania that fateful morning.  As I began to do my morning ‘scanning’ as I called it, someone came to my office to say that a plane had just flown into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York.

It is not my intention to lie to you here and say that I had a blinding flash of realization.  I was not following terrorist intent at that time and while I had written a paper on the links between Al Qaeda and the USS Cole bombing in late 2000 (just prior to my arrival at CSIS) I was anything but a terrorism expert, although I do remember a SIGINT (signals intelligence) reporting line I used to see on what was then called the “UBL Network” (short for Usama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda).  In fact, my first reaction to the news was to dismiss it as yet another unfortunate incident of pilot error as there recently had been other such accidents that were just that: accidents.  These had nothing to do with terrorism, let alone Al Qaeda.  So no, my analytic mind did not leap to the 1992 World Trade Center bombing which was an Al Qaeda operation and a prescient preview of what happened on 9/11.  I had no ‘Aha!’ moment.  I didn’t even know where in Manhattan the World Trade Center was, never having visited New York (that has since been rectified, much to my delight).

As I and others gathered around a TV screen in a common room wondering what the hell was happening, we watched as a second plane hit the other tower (the south one).  I stood aghast and what I was witnessing was starting to sink in.  This was no Cessna with a clueless pilot or a tragic accident.  It was a full-bodied airliner.  This was intentional.  While it could have been a particularly horrendous coincidence, that was highly unlikely.  This was terrorism.

The next few days are a blur. I was immediately called back to CSE to work one of around-the-clock shifts to contribute what we could to help understand what had happened and determine if this was merely the start of more mass casualty acts.  My new colleagues at CSIS spent weeks turning over every stone to see whether there was any link to Canada, however tenuous.  After all, had the terrorists had any tie to Canada it would have led to searing questions as to what our security services were doing (or better yet NOT doing) and seriously complicated bilateral relations with the US.  It turned out that there was not, although that has not stopped some officials in the US, including former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, from erroneously stating publicly that some of the hijackers came from my country.

And yet 9/11 was a glorious day, from the perspective of the terrorists.  It is not a coincidence that the hijackers of those four aircraft are called the ‘Magnificent 19’.  Al Qaeda had just pulled off an incredible act of violence the likes of which we may never see again.  They had successfully planned and executed an operation in the heart of the US, the ‘head of the snake’ as they called it, killing more than 3,000 people and striking a blow at the world’s dominant economic, political and military power. Hence the symbolism of the attacks: New York (economic), Washington (the Pentagon – military) and possibly the White House (the plane that crashed prematurely in Pennsylvania thanks to the action of the passengers to rush the hijackers).

To say that everything changed that day is a common phrase, even if it is a bit hackneyed.  It certainly did for me as an intelligence analyst.  I was tasked increasingly upon my return to CSIS, after having spent the week after September 11 back at CSE, in looking at the situation domestically, i.e. did we have terrorist cells in our own country.  And of course we did, as future investigations made quite clear.  So, in a sense, 9/11 set me on a different career path and has occupied me professionally ever since, even into my retirement from the Canadian public service.

Eighteen years later I am still thinking – and writing – about terrorism. I have penned five books on the topic. I have delivered thousands of talks on the subject. I have given thousands of interviews on violent extremism. I have exchanged views with officials and academics in over fifty countries on what to do about terrorism. There is little sign that I will stop any of this any time soon.

And yet there is so much for me still to learn. Sure, I have spent almost two decades on this phenomenon but there is so much I do not know. What happened on 9/11 has morphed too many times to count and will continue to do so. Anyone who tells you s/he has mastered all this is lying to you.

More importantly, we all have much to learn. Our responses to 9/11 have been mixed, ranging from the good (the US Special Forces killing of UBL) to the bad (the 2003 invasion of Iraq). We have to keep thinking about what we are doing and why we are doing it. We need to stop scoring ‘own goals’ and continue to challenge our understanding of what all this means. As my Twitter colleague Colin P. Clarke wrote this morning (a link to his Fox News op-ed was provided) “Analysis of the threat should continue to be based on data, empirical evidence and robust intelligence, not xenophobia or fear-mongering…America’s citizens need to keep the threat from global terrorism in perspective without being dismissive about the very real potential danger. My sincerest hope is that those responsible for protecting the nation will reduce the need for terrorism analysis and put me out of a job within the next 15 years.”

Amen to that last sentiment Colin. Amen to that.

My thoughts go to the survivors and families of the victims of 9/11.