Friday 20 January 2017

Review: Terrorism: The Eleventh Day by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan

Doubleday, £20

Published 10/09/2011 | 05:00

As New York comes to a standstill tomorrow to mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11, entombed below the footprints of the Ground Zero memorial lie thousands of fragments of broken humanity -- the minuscule remains of the 1,122 victims who have yet to be identified.

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The lucky ones are those whose tiny scraps of life -- a single tooth, a charred bone, a woman's severed hand -- have led to identification and some measure of closure for a heartbroken family.

Those identified include Ronald Breitweiser, an investment banker from New Jersey, whose arms and hands were found in the smouldering remains of the South Tower. Or American Airlines flight attendant Karen Martin -- probably the first person harmed by the hijackers on 9/11 -- whose foot and part of a leg were found an agonising six years after the tragedy.

Re-living the final horrific moments of victims like Breitweiser and Martin -- and the macabre aftermath in recovering their remains -- is the gripping opening to a compelling new book on 9/11 written by the formidable husband-and-wife investigative team, Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan.

The Eleventh Day: The Ultimate Account of 9/11 is the painstaking result of five years of intense research into thousands of previously withheld official documents and testimonies about the decades-long run-up to 9/11, and the epic failure of American intelligence and law enforcement to prevent the hijackings.

The result is a gripping narrative that explains the genesis of Osama Bin Laden's hatred towards the West, the misguided motives of the troubled men hired by the al-Qa'ida leader to hijack the planes and the blunders and failures by US intelligence to stop the disaster -- despite impassioned warnings by officials like former Bush counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke that something "very, very, very big" was coming.

It also addresses the murky role of the Saudi regime -- an issue blurred by the 9/11 Commission -- and points to evidence that wealthy Saudis who funded Bin Laden included some members of the ruling Saudi royal family.

Most of all, The Eleventh Day is a damning portrayal of US government incompetence and indifference that will leave the reader outraged at the missteps that led to the deaths of more than 2,982 men, women and children -- and hundreds of thousands more in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that would soon follow.

According to the Greek tragic dramatist Aeschylus, "In war, the first casualty is truth", a point reinforced five years after 9/11 when a New York Times/CBS poll found that only 16pc of respondents thought that Bush administration members had told the truth about what happened on 9/11.

Summers and Swan -- who live and work in Ireland -- begin their search for the truth by recounting the horrific events on the morning of 9/11, introducing the doomed players -- pilots, the flight attendants, the passengers on the planes and the innocent souls in the Twin Towers and Pentagon.

The authors include new chilling details: that in the months before their arrival in the US, al-Qa'ida "muscle men hijackers" -- hired to overpower the flight attendants and passengers -- honed their killing skills in Bin Laden-run training camps by methodically slaughtering sheep and camels with Swiss knives.

Through painstaking interviews Summers and Swan show convincingly that despite warnings from numerous foreign intelligence agencies and Bush's own counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke, the Bush administration actively ignored warnings of a pending al-Qa'ida plot.

Even before he took office, George W Bush was briefed by outgoing president Bill Clinton on the dangers posed by Bin Laden and al-Qa'ida. Clinton, who says that his failure to kill Bin Laden in 1996 remains the "biggest mistake of my presidency", remembers that Bush "listened to what I had to say without much comment, then changed the subject".

The litany of missteps and blunders by the US government and intelligence agencies defy belief. Just two years before the attacks, The Eleventh Day recounts how the FBI received reports that terrorists were planning to send men to learn to fly in the US.

Despite an order by the FBI's counter-terrorism division to investigate, no probe was ever conducted.

In July 2001 the CIA briefed then national security adviser Condoleezza Rice that "there will be a significant terrorist attack in the coming weeks or months". Rice was polite but seemingly unimpressed and no action was taken.

That same month, Mohammed Atta -- the leader of the hijackers -- was stopped for speeding in Florida. The terrorist was let go -- despite the fact that there was a bench warrant out for his arrest for a previous traffic violation.

The Eleventh Day is a gripping read, a book packed with cogent, forthright journalism and impressive research that puts to rest once and for all the hateful conspiracy theories about 9/11 and the many questions that have dogged the Bush administration's handling of the most serious terrorist attacks of modern times.

It is also a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of imperial meddling. To counter the Soviets, the Americans funnelled cash to Islamist militants, who then gave birth to al-Qa'ida and the Taliban.

That blowback -- as The Eleventh Day recounts -- was a long time in coming.

In 1998, President George H W Bush met with the moderate Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto who expressed sadness that "in our common zeal to most effectively combat the Soviets in Afghanistan, our countries had made a strategic decision to empower the most fanatical elements of the mujahideen".

"I am afraid," she told the father of future president George W Bush, "that we have created a Frankenstein's monster that could come back to haunt us in the future."

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