The American Enterprise
September 2005
By Alan W. Dowd

There are those who believe that people are merely a part of history, pieces of driftwood carried along by forces and currents beyond their control. Others argue that individuals shape and make history, that rather than riding the tides of history, people can actually alter its course.

Whether or not he subscribes to this latter view, Osama bin Laden certainly proved its soundness on September 11, 2001. As Tommy Franks put it, bin Laden created a “crease in history” on 9/11, a fault line that changed how we piece together the past, how we live the present, how we look at the future.

To their credit, the American people have resisted the currents unleashed on that Tuesday morning four years ago, currents that could have led to defeat and despair. But what if they had not? What if the American people had allowed bin Laden and his followers to write the history of our time?  The following is a dark diary of what might have been.

September 20, 2001

In an historic address to a special joint session of Congress, President George W. Bush honored the eight House members, three Senators and 87 staffers and civil servants killed on September 11, when United Airlines Flight 93 plowed into the western face of the U.S. Capitol. “They were standing their post, and we can do no less” he said, fighting back tears. The special session was held at the Washington Convention Center, where Congress has been gathering under heavy security since the staggering terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Capitol.

Bush refused to characterize the attacks as acts of war and took pains to distance himself from comments made by Pentagon officials, who argued that the U.S. should use 9/11 as a pretext for “ending states that sponsor terrorism.” Instead, Bush said that “America’s enemies are the terrorists who carried out these attacks—not the countries where they hide.”  

September 30, 2001

British newspapers reported that Washington has quietly asked British Prime Minister Tony Blair to tone down his hawkish rhetoric. Blair has called on the Western allies to “identify the machinery of terror and to dismantle it as swiftly as possible.” Spelling out what some in America have dubbed the “Blair Doctrine,” the British leader declared, “Those that harbor or help terrorists have a choice: either to cease their protection of our enemies, or be treated as an enemy.”[1]

October 7, 2001

Appearing on Meet the Press, Vice President Dick Cheney downplayed any rift between the two transatlantic partners, but he also panned calls for a global counteroffensive against terrorism. “What do they propose—that we send thousands of American boys to fight in a place that has already defeated the British and Soviet empires?” 

Later that afternoon, Bush asked the Afghan government to hand over bin Laden and then dispatched Secretary of State Colin Powell to meet with Taliban emissaries.  

November 12, 2001

Numbering perhaps 15 million, crowds gathered all across the Muslim world to jeer the U.S. for what has been perceived as a feckless response to 9/11.   

December 13-16, 2001

Car bombs exploded outside the U.S. embassies in Kuwait City and Ankara, killing 204 people, including 73 Americans. The Taliban government, “acting only as a messenger,” delivered a statement from bin Laden claiming responsibility and issuing another warning. “The battle will go on until the infidel leaves our land. The crusaders know not where we will strike, but we do. We will fight them on our terms and at a time of our choosing.” 

Bush announced plans for an international summit on terrorism “to bring an end to this scourge.” The conference will be held in Nevada at Nellis Air Force Base under tight security.  

December 22-25, 2001

Worldwide air travel came to a shuddering halt for the first time since 9/11, after an American Airlines passenger jet packed with Christmas travelers exploded over the Atlantic Ocean. All 218 aboard were lost, including 181 Americans. American Airlines Flight 63 was bound for Miami after taking off from Paris.  

Hours later, the BBC received an email claiming that a man named Richard Reid carried out the “martyrdom mission with technical assistance from al Qaeda.” Reid, whose name was found on flight logs, was a British citizen with links to Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker from 9/11. 

January 3, 2002

Reeling from the autumn anthrax blitz and “Bloody December,” Bush launched air strikes against a half-dozen terrorist training camps in eastern Afghanistan. “We have given the Afghan government enough time to turn over the terror mastermind,” Bush declared. “Now we will act in a measured way.”  

Noting that more of his countrymen died in the World Trade Center than in the Gulf War, Blair sent British warplanes to participate in the strikes. Australian and Spanish ships also supported the operation.  

Senator Joe Lieberman was among a small handful to criticize Bush’s response. “Summits and pin-pricks are simply not enough to stop this assault on our way of life,” he said. “To borrow the parlance of the Cold War, we cannot contain al Qaeda; we must roll it back.” 

February 2, 2002

Organizers of the Salt Lake Olympic Games called off the opening and closing ceremonies, but promised to hold “a safe and secure” Winter Olympics.   

March 2, 2002

Defying calls from Afghan strongman Mullah Muhammed Omar to boycott the Nellis Summit, Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf and Jordan’s King Abdullah traveled to the United States for the two-day counterterrorism conference. Ironically, some leaders refused to attend, citing possible terrorist attacks.  

March 11-12, 2002

More than two full months without a terrorist attack ended violently, as bombs ripped through morning commuter trains in Madrid and London. At least 115 were killed in London and another 191 in Madrid. Some 2,200 were injured in the simultaneous bombings. An al Qaeda website issued a statement purportedly from bin Laden praising the attacks as “retaliation for complicity with the crusaders.” 

Trying to quell an all-out revolt within his own Labour Party, Blair pledged that British forces would not participate in further military action in Afghanistan.  

April 2, 2002

Citing a “rising tide of terror that demands the use of our resources close to home,” Bush denied a request from the Philippine government for assistance against Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaeda-linked guerilla group that controls parts of the island of Basilan. 

April 26-May 2, 2002

Musharraff and four of his top military officials were killed by a truck bomb in Karachi as their motorcade snaked through the city. The Indian government immediately moved its military to a high state of readiness and warned that it would act preemptively “to defend its people and territory.” 

Vowing to “promote friendship among all Islamic peoples,” a military junta with even closer links to the Taliban promised to restore order in Pakistan and ease the crisis with India.  

In an interview, bin Laden endorsed the new Pakistani government as “unspoiled by collaboration with the Zionist-Crusader alliance.” 

August 21-28, 2002

In the most daring attacks on the U.S. homeland since September 2001, heavily armed terrorists seized a hospital in San Francisco and a dormitory on the campus of the University of Richmond in Virginia.  

Led by a man named Suleyman al-Faris, the hospital attackers demanded America’s withdrawal from Saudi Arabia and held 189 hostages for almost eight days. The Richmond attackers, which took at least 212 students captive, made no demands, refusing even to talk with local imams who implored them to spare the innocent. One imam offered to trade places with the hostages, to no avail.  

The dual standoffs ended when the terrorists apparently began to execute the hostages in San Francisco, triggering operations to retake the hospital and dorm. Split television screens captured the twin ordeals and climactic gun battles that claimed three federal agents, ten National Guardsmen, 27 students and 51 hospital patients. All 18 terrorists—ten in San Francisco and eight in Richmond—were killed.  

It was later discovered that al-Faris, ring leader of the bloody attack, was an American citizen who had traveled to Afghanistan, trained with al Qaeda and fought in the Afghan civil war. Before leaving for Afghanistan, he was known as John Walker Lindh. All of Lindh’s accomplices were either American or Australian.[2]

August 30, 2002

French President Jacques Chirac told an EU conference, “The position of leader of the free world is again vacant. If our American friends are too preoccupied to lead, we must choose our own path to security.” 

September 11, 2002

In a stirring speech at Ground Zero, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani warned that “bin Laden is tearing our civilization apart: people are no longer traveling; colleges look like prisons; our government’s in hiding; our allies are turning away; our enemies are mocking us…I had hoped that September 11 would serve as a wake-up call for us—and the high-water mark for terrorism. But rather than spurring us into action, it trapped us in a cocoon of fear,” Giuliani concluded. 

October 12, 2002

On the same day that terrorists killed 202 vacationers at a resort in Bali, the Taliban-style government of Pakistan issued a chilling statement calling on “our brothers to rise up with the assurance of our protection.” According to one CIA analyst, “that’s a not-so oblique reference to the country’s nuclear arsenal.” 

October 15-20, 2002

Saudi attackers launched what the Pentagon called “a highly coordinated assault” against U.S. forces at Prince Sultan Air Base, while Americans stationed in Kuwait exchanged automatic-weapons fire near Camp Doha. Local security forces failed to respond to either attack, prompting Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to conclude, “We will not stay where we are not wanted.” 

Congress easily passed a resolution demanding the withdrawal of U.S forces from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.  

November 2, 2002

Executing what Washington called “a precision hit,” al Qaeda operatives murdered an unnamed U.S. diplomat and his driver in Yemen. Ali Qaed Sinan al-Harthi, mastermind of the USS Cole attack, took credit for the strike.  

“Bin Laden’s followers are predators,” Bush said grimly, “our citizens have become their prey.”[3]   

January 18, 2003

Flanked by Attorney General John Ashcroft, Oakland Raiders coach Bill Callahan and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced that the Super Bowl would be postponed. “We will be changing the venue and the date in order to provide the best opportunity for our fans and players to enjoy the game in a safe environment,” he explained.  

Pointing to “a highly credible and highly specific threat,” Ashcroft praised the NFL for cooperating with federal authorities to take this unprecedented step.  

January 27-February 12, 2003

Explosions rocked the government district in Amman, and rescue workers succumbed to caustic fumes and blistering on the skin as Jordan reeled from the deadliest terror attacks since September 2001. Jordanian sources reported that a cloud of poison enveloped a wide swath of the capital after ten buses exploded throughout the city. At least 4,100 people were killed, with thousands more being treated in hospitals and makeshift decontamination facilities outside Amman. Officials estimate between 100 and 200 Americans among the dead. According to the White House, the poison cloud was sulfuric acid.  

The king was not harmed, but the attacks toppled his government. A videotape recording by a man identifying himself as Musab al-Zarqawi warned that more attacks would follow if Jordan continued to cooperate with the United States. Washington confirmed that Zarqawi is a Jordanian with ties to both al Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence. 

On the same morning that a U.S. relief plane was downed over Amman, The New York Times published excerpts from a CIA memo warning about the possibility of Baghdad transferring material to Zarqawi for use against U.S. interests. But according to CIA Director George Tenet, “the intelligence was too murky...we just couldn’t connect all the dots.”  

A committee of clerics sympathetic to bin Laden emerged to govern the once-moderate Arab nation. “This is a great step toward our new caliphate,” a bin-Laden aide announced. “Now they must leave the land of the two holy places.” 

February 9, 2003

Officials from NASCAR cancelled the 2003 Daytona 500. “In light of what’s happening here and overseas, it’s just too dangerous,” a NASCAR spokesman explained.  

April 8-9, 2003

U.S. forces completed an ignominious withdrawal from bases in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Shadowed by a massive statue of himself in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, a strutting Saddam Hussein mocked America for leaving. “The father was too weak to finish the battle. The son was too cowardly to continue it.” 

September 1, 2003

Amnesty International released the most comprehensive report to date on the deteriorating state of affairs in the Middle East. Using emails, websites, smuggled video, faxes and cell-phone transmissions, AI pieced together “an animal frenzy of state-sanctioned violence in Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Pakistan—a latter-day Reign of Terror that has butchered thousands and imprisoned millions.”  

October 19-30, 2003

Terrorists rammed an eighteen-wheeler loaded with gasoline into the Boulevard Mall in suburban Buffalo. Survivors say the truck crashed through the entrance to the mall’s food court, before engulfing the eastern half of the upscale shopping center. At least 158 were killed in the attack, many of them children. Another 250 people were being treated for severe burns at area hospitals.  

Minutes later, news helicopters beamed pictures of another fuel truck bursting into flames on a bridge over Lake Erie, blasting a massive hole into the bridge and sending stalled cars careening into the water. Eyewitnesses said gunmen had jumped from the truck and then blocked dozens of cars from escaping the bridge. With just 17 killed and 13 injured, casualties were relatively low, but the fiery images were devastating for an already war-weary nation.  

In a videotaped message broadcast a day later, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed connected the two fuel-truck attacks and praised what he called “our Yemeni brothers in America…We gave them the training and tactics; they chose the targets and timing.”  

Investigators recovered surveillance footage of at least six men stealing three different fuel trucks from a truck stop in western New York on the morning of October 19. New York State Police intercepted the third truck on Interstate 290. During their initial interrogation, Sahim Alwan and Faysal Galab hinted that other elements of their terror cell were planning additional attacks. Ashcroft convened a press conference to share the chilling news with America.[4] “Information obtained during interrogations indicates that the cell was also planning to attack a middle school,” a grim-faced Ashcroft explained.  

Ashcroft’s statement sent a cascade of fear across North America, as law enforcement agents in Canada and the U.S. intercepted hundreds of tanker trucks. Average gas prices shot from $4.20 per gallon to $10, with scores of pumps left dry by the scare.  

Across the eastern seaboard, parents rushed to pull their children out of school. By October 24, 6,700 of America’s 15,000 school districts had canceled school.  

On what CNN described as “a night of rage,” armed clashes were reported outside mosques and Islamic centers across the U.S., leaving 19 people dead and forcing governors in Michigan, New York and Virginia to activate the National Guard. Twenty other governors declared dusk-to-dawn curfews.  

In a televised address to the nation, a beleaguered Bush seemed to be speaking to both bin Laden and the American people: “By word and deed, we have proven that we only want to end this carnage.” 

November 18-19, 2003

Bush announced that he would not seek reelection in 2004. Not coincidentally, a day later, a congressionally appointed commission released a report heaping scorn on the administration for not acting “to preempt or respond in kind to the terrorist onslaught.” According to the commission, “by failing to go on the offensive, the administration gave al Qaeda the opportunity to gather support and resources, enhanced bin Laden’s influence, and weakened moderate forces in the Muslim world.”    

December 19, 2003

Libya tested a missile that brings nearly every country bordering the Mediterranean in range. “Thanks to our North Korean and Pakistani friends, we have matched our special weapons with new rockets,” Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi gushed.  

December 24, 2003

Appearing for the first time on live television, bin Laden declared “victory over the infidel.” He mocked Bush for failing to defend the American homeland. “Look at me. I do not hide, but you do. You are the coward, you and your decadent society,” bin Laden railed. “To end this carnage, use your power to remove the Zionists from Jerusalem.” 

February 10, 2004

In testimony before a House committee, Tenet painted a grim picture of bin Laden’s expanding base of client states: “OBL and Zawahiri spend most of their time in Pakistan. Basilan has been transformed into a virtual al Qaeda state. Atef is based in Indonesia. Khalid shuttles between Somalia and Yemen. Zarqawi is something of an enforcer in Jordan, Kuwait and Iraq. Omar controls Afghanistan.” 

March 3, 2004

Frayed by weeks of tense security duty outside Washington, D.C., National Guardsmen opened fire on a car that failed to stop at their checkpoint. Three children and two adults were killed in the shooting.  

April 13-29, 2004

The so-called “Christmas Truce” ended as terrorists detonated a dirty bomb in downtown Chicago. Mixing the worst of 9/11 and Amman, the attack showered radioactive material across a half-mile stretch of Adams Street. While only 83 people were killed by the initial blast, 227 others succumbed to heavy doses of radiation exposure in the first week after the bombing. With hospitals overwhelmed by radiation-poisoning cases, the death toll could top 1,000.  

“The bomb appears to have been made of TNT and radioactive waste crammed into the back of a rented moving van,” according to one FBI agent.  

The van was traced to Jose Padilla, an American citizen with links to al Qaeda. Padilla, a Muslim convert who traveled to Pakistan, arrived in Chicago sometime in 2002. However, federal agents lost him soon after his arrival. “As he came in, CIA should have handed him off to FBI, but the agencies were not allowed to communicate with each other,” conceded one Justice Department official. 

May 1-5, 2004

Bush vowed to begin “an all-out war on terror.” A flurry of activity at military bases all across the nation served to underscore the seriousness of U.S. intentions. But the buildup came to a sudden halt, as two soldiers were killed and 15 injured when an attacker lobbed grenades into a barracks at the headquarters of the 101st Airborne in Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. News outlets initially reported that the attack came from a breach of the base’s heavily guarded perimeter, but Army spokesmen later confirmed that the attacks came from inside the sprawling facility. Sgt. Asan Akbar was detained after the attack, which left the nation paralyzed with fear.[5]

Any hopes of the American people overcoming that paralysis were dashed when bin Laden issued a stunning double-edged threat: “Be warned,” he began, “our martyrs have infiltrated your military. If you attack our brethren, we will carry out more martyrdom missions against your army. If your stooges in Europe attack, we will rain missiles on the Zionists. And if the Zionists attack, we will strike Europe. We know America has enough missiles to destroy our people and land. But they lack the will to act, and they fear what one of our martyrs can do.” Checkmated by what he called “an axis evil,” a humiliated Bush ordered U.S. forces to stand down.

October 2, 2004

Bush defiantly rejected calls to postpone U.S. elections. Promising “to defend our most cherished right,” Bush said that Washington would deploy units from the military and the new Department of Homeland Defense to protect voters in all 50 states. “We can respond to an act of terror committed virtually anywhere in the country,” according to Bush.

Bush also unveiled an ad campaign encouraging Americans to consider voting via the new Internet-based “WebBallot.” According to the 30-second TV spot, “It’s safe and secure—for voters and their votes.” 

January 20, 2005

With the nation on hair-trigger alert, the 44th president was forced to take the Oath of Office at Andrews Air Force Base. “Humbled by the realities of a new era, America will chart a new course,” he explained. “In the century past, we planted freedom on foreign soil. Now, to protect freedom on our own, we must turn homeward.”  

September 11, 2005

The Washington Post published excerpts of Rumsfeld’s memoir Defeat without War. According to Rumsfeld, “The enemy was not only bin Laden. The enemy was the regimes that spawned and nurtured him…When this axis of terror came together to wage a global guerilla war against us, we ignored the lessons of history by failing to take the fight to the enemy. Our cities then became battlefields, by which time we had already lost this war.”

*Cover feature

[1] Actual quotes from Blair’s September 14, 2001, address to Parliament.

[2] Lindh was captured in Afghanistan in 2001.

[3] Harthi and his associates were killed by a U.S. Predator drone in Yemen in 2002.

[4] Alwan and Galab were two members of the Buffalo cell captured in 2002.

[5] Akbar launched a grenade attack against fellow members of the 101st Airborne in Iraq in 2003.