Shortly after the attack, political commentator George Will left it registered in the The Wall Street Journal: “History came back from vacation”. It was a reference to The End of History and the Last Man, bestseller by American sociologist Francis Fukuyama. Which basically said: with the end of communism in Europe, the capital H story was over. Liberal democracy won, forever. And there would be no more big ideological, philosophical or religious disputes. In the brief peace between the end of the Soviet Union, Christmas 1991, and 9/11, talking about that end of history didn’t sound laughable.
Ultimately, the catastrophe that took 2,997 lives marked a new geopolitical era. An era in which non-state actors – starting with bin Laden’s al-Qaeda – became more important enemies than states with regular armies. The era of the War on Terror began. The era of terror.
If 9/11 didn’t happen. It would be enough for the conspiracy to be defeated in time – and the CIA knew, according to the survey raised by the US Senate, that the terrorists were in the country, but it did not act or share the information with other authorities. If the attack had been foiled, and there had not been the mobilization and investment necessary to carry out another one of equal magnitude, the world would be very different from the one you are sitting in now. The attack generated a wave of fury in the US, comparable only to Pearl Harbor in 1941. And George W. Bush acted quickly: he invaded Afghanistan, which was home to al-Qaeda. Before 2001 was over, he had deposed the Taliban government. If there was any possible reaction right now, this was it.
Bush almost certainly owed it to his re-election in 2004. Until then, he was seen as a simple figure, completely unprepared for the job. The term “bushism” indicated something stupid said by the president. Before the attack, it had around 50% of popularity, with a downward bias. Soon after, his approval was 85%.
Without 9/11, we would have Democrat John Kerry elected in 2004. Kerry came from a career as a Vietnam veteran, and became a pacifist. It also fought for measures against global warming. He would probably do a term similar to that of Democrat Bill Clinton, between 1993 and 2001, in which the biggest event was a sex scandal with the intern.
In place of Obama in 2008, we would have either Kerry 2, or – because of the economic crisis of 2008, which has nothing to do with wars or 9/11 – a Republican also moderate, elected with economic promises. Certainly not Donald Trump.
Because the cultural climate that elected Trump would not exist. The War on Terror shifted the entire debate to the right and far right. It caused moderate figures to be accused of being complacent to the enemy. It was a defensive and conservative cultural climate.
The attack itself spurred a novelty: the mass propagation of conspiracy theories over the internet. An idea of culture war was gaining ground. The Tea Party movement, a radicalized republicanism, would not have emerged. without the alt-right American, it is difficult to imagine the rise, in Brazil, of a figure like Jair Bolsonaro. His campaign almost fully replicated the method that had worked for Donald Trump in 2016: instilling, with a lot of conspiracy theory, the idea that the conservative, Christian way of life was threatened by a chaotic, perverted progressivism.
Without this formula, the candidacy might not gain strength, and the 2018 elections would probably be the classic PT x PSDB of the last two decades. If here in the West the atmosphere of the “end of history” would follow, on the other side of the world, history would be flying on the runway.
The Taliban would remain in power. But not isolated. In 2001, the Taliban was recognized by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It still had the sympathy of neighboring Turkmenistan and a principle of rapprochement with China. Of these, Pakistan would be the most fundamental alliance. It was then a dictatorship led by Pervez Musharraf, a decidedly secular general but pragmatic in dealings with fundamentalists. Detail: Pakistan is a nuclear power.
And a power prone to leaks (at least until 2001). Two Pakistani nuclear physicists collaborated with the Afghan regime and with terrorists it protected. Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudhry Abdul Majeed were founders of a radical Islamic group, the Ummah Tameer-e-Nau (UTN). And they conducted meetings with the Taliban and al-Qaeda to discuss nuclear weapons.
The meeting was revealed by documents found in October 2001, during the US occupation of Kabul. The UTN was declared a terrorist group and the pair of physicists were eventually arrested by the Pakistani government, which had taken a 180-degree turn in its relations with the Taliban after 9/11, completely allying itself with Washington. It was reported that they would not know how to make a bomb. But the fact is that the exchange of information had just begun, and would not stop without 9/11.
West of Pakistan and Afghanistan, another player would remain intact: Saddam Hussein. While the Iraq War took place under the pretense that it was producing weapons of mass destruction, it only took place in the post-9/11 cultural climate. Without that, Saddam would remain a dictator.
Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, it is known today. But he certainly wanted to. So is another enemy of the US: Iran, which was then moving towards normalizing its relations with Pakistan, but withdrew after Musharraf unconditionally supported the US.
Without 9/11, Pakistan’s atomic technology would have been able to migrate to Iran, Iraq, and at some point the Taliban — yes, Afghanistan looks too poor to harbor atomic bombs, but North Korea is too. miserable and sheltering. When a country is nuclear, it doesn’t matter the regime, it is game over: becomes virtually immune to intervention.
Then, if 9/11 happened further on and the Taliban sheltered the perpetrators, it wouldn’t be possible to invade. But the greatest danger would be another: this atomic spree would make nuclear weapons end up in the hands of terrorists more apocalyptic and more global than the Taliban, which is content to dominate Afghanistan. Unlike any country, such a group would not hesitate to use them.