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20 years later: How 9/11 changed the world

By Daniel Wesangula | September 11th 2021

A file photo of the twin towers of the World Trade Center burn behind the Empire State Building in New York.

Twenty years ago, at 8.46am on September 11, 2001, an American Airlines Boeing 767 plane was flown into the north tower of the World Trade Centre. Just 17 minutes later, a United Airlines plane flew into the south tower.

In a matter of seconds, the 110-floor twin buildings were shaken to their core. Burning fuel went down elevator shafts, incinerating all those attempting to escape the fire caused by the first plane.

Below the thick black cloud of smoke, burning debris covered surrounding buildings and the streets below. Hundreds, unaware of what had happened, jumped from the towers to their deaths in an attempt to escape.

About 30 minutes later, a third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, crashed into the west side of the Pentagon near Washington, DC, and then a fourth plane, United Flight 93, crash-landed into a field in Pennsylvania, killing all 40 people on board.

As this happened, the twin blocks of the World Trade Centre collapsed onto themselves. A combination of the force of the collision and fire bringing the famous tourist attraction onto its knees, reducing it to a mixture of dust, rubble, mangled steel and human remains.

The following day, on Wednesday, September 12, a memo classified ‘secret’ was issued from a Central Investigations Agency (CIA) office in Washington, DC and dispatched to various American embassies across the world.

Its contents touched on the events of the previous day where America witnessed one of the world’s most horrific attacks on its soil. The first paragraph was a warning.

“The Department of Internal Affairs has released a defence terrorism warning report, advising that yesterday’s four terrorists attacks may be only the first four in a series of 30 planned attacks on US interests worldwide,” the memo began.

Across the world, the repercussions of these attacks had already started to be felt.

Just 24 hours after the attack, Jordanian King Abdullah turned around mid-air enroute to the US and headed back home. Nervous investors, sensing that the world around them would collapse any minute, put their money in government bonds, driving up their prices to all-time highs.

Operations in US embassies in Buenos Aires, Santo Domingo, Gaborone, Windhoek, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait City, Dhaka and Islamabad were suspended.

For the first time, the US stood still as if taking a breath. Many hoped that the effects of the twin tower bombings would only last for the duration that the smoke clouded out the sun.

But decades later the events of that day continue to define relations between states around the world and ushered in a new era of invasions and counter insurgencies that nearly split the world in half.

“The attacks may have been on America, but the repercussions were global,” security analyst George Musamali says. “We are living with the consequences of that attack to date.”

Musamali says one of the greatest legacies of the September 2001 attacks was the start of endless wars around the world.

“After the attacks, every major power got engaged in wars or proxy wars against external threats,” he says.

In his address on October 11, 2001, then US President George W Bush said: “The attack took place on American soil, but it was an attack on the heart and soul of the civilised world. And the world has come together to fight a new and different war, the first, and we hope the only one, of the 21st century. A war against all those who seek to export terror, and a war against those governments that support or shelter them.”

Soon after, American boots, supported by superior air forces, landed in Afghanistan in what turned out to be a drawn-out war that lasted two decades with no clear winners at the end. Away from the battlefields though, everyday life shifted. Racial profiling, particularly during travel, became an acceptable norm.

“Suddenly, people holding passports with Muslim names or issued from some parts of Asia and the Gulf states found it hard to travel. Airport detentions became common, particularly for individuals travelling to the United States or to Europe,” Musamali says.

It is not just travel that changed.

Airport security checks too became heightened.

Globalisation of terror

Multiple checks, increased presence of both uniformed and non-uniformed agents in all major airports across the world transformed travel into a cumbersome, but necessary experience all in a bid to prevent another similar hijacking incident resulting in multiple casualties.

Even as governments around the world put up these extra measures, those responsible for the attacks saw a possibility. Possibility in the globalisation of terror.

“For the first time a major attack had been launched and was executed successfully on enemy territory. The Twin Tower attacks and the three others on that day made terror groups realise that they can export their heartlessness to the rest of the world,” Musamali says.

“And this belief led to other future attacks across the world.” Al Qaeda, the organisation responsible for the attacks, was soon to set up bases outside of the Middle East and the Gulf States, including in Kenya, where a vicious cell of Al Qaeda adherents orchestrated attacks against the State and led to the springing of the Somalia’s Al Shabaab terror group that to date are still at war with Kenya and other countries in the region.

This export of terror led to something else too.

“Countries that ordinarily were at odds with each other have been forced to work together and come up with joint efforts to combat terror,” International Relations Prof Macharia Munene says.

“This is what was at that time called the coalition of the willing by President Bush.”

The coalition of the willing, however, had other unintended consequences. “Strongmen who were arguably on their way out of power took the opportunity to realign their allegiances to America’s agenda to fight terror across the globe. Once they showed their loyalty to join the coalition of the willing, all was done by the west to keep them in power,” Prof Macharia says. “It bought them more time.”

It wasn’t just time that the war on terror brought. The war also meant that governments across the world got the leeway to spend copious amounts of national budgets on defence spending.

The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change estimates that the war on terror, the longest ongoing armed conflict in the history of the US, which has lasted longer than America’s participation in both world wars and surpassed even the period that the US military was actively engaged in combat operations during the Vietnam War, has cost the US more than $5 trillion (Sh549 trillion) and claimed the lives of more than 7,000 American military personnel. Globally, the numbers and the death tolls are much larger and the expenditure, in comparison to national budgets of smaller economies such as Kenya, can be mind boggling.

Through the years, the big budgets have had an unintended consequence to them – corruption – and for Kenya, this has come with the country’s involvement in pacifying parts of Somalia as a strategy to keep its citizens safe. In 2015, four years after the east African country went into Somalia, a report by nonpartisan group Journalists for Journalists alleged that officers within the Kenyan Defence Forces were doing brisk business with Al Shabaab to export charcoal and sugar from the conflict stricken country.

“The smuggling racket includes key figures in Kenya’s ministries of Defence and Immigration and enjoys the protection and tacit cooperation of leaders at the highest echelons of the Executive and the National Assembly,” the report stated.

The proceeds are effectively split three ways among the KDF, the Somali regional government known as the Interim Juba Administration, and Al Shabaab — all of which tax the charcoal and sugar trades at different points.”

The report concluded that the charcoal smuggling involved large sums of money that stretched to the highest levels within Kenya. The Department of Defence however distanced itself from those allegations.

Twenty years on, events of the 9/11 attacks continue to define everyday life. Not just today, but for the future as well. Define how we live. How we travel. How we interact with each other and how we define what it is to be human.

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