A 9/11 ‘What If?’

From the Archive: In recognition of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we will be publishing some past stories about the consequences of that momentous day. On Sept. 11, 2008, the seventh anniversary, Peter Dyer reflected on “what if” the United States had responded with demands for justice, not wars of conquest.

By Peter Dyer

What if we had never gone to war? What if, after the shocking crimes of September 11, 2001, the United States had pursued a different course?

What if all the blood which has been spilled in the name of justice still flowed in living veins; all the American, Iraqi and other lives shattered were still whole; all the homes destroyed or lost still standing, still occupied by families who never harmed us?

We have spent monumental treasure and energy on two wars. What if, instead, we had invested a fraction of that in a determined, unrelenting effort to bring Osama bin Laden to justice in a fair and transparent trial in a court of law?

Of course, we’ll never know.

When we were confronted with the most heinous series of terrorist acts in our history, Americans overwhelmingly lined up behind President George W. Bush’s call for a “Global War on Terror.”

We can only speculate on what might have been the result of a different course of action, guided by a fundamentally different vision.

For two reasons, though, such speculation would not be entirely baseless:

One week after the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan, the Taliban presented us with an opportunity to investigate the possibility of a peaceful, legal resolution to the crimes of 9/11.

On Oct. 14, 2001, Afghanistan’s deputy prime minister, Haji Abdul Kabir, announced that if the United States stopped the bombing and produced evidence of bin Laden’s guilt, “we would be ready to hand him over to a third country” for trial.

President Bush, determined to launch and pursue the “war on terror,” refused even to discuss, much less investigate this possibility. (By March 2003, the United States was also at war with Iraq, having pulled a number of allies, including Spain, into a “coalition of the willing.”)

A Different Course

Exactly 30 months after 9/11 (and a year after the invasion of Iraq), there was another catastrophic terrorist attack in another country: Spain. On March 11, 2004, 191 people in Madrid were killed and over 1,800 injured when 10 backpack bombs exploded on four morning rush-hour commuter trains.

As with 9/11, “11-M” was the most devastating series of terrorist acts in Spanish history.
But Spain chose the path the U.S. rejected.

The Spanish government addressed the crimes of 11-M with the tools, techniques and resources of law enforcement. There was an investigation, arrests, a trial, and appeals. This process is today essentially complete.

Spain has demonstrated an effective alternative to war as a means of addressing and resolving the bloody horrors of terrorism.

The Spanish example can thus help us make an educated guess at how things might have gone had the Bush administration not immediately and contemptuously rejected Kabir’s offer of Oct. 14, 2001.

And while such an endeavor can’t undo the past seven years, perhaps it can help us make a better choice next time our leaders tell us it’s time for another war.

Here’s how Spain did it.

Two days after the bombings, the police made their first arrests.
After a 25-month investigation, 29 people 15 Moroccans, nine Spaniards, two Syrians, one Egyptian, one Algerian and one Lebanese were indicted on April 11, 2006. The Madrid bombing trial opened on Feb. 15, 2007, and ended on July 2.
Four months later, on Oct. 31, 2007, the three-judge tribunal delivered the verdicts. Three men were convicted of murder, attempted murder and committing terrorist acts. They were sentenced to thousands of years in prison each, although under Spanish law, none will serve longer than 40 years. There is no capital punishment in Spain.

Eighteen were found guilty of lesser offenses. Seven were acquitted. During the trial all charges were dropped against one of the defendants.

0n July 18 of this year, four of the sentences were overturned on appeal to the Supreme Court. Thus, in the end, 17 out of the original 29 indicted have been convicted.

The Supreme Court also concluded that the real ringleaders of the crimes of 11-M were among seven suspects who, three weeks after the bombs exploded, blew themselves up in an apartment outside Madrid when a police assault began.

The U.S. experience and the Spanish experience are, of course, not identical. But there are arguably enough parallels to facilitate a comparison and enable some credible answers to the question: what if?


Each (9/11 and 11-M) was the worst terrorist attack in the history of the country, inflicting massive, unprecedented, public physical and emotional trauma. In both countries the attacks were brought about primarily by foreign Islamic terrorists.

Although many more people were killed on 9/11, taking into account the relative population sizes, the numbers come much closer: the U.S. suffered roughly one death for every 95,000 Americans; Spain roughly one for every 225,000 Spaniards.

Several contrasts also come to mind. One of the first is money: what was the budget for the Spanish legal process following 11-M and how does this figure compare to the price of the “war on terror”?

Unfortunately, expenditure figures for the 11-M trial are difficult to come by. But 2007 Spanish Ministry of Justice Budget figures are available. The total 2007 budget for all Spanish Courts was, $1,865,239,200 (€1,295,305,000).
If we liberally assume that this gargantuan, drawn-out and complicated trial consumed 75 percent of the 2007 Spanish Courts budget and then triple that figure to include the costs of the police investigation and appeals, then round up generously we get a theoretical budget for the entire process of $6 billion: almost certainly much higher than the actual expenditure.

What about the “war on terror,” soon to begin its eighth year?

A recent U.S. Government (Congressional Research Service) estimate places the costs of the “war on terror” to the end of Fiscal Year 2009 (Sept. 30, 2009) at $857 billion, or 142 times an upper-end estimate of the cost of the Spanish trial.

The Spanish judicial process, from start to finish, is likely to have cost considerably less than seven-tenths of one percent of the price of the “war on terror.” That is, in the unlikely event the “war on terror” ends by Sept. 30, 2009. (Though the name has been dropped by the Obama administration, the global campaign to hunt down and kill suspected Islamic terrorists has continued unabated.)

Human Costs

It’s important to remember that the Congressional Research Service figure does not include what is undoubtedly the largest portion of the total costs of the “war on terror”: the price of repairing the harm done to the people, economy and infrastructure of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Money was not the only price Spain paid for the investigation of the crimes of 11-M. A Spanish Special Forces Police Officer died along with the seven suspected terrorists during the April 3, 2004, assault on the apartment building in Leganes, a southern suburb of Madrid.
So, eight deaths were directly related to the investigation of the crimes of 11-M. As tragic as this figure may be, compared to the deaths which the “war on terror” has wrought, it is small indeed.

The “war on terror” casualty figures are stunning by comparison. As of September 2008, they include:

–86,72494,622 documented Iraqi civilian deaths from violence as of June 9, 2008, according to Iraq Body Count. (Other estimates put the total Iraq death toll in the hundreds of thousands, possibly over 1 million.)

–4,464 “coalition of the willing” deaths, including 4,150 Americans, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty count, as of Aug. 31, 2008.

–Thousands of Afghan civilian deaths and 939 Coalition deaths in Afghanistan, including 578 U.S.   deaths, as of Sept. 1, 2008.

The Iraq Body Count’s Web site states: “Gaps in recording and reporting suggest that even our highest totals to date may be missing many civilian deaths from violence.” The IBC figure is significantly lower than estimates based on studies by other organizations including the Iraqi Ministry of Health, Opinion Research Business, and The Lancet Medical Journal.

Another cost to the unfortunate people on the receiving end of the “war on terror” has been loss of home. The scale of Iraqi refugee numbers is catastrophic: about five million have fled their homes. Around one million were displaced prior to 2003.

As of the end of 2007, there were about 2.3 million Iraqi refugees living outside the country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. In addition, within Iraq, as of March 2008 there were 2,778,000 internal refugees, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

The 2002 population of Iraq was 24 million. Since then, because of the “war on terror,” one out of every six Iraqis has lost his or her home.

Other costs the citizens of Iraq have borne due to the “war on terror” have yet to be fully quantified, and may never be. Among these are the damage which five-and-a-half years of war has done to the Iraqi economy, infrastructure, health care (including long-term health care to those injured in the war), education and the environment: all of it aggravated by the loss of manpower and talent embodied in the refugee crisis.

Other costs of the “war on terror” must include losses suffered by other members of the “coalition of the willing (including Spain, which lost 11 soldiers before pulling their troops out of Iraq within three months of 11-M).
There are also enormous expenses incurred by countries hosting refugees, especially Jordan and Syria, and by international agencies such as the United Nations providing aid to refugees.

In short, the magnitude of the human and financial expenditure which the Bush administration has so far incurred and with which it has burdened others in the effort to resolve the crimes of 9/11 is, for all practical purposes, incalculable and approaches the unimaginable.

It makes the loss of eight lives and the theoretical $6 billion involved in the Spanish resolution of the crimes of 11-M look like a relatively minor sacrifice.

Different Approaches
Why was the Spanish approach so fundamentally different from the American approach? Why did Spain turn to the courts as opposed to the military?

I asked Spaniards and a New Zealand journalist who recently lived and worked for two years in Spain for their perspectives. One reason for the difference: Spain, sadly, has a much broader experience with terrorism than the U.S., primarily with the Basque Separatist Organization ETA. ETA has, over the course of 40 years, killed over 800 people.

Spanish diplomat Emilio Perez de Agreda pointed out that in Spain terrorism has always been a police matter, rather than military, even under dictator Francisco Franco. It was natural that this tradition would determine the Spanish response to the Madrid railway bombings.

Much of the answer seems to be based, as well, in a general Spanish aversion to war. There is a long history of bloody armed conflict on Spanish soil going back to Napoleon’s 1808 invasion of Spain and continuing through the brutal Civil War of 1936-39.

Julio Valenzuela (not his real name), a professional from Valencia in his 40s, feels that first-hand experience with the horrors of war at home has helped foster the Spanish tradition of neutrality. He points out that the last Spanish international war was with the U.S. in 1898, over a century ago.
Legality was a theme stressed by Mr. Agreda, who holds a degree in law. Just as the horrors of war caused Spain to turn away from war, so the long years of Franco’s ultra-conservative one-man rule (1936-1975) directly influenced the Spanish evolution into a highly progressive state with a healthy respect for the rule of law.

Unlike Desert Storm in 1991, in which Spain participated, the invasion of Iraq was not sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. The overwhelming majority of the Spanish public viewed the war as illegal. Despite this, President Aznar committed Spanish troops to the coalition.
The Madrid commuter trains were attacked three days before the national election of March 14, 2004. The Socialist Party, which had campaigned on a promise to bring home Spanish troops from Iraq, won an upset victory. In less than three months, Spain had withdrawn from the “war on terror.”

As Agreda sees it, “The country has become so progressive there’s no way it could have reacted to 11-M similar to the U.S. reaction to 9/11” The culture would not allow it.

Speaking of the “war on terror,” as far as Spain is concerned, he said simply: “There is no war.”

Journalist Jeremy Rose agreed: after 11-M the Socialist government “could have gone nutty” with a rise in reactionary anti-immigration populism. Instead, “Spain went the other way at the very time you might have expected a backlash,” he said.

Another factor mentioned by both Agreda and Valenzuela was the long history of Spanish coexistence, cooperation and friendship with Arabs and Arab countries. This goes back to 711 and the Moorish invasion and occupation of much of the Iberian peninsula.
There ensued long periods of peaceful cohabitation between Christians, Moslems and Jews, although as Rose pointed out, this coexistence was interrupted by periods of conflict and even ethnic cleansing: in particular, the Spanish Inquisition.

During the Franco years, when Spain was generally treated by the rest of Europe as a pariah state, Arab and Latin American countries were among Spain’s closest friends.

Despite, or perhaps because of the “war on terror,” Spain manifested a desire to maintain ties of friendship with the Islamic world. This was manifested by the formation of the Alliance of Civilizations, Rose said.

On Sept. 21, 2004, only six months after the Madrid bombings, President Zapatero and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cofounded the Alliance of Civilizations.

Backed by the United Nations, the mission of the Alliance is “to improve understanding and cooperative relations among nations and peoples across cultures and religions and, in the process, to help counter the forces that fuel polarization and extremism.”

Rating the Strategies

It is fair to ask how effective each approach, the Spanish and the American, has been. Reading through reports of the 11-M trial verdicts and the reactions of victims and their relatives, it is clear some were unhappy.
Although the majority of suspects are now serving time, 12 were released. This perceived high rate of release was an injustice, according to some interested parties and to some international observers, as was perceived leniency in sentencing. For these people the trial has not brought proper closure.

A smaller group believes ETA was involved in the bombings and that the government purposely overlooked this for political advantage. Others have voiced satisfaction and believe justice was done.

It is not unusual for criminal trials to end leaving victims and others with a sense of justice denied or only partially fulfilled. This was probably inevitable in a case of this size and complexity.

But most of the criticisms focus on perceived flaws in the investigation, trial and/or appeals process, while some accuse the government of bias. The possibility that Spain might have done better through war does not appear to be a part of the Spanish public discourse.
“Probably most Spaniards think that if Spain had gone to war Spain would be less safe,” Agreda said.

The legal process is complete. As a society, Spain seems to have resolved the crimes of 11-M enough to be able to move on.

Valenzuela said: “PP (the Popular Party who were voted out of office after 11-M) is not talking anymore about it, and have sidelined the hardliners. I think in Spain most people consider it a past thing.”

How effective has the monumentally costly and seemingly unending “war on terror” been in addressing and resolving the crimes of 9/11?

As of Sept. 11, 2008, after seven years, two wars, possibly hundreds of thousands of deaths, and costs approaching $1 trillion, Osama bin Laden was still at large. (After President Barack Obama refocused on pursuing al-Qaeda leaders hiding in Pakistan, bin Laden was killed by a U.S. Special Forces raid in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad on May 2, 2011.)  
However, on Aug. 6, 2008, in its first trial, the U.S. military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay convicted Salim Hamdan, bin Laden’s driver, on five counts of supporting terrorism. Hamdan, who has already spent five years in prison waiting for his trial, was acquitted of conspiring to aid the al-Qaeda effort to attack the United States.

Many allege Hamdan was denied basic rights by the U.S. government.

Here’s how Army Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a former Guantanamo official who has since become critical of the legal process, viewed the choice of Hamdan for the tribunal’s first trial, as reported in the Associated Press:

“We can only trust that the next subjects … will include cooks, tailors, and cobblers without whose support terrorist leaders would be left unfed, unclothed, and unshod, and therefore rendered incapable of planning or executing their attacks.”

Recently the prestigious Rand Institute, hardly known for left-wing speculation, published a report partially funded by the U.S. Defense Department: How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida by Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki.

In their report, Jones and Libicki directly address the question of the efficacy of the “war on terror.” Citing an increase in quantity of al-Qaeda terrorist attacks over a larger geographical area as well as the evolution of al-Qaeda organizational structure since 9/11, they conclude that the U.S. approach to ending terror has been unsuccessful.

The report calls for a fundamental shift in emphasis to police work and intelligence as the primary tools for countering terror. Jones and Libicki advocate the use of American military force only sparingly if at all.

Based on the experience of the previous seven years they conclude that direct American combat engagement in the Muslim world in the effort to end terrorism is actually more likely to encourage terrorism.

The foundation of the American experiment in democracy is 220 years of dedication to the rule of law. The calamities of 9/11 shook that foundation severely enough to rupture it.
Since then Spain, a country only a generation removed from dictatorship, has given the world a lesson in the very practical benefits of dedication to the rule of law in the most trying of circumstances.

It is likely another opportunity for war will present itself. When this happens perhaps Americans will take into account the tragic and criminal waste embodied in the “war on terror” as well as the promise of the living example provided by Spain and choose a wiser course.

Peter Dyer is a freelance journalist who moved with his wife from California to New Zealand in 2004. He can be reached at [email protected] .