What really happened on September 11, 2001?

A New York City firefighter calls for more rescue workers to make their way into the rubble of the World Trade Center Reuters

Ten years on from the attacks in the United States which killed nearly 3,000 people, questions about the fateful day still remain unanswered.

This content was published on September 5, 2011
Bernard Léchot, spoke to three Swiss specialists who have sifted through the official and unofficial versions.

“When I saw the second plane – indicating that it was a terrorist act – I immediately thought it was al-Qaeda, as I had been working on that issue for a number of weeks,” recalled Xavier Colin, a TV producer-journalist with the French-language RTS public station.

“But no one imagined other attacks of such magnitude and on American soil.”

For Jacques Baud, a Swiss security expert, who now works for the United Nations in New York, the deadly attacks were completely unpredictable.

“Those people who said they had predicted what happened never predicted anything. There were theories and hypotheses, but they were nothing,” he said.

“Thirty years ago when I was working in intelligence there was talk of the possibility of a plane crashing into a nuclear plant or the Pentagon. But intelligence is about communicating precise evidence.”

The official US 9/11 Commission Report on the events leading up to the attacks was published on July 22, 2004. But conspiracy theories have continued to evolve, especially on the internet and in books and to a lesser extent in the press.

Baud dismissed the myriad of conspiracies.

“The US is full of these kind of theories, whether the extraterrestrials or the creationists; there are plenty of different areas where people look to cause scandal. I don’t think the 9/11 theories have really taken a foothold,” he remarked.

Colin was also dubious: “The conspiracy theorists already have all the answers to all their questions. But unfortunately for us journalists, there haven’t been any new elements since the official enquiry.”

Nothing new

“Initially the press kind of conformed to what the authorities were saying,” said the TV producer.

“Then in the US media there was a real desire to do some investigative journalism, but, despite the enquiries that were started, no one has been able to come up with any new elements – no one.”

Historian Daniele Ganser, a professor at Basel University who wrote one of the chapters for the book “9/11 and American Empire: Academics Speak Out” by sceptic David Ray Griffin, holds a slightly different position.

Contact with students and their parents often reveals generational differences concerning information, he says.

“Parents inform themselves via newspapers and TV, and only see one guilty party – Osama bin Laden. Their children get their information from the internet and are convinced that George Bush let things happen or is behind all that,”  he said.

“I think universities have the responsibility for communicating these two positions, for calming the situation and for examining the three theories that offer us the chance to properly discuss this issue.”

Three theories

Ganser is referring to the official US government version – a terrorist plot and total surprise for the US – the “Let It Happen On Purpose” theory and the “Make It Happen On Purpose theory”.

Inexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or hi-tech underground fortresses run by Bin Laden in Afghanistan may have simply reinforced conspiracy theories. Ganser is convinced, while Colin is more nuanced.

“For a state-driven plot I really need to see the elements… but state lies, yes, there have been a few. Donald Rumsfeld’s statement that the Iraq war would be short and cost $1-2 billion was a state lie. If you take the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts together so far they have cost $1,350 billion. That’s quite an amazing lie,” Colin said.

Baud rejects the idea of a conspiracy, however: “Two weeks after the attacks I was at a conference in Paris with intelligence officials and right then I was told about the entire range of different plot theories.”

Child’s play

But ten years later how would our panel of experts explain the 9/11 attacks to a class of young children, for example?

Baud: “It was a group of individuals who wanted to demonstrate their will to resist US domination… then the more Americans tried to show their strength, we saw it in Afghanistan and in Iraq, the more the resistance increased.”

Unfortunately it was a successful attempt by a small group of Islamic extremists who believed a terrorist attack of this size could cause one part of the world to rise up against the other, says Colin.

If you look at the size of the attacks, the shock they caused and concerns they raised, they were successful, he says, but they failed to set one part of the world against another, whether over civilization or religion.

Ganser is more circumspect: “It was an event that caused the deaths of 3,000 people, that raised many fears and discredited Muslims and which gave an excuse to start wars in Afghanistan and Iraq

“…After ten years we still don’t know what exactly happened on September 11 and who was behind it. We need to do more research.”

Jacques Baud

Currently head of the “policy and doctrine” department for the United Nations Peacekeeping Department in New York, for whom he has already completed various field missions.

Baud was a colonel in the Swiss army and worked for Swiss intelligence agencies from 1983 to 1990; he has written a number of books on security matters and terrorism.

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Xavier Colin

Currently producer on the French-language programme “Geopolitis” for RTS, who he joined in 1987. He has also worked as a legal expert, correspondent, reporter, chief editor and head of the international section. He previously worked for 13 years at the French radio station Europe 1.

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Daniele Ganser

Swiss professor of history, specialising in peace research, which he teaches at Basel University. He has published a book entitled “Nato’s Secret Armies”.

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