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Feature: Witness of 9/11 attacks recalls shock and fear, rethinks "War on Terror"

(Xinhua) 09:41, September 12, 2021

WASHINGTON, Sept. 11 (Xinhua) -- "I didn't feel safe really until I got onto the main highway to drive home," recalled Alexander Neill, who was working in a U.S. Department of Defense building when a hijacked passenger plane smashed into a corner of the Pentagon nearby just outside Washington, D.C. exactly 20 years ago.

The incident Neill, then a British analyst on a secondment to the U.S. government, was speaking of during a Zoom interview with Xinhua this week was one of the terror attacks that more than a dozen militants associated with the Islamic extremist group al-Qaida perpetrated that morning against the United States.

Neill said he and his colleagues felt first "an utter shock" seeing footage from a television in their office that two planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan, New York City. Then, it turned "scary" after "all of the phone lines lit up" and they "heard immediately" that the Pentagon, considered a symbol of America's powerful military apparatus, had also been struck by a plane.

It quickly came to their understanding that their office, along with other U.S. government buildings, including the White House and the Capitol, might have also been targeted. "We suddenly felt very exposed as well," Neill remembered. "It was probably the most vulnerable I've ever felt in terms of a physical threat."

After given an instruction to leaving the building, non-essential staff swarmed to the Pentagon's enormous, open-air parking lot, where cars lined up to evacuate and caused a traffic jam. Neill said there was "a sense of panic" because nobody knew at the time whether there were going to be further attacks.

A young analyst then aged 26, Neill didn't start to "breathe and exhale" until he was driving on the highway heading to his residence in Maryland, an eastern state neighboring the U.S. capital, at which he switched on the television and watched news coverage, while trying to make contact with his families and friends.

Neill's girlfriend then and now his wife, Hanna, was in New York City for the first day of a new job at the press office of the United Nations (UN) headquarters on the eastern side of Manhattan, before the deadliest terror attacks on the U.S. soil in its history, during which almost 3,000 people were killed, unfolded.

Initially, Neill had no way contacting Hanna due to a temporary stoppage of phone service between Washington, D.C. and New York City, but he managed to find out that she was safe by reaching out to her father, who was in central European country Poland for a business trip, because Hanna also called her father. Neill directly connected with Hanna the next day and learned that her experience was "actually pretty crazy."

According to Neill's account, Hanna was probably traveling past the World Trade Center on a subway around the moment the skyscrapers were hit. After the UN headquarters was evacuated, she and her colleagues took shelter in an apartment in Manhattan, from which they could see a cloud of black smoke rising from the other end of the densely populated island.

At the end of the day, Hanna decided to go back to her flat in Brooklyn, which is separated from Manhattan by the East River. With no public transportation in service, she had to spend hours walking home, like many others did that day, amid the unpleasant smell of toxic dust and fume spreading from what has been called "Ground Zero."

"The smoke was blowing over the river and blowing over Brooklyn," Neill said. "It's awful because it was not just like a normal wood fire or something. It was a chemical fire with all kinds of toxins in it, as well as the dust from the concrete, from the buildings... The smoke was a sort of awful cocktail of horrid ingredients."

In a speech addressing Congress on Sept. 20, 2001, then U.S. President George W. Bush announced the "War on Terror." U.S.-led coalition forces began military operations in Afghanistan that October and swiftly toppled the Taliban but failed to capture al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who remained at large until May 2011, when he was tracked down and killed by U.S. forces at a hideout in Pakistan.

The warfare was "mixed with a wave of intense patriotism in the United States" and "many people just simply wanted revenge against bin Laden and the Taliban at the time," observed Neill, who has been a Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia Pacific security at the Singapore branch of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British research institute, since 2013.

"There was the frustration and revenge kicked in within the U.S. system," he noted.

The military undertaking under the banner of counterterrorism expanded into Iraq in 2003 after the United States and its allies invaded the oil-rich country based on what later proved to be flawed intelligence that Saddam Hussein's government had possessed or were developing weapons of mass destruction. The West also accused the regime of having ties to al-Qaida.

Neill said he thinks "probably the most difficult or the turning points" in the retribution against al-Qaida was when the United States "got sucked into a very drawn-out counter-insurgency campaign" in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I was rather perplexed by the decision to go into Iraq on what appeared to be very thin evidence," he argued. "The United States opening a conflict on two fronts really muddied the waters. It really kind of perhaps diverted strategic attention when the attention should have been towards bin Laden and his organization."

A major consequence of the military quagmire is that the Islamic State (IS) emerged from the remnants of al-Qaida in Iraq. At its height, the extremist militant group, also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh, held about a third of Syria and 40 percent of Iraq.

In 2015, the IS expanded into a network of affiliates in at least eight other countries and its branches and supporters increasingly carried out attacks beyond the borders of its so-called caliphate, an article published by U.S. think tank The Wilson Center in 2019 showed.

Years of military actions against the IS, including airstrikes conducted by U.S.-led coalition since 2014, have substantially reduced the group's territory but its affiliates and militants are still active in various countries and regions to this day.

"Launching a big war of intervention and consequently Iraq becoming an ungoverned space, eventually offered sanctuary for al-Qaida. And that, you could argue, eventually gave rise to the Islamic State," Neill pointed out, adding that he's upset to see what has happened and "the suffering that's continued in places like Syria and Iraq as well."

Other problems of the "War on Terror," which reportedly has cost the United States at least 8 trillion U.S. dollars and resulted in approximately 900,000 deaths, included that it had deviated from the original course and been used by America as a tool to export its values, according to Neill.

The "War on Terror," he said, had been driven by the intention to "perpetuate the values that the United States imbues in its society," and had become conflated with Washington's pursuit of remodeling other countries at its will. Those egocentric efforts turned out to be futile and led to a rise of anti-America sentiments in countries it had invaded or implicated.

While stressing that terrorism would not be defeated easily, Neill, who's running an advisory consultancy in Singapore, urged efforts to understand what has nurtured the breeding ground for the problem both at home and abroad.

"For every extremist who is killed, there'll be somebody to replace them... This problem is not going to go away," he warned. "Terrorism is rather like a virus, and it will find ways to beat its adversary in very creative ways, and we have to be ready for that." Enditem

(Xinhua reporters Sun Ding and Ma Qian in Beijing also contributed to the story.)

(Web editor: Hongyu, Bianji)

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