Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/9/2021 (300 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
NEW YORK—Of all the senses that were assaulted on 9/11, what Jason Blazakis can’t forget is the smell.
“The mix of the dust, the smoke, the debris, thinking about human remains that you might be inhaling. To me, that’s one of those indelible memories. Certainly there’s so many images — the remaining edifice of the building, people jumping to their deaths, seeing the dust go through the corridors like a sandstorm.”
Blazakis, as fate would have it, was in both New York City — his train pulling away as the planes flew into the World Trade Center — and Washington, D.C., where another suicide commercial flight slammed into the Pentagon. He returned to a metropolis of wreckage at the bottom of Manhattan, where fires would continue to burn for months and frantic rescue efforts proved useless — there was nobody left to save, it soon became clear. The bodies of countless victims from among the nearly 3,000 killed had been atomized, vapourized, in the conflagration.
“I have a vivid image of people around, disoriented,” recalls Blazakis of the chaos in D.C. “Nobody knew yet what had happened to United 93.” The hijacked plane — fourth weaponized aircraft, believed aiming for the U.S. Capitol — that had slammed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers rebelled and stormed the cockpit.
“People thought another plane was coming in their direction. There was a lot of disinformation about what was going to be hit. What was the target? A lot of fear.”
Mourning became America, in those days and weeks afterwards. A deeply traumatized nation that had believed itself shielded from terrorism on a grand scale — across an ocean, far distant from the ganglia of menacing Islamist groups, protected by a sophisticated defence network — could never be brought to its knees by an epic attack. And, in truth, it wasn’t. Instead, there was a focused resolve, an immediate quickening of patriotism, which the United States has certainly never lacked, and an avenging mission undertaken: The U.S.-led bombardment of Afghanistan, where the 9/11 plot had been hatched by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.
Blazakis knew right away that al-Qaida was responsible, at a time when most people had never even heard the name. But he was well-versed in terrorism as an academic, researcher and former Congress employee. Not long afterward, Blazakis went to work for the State Department, where he served for a decade as Director of Counterterrorism, Terrorism Finance and Designations Office and lead person at State on ISIS-K when it was declared a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2016.
ISIS-Khorasan is an Afghan affiliate of the central ISIS organization, founded by disaffected Pakistan Taliban, that has embraced an even more violent version of Islam than the Taliban. It was an ISIS-K suicide bomber who attacked the Kabul airport on Aug. 26, where a mass of civilians desperate to get out of the country had descended, killing 13 U.S. troops and upwards of 170 civilians.
This week, as America prepares to solemnly mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11, there is much inward gazing. What did they — we — get wrong? Why did Afghanistan collapse so swiftly as Taliban forces swept across the country? And no shortage of blame for a largely failed experiment to democratize Afghanistan on a Western template. The folly of hubris has been dissected to death. Because nobody does self-incrimination more vigorously than point-the-finger gainsayers in the public and media arenas.
The front-facing belittle the past. Which is easier to do as memory recedes. A generation has grown up without the looming towers. “We have an entire generation of people who really don’t understand 9/11,” says Blazakis, now a university professor who teaches courses on terrorism and the rise of the Islamic State, and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a non-profit that provides analysis of global security challenges. It was founded by Ali Soufan, the former FBI agent who was at one time the agency’s only Arabic speaker, thrust into the hunt for bin Laden after the horrific 1998 bombings at U.S. embassies in East Africa and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole.
“It is important to try and characterize what happened that day in as accurate a manner as possible,” says Blazakis, noting that foolish conspiracy theories remain entrenched, including that “Zionists” were responsible for 9/11, or it was a diabolical inside-Pentagon scheme to pre-emptively justify foreign invasions.
Monstrous theories notwithstanding, the world and America has moved on, as it must. While the names of 9/11 victims are recited at ceremonies every year, the personal tragedies devolve increasingly to eternally grieving families, away from the broader zeitgeist.
America, and President Joe Biden, wants to wipe their hands clean of the human catastrophe unfolding in real time in Afghanistan. While, on Tuesday, the Taliban formally declared the restoration of their Islamic Emirate — the Republic of Afghanistan is no more — revealing an administration that includes no women, no Shiite minority, only a handful of non-Pashtuns, with an interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, from the brutal Haqqani network, who was designated a global terrorist by Washington because of his close links with al-Qaida. Sirajuddin will have oversight of Afghanistan’s entire police and internal security system. Mullah Hassan Akhund is the new prime minister. Akhund served as foreign minister in the ousted Taliban regime that harboured bin Laden. Thumbing their nose at promises made to the U.S. to temper their sharia fanaticism and deny refugee to terrorists.
“They were complete frauds,” says Peter Bergen, director of the International Security and Future of War programs at New America, a think tank, national security analyst for CNN and the man who famously interviewed bin Laden for a documentary in 1997.
“They haven’t spent 20 years fighting to introduce Swedish-style democracy into Afghanistan. Their theory of governance is make the population pure” — under sharia laws — “and everything else will take care of itself.”
All of this, and in particular the firm ties between the Taliban and al-Qaida, should be front of mind to the U.S. and the international community. While most experts don’t foresee another strike, at least on the American homeland, of 9/11 proportions, the world is most decidedly not safe from patchwork attacks, as have occurred throughout Europe and Asia, or lone wolf attacks, which have also happened in Canada. The U.S., however, is currently more preoccupied with violent white supremacist groups.
ISIS and Taliban-allied al-Qaida are at bloodied daggers drawn in Afghanistan. Some 5,000 of the most heinous terrorists were released from prison in the lightning strike Taliban advance, on top of the 5,000 freed as a condition of the wretched “peace agreement” president Donald Trump signed last year. Jail-hardened, they are flocking to ISIS, ISIS-Kl and al-Qaida, while thousands more jihadists from foreign countries flood into Afghanistan.
“Every jihadist group in the world will want to be part of this great victory,” observes Bergen, who just released his most recent book, “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.” “I think a lot of these ISIS fighters in Afghanistan are former members of the Taliban who kind of slapped on the ISIS patch.
“The Taliban is going to declare an emirate (they just did) just as ISIS declared a caliphate,” in Syria and Iraq, before they were sent scurrying by a U.S.-backed alliance of Syrian and Kurdish fighters. “Both will have pretensions to be the leader of all Muslims around the world, although that’s complete nonsense. The leader of the Taliban calls himself the commander of the faithful. The leader of ISIS calls himself the caliph. You’ll see people across the world who will either try to join the great experience or be inspired to carry out attacks in the name of each group.”
Terrorism threats aren’t going away, though the U.S. has become much more competent at preventing or blunting their impact, having learned from the disaster of not sharing information two decades ago, totally taken aback by the audaciousness of the attacks. “Since 9/11, (al-Qaida) haven’t carried out a successful attack against the United States — not for lack of trying,” says Bergen.
“Our defensive capabilities are very different now. There were 60 people on the no-fly back then, there are 4,000 now, last I checked.” And some million and half more who are on a secondary streaming, should they attempt to enter the U.S. Yet a Saudi Air Force officer, training in the U.S., went on a shooting rampage at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola last year, killing three sailors and wounding 13 others.
The State Department has designated 72 groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations. “Approximately 18 of those groups operate in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region,” points out Blazakis, who spent much of his government career following the terrorist money trail, a crucial means by which Washington has choked off support. The Taliban has had its foreign assets — about $9.5 billion from Afghanistan’s Central Bank — frozen. Yet, while no country has recognized the Taliban, already there are discussions, including in Washington, of opening relations, at least to some extent, to provide for humanitarian aid, extending evacuation of ex-pats and Afghan allies who worked for the coalition, perhaps even assisting in some intelligence/military capacity in a Taliban-al-Qaida push against ISIS-K.
That may be a sickening reality of geopolitics circa 2021. But we should be appalled at the mere suggestion of aligning, even by proxy, with al-Qaida. They are not the lesser of two evils. They remain evil incarnate, poised to retrieve a regional if not global significance, even with bin Laden lying at the bottom of the ocean. Anyone who doubts that needs a remedial lesson in 9/11 — watch that footage of the hijacked planes plowing into the World Trade Center, the towers pancaking as they sank.
At its peak, there were 150,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan and, for all their professional skills, they were unable to contain the Taliban 2.0 encroachment. The U.S. estimates the Taliban have 80,000 fighters under command. How can they possibly control a country bigger than France, with a population of 34 million?
“I question whether they can really effectively control the territory of Afghanistan, with lots of tribes,” says Blazakis. “They’re going to have a really difficult time governing and carrying out security. You’re going to see challenges, as we’ve already witnessed at the Kabul airport from more extreme Salafist jihadi groups like ISIS. They’re going to continue to peck away at the Taliban. What could unfold unfortunately is a pretty significant civil war.”
Which is where the Taliban came in. Which led to sanctuary for bin Laden and al-Qaida. Which led to 9/11.
The stench of it.