Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

“The Worst Day” — 9/11 and the International Response


Pentagon 9/11“It was the worst day we have ever seen, but it brought out the best in all of us.” –Senator John Kerry

In the hours and days after the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, nations across the world gathered in solidarity and commiseration for those who had lost their lives. The assaults on both the World Trade Center and the Pentagon stirred international outrage as the United States and the world mourned both the loss of life and the loss of security. French newspaper Le Monde released a front page article entitled “Nous sommes tous Américains,” “We are all Americans.” Public transportation across Europe shut down and millions gathered to pray and light candles in public squares. China, Cuba, North Korea and Iran all sent messages of condolence or lit candles to publicly acknowledge the tragedy. For Edward Hull, 9/11 was especially momentous, as he was at the Pentagon during the attack, getting briefed before he assumed his post as Ambassador to Yemen.

In interviews with Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning October 2005, December 2004, and December 2005 respectively,  Hull, Bernard F. Shinkman, and Stuart Bernstein recall the horror and support of the Yemeni, Canadian, Danish and governments and citizens in the hours following the 9/11 attacks and explain their own feelings of shock, dismay and trepidation upon hearing news of the catastrophe.  Go here to read Assistant Secretary Jim Larocco’s account of 9/11.

 

“We felt the impact of the Boeing 737 hitting the Pentagon”

Edmund James Hull
Ambassador to Yemen

 

HULL:  This is the summer of 2001, which is a very tense time in global counterterrorism. There are continuing high levels of signals indicating that al Qaeda intends to do something. The interagency is meeting repeatedly trying to identify what is going to happen….I’m in the process of preparing myself for my next posting in Sana’a, Yemen. That posting is clearly connected with my previous responsibilities in counterterrorism in Washington since Yemen was one of the nodes of al Qaeda’s international network. In fact, it was the location of their first terrorist attack against the United States back in the early ‘90s, when they targeted American military people in Aden who were on their way to Somalia. Then much more dramatically, in the year 2000, they successfully attacked the USS Cole, an attack which led to the deaths of 17 Americans sailors. I think Secretary [Colin] Powell and President [George W.] Bush agreed with the priority of the Clinton administration that the next envoy to Yemen should have a strong counterterrorism background, and I got that assignment.

I should say a word about taking leave of Washington. Since I was primarily preoccupied with counterterrorism, I realized that it would be important to make the rounds in Washington—at Langley [CIA headquarters], with the FBI, the National Security Council and DOD [Department of Defense] because counterterrorism can only be addressed as [an] interagency issue.

And it so happened I was having my meetings in DOD on September 11, and I was scheduled to meet Admiral Tim Keating, who had been assigned as Commander of the Fifth Fleet, which was based in the Gulf with headquarters in Bahrain….

010914-F-8006R-006I recall arriving at the Pentagon early in the morning and in the midst of going through the security checks overhearing from a TV monitor that an aircraft had flown into the World Trade Center in New York. My immediate thought was this was an errant private aircraft—probably an accident—but something that would have to be looked at very carefully given the World Trade Center’s past status as a target of al Qaeda. Just as I learned the security procedures in DOD at the Pentagon, word of a second aircraft was being broadcast, so I entered the meeting with Admiral Keating with the thought in mind that al Qaeda had definitely undertaken a new operation in the U.S.

We went ahead with the meeting nevertheless and discussed the situation in Yemen [and] our future cooperation. And about 30 minutes into the meeting, we felt the impact of the Boeing 737 hitting the Pentagon. It actually hit a section of the building which was right around the corner from our meeting room where Admiral Keating would have been if not for meeting me.

So, very shortly thereafter, the corridors and the offices began to fill with smoke from the fire, and the Admiral’s staff came and advised us that the Pentagon was being evacuated because of the attack. We quickly shook hands and agreed to meet in the Middle East, and then we were ushered out to the center of the Pentagon, the open courtyard. I remember we were looking over our shoulders because we knew that there had been two airplanes involved in the World Trade Center attack and we wondered whether there was another airplane headed for the Pentagon. Perhaps the people in charge of the security had similar concerns because we were immediately told to leave the center area and to evacuate through the building to the south parking lot.

When we got there, we could look back and see the smoke rising from the Pentagon where the impact had occurred and the scene was one of great confusion [and] great concern because people had co-workers or, in some cases, family that were unaccounted for.

Communications [were] hard. The cell phone network was completely overwhelmed and inoperable. Private traffic was diverted away from the site. The Metro trains had been stopped. The station was no longer functioning and it took some time before we were eventually directed toward Metro buses with the intention of taking us to the nearest underground stop. That proved to be impossible. There was no way that we could get even close to Washington. And as the buses kept being diverted further and further west into Virginia, we got word by transistor radio on the bus that the World Trade Centers had collapsed and then, for me anyway, the full magnitude of the day’s events hit home.

Eventually, we were so far west in Virginia that I asked the bus driver to just let me off on Route 7, phoned my wife who in was in Falls Church packing for departure for Yemen and she came back and picked me up and we spent the rest of the day, like many Americans, following events on television.

“A great deal of sympathy”

World Trade Center (3)I was virtually certain that this was an al Qaeda operation because number one, the target, the World Trade Center… had figured prominently in al Qaeda’s target list. And then the modus operandi—the multiple attacks either simultaneously or in quick succession—brought to mind the attacks in East Africa. Of course, the summer had been a period of increased alert and we knew from intelligence that al Qaeda was planning a large operation so the responsibility was evident. And then it was confirmed very quickly when the FBI identified several of the passengers on board the aircraft as members of al Qaeda.

It would not have occurred to me that al Qaeda was working with Iraq. We had never focused on such a connection. I am aware in reading subsequent accounts—Dick Clarke’s book and the report of the 9/11 Commission—that some in the White House and particularly the leadership of the Pentagon perceived such a connection and wanted to demonstrate such a connection. But to those in the counterterrorism world, that seemed to be barking up the wrong tree.

Q: How would you describe Yemen’s political economic situation before you went?

HULL: Of course, the primary U.S. interest in Yemen was the interest of counterterrorism, and Yemen had been identified by al Qaeda as an important node in their international network. Al Qaeda used Yemen not only as a base to launch attacks in Yemen, e.g. the USS Cole attack, but also as a location to support attacks elsewhere in the world, notably the East African attack. The linkages also included linkages to the 9/11 attacks….

We were greatly assisted by the post-9/11 atmosphere because there was a great deal of sympathy for the United States government. We received many expressions of sympathy and condolences from ordinary Yemenis as well as official Yemenis.

“We had more offers of help than we had people who needed help”

Bernard F. Shinkman
Ottawa, Canada; Information Officer

 

Operation_Yellow_Ribbon_at_CFB_Goose_Bay

SHINKMAN:  The major [crisis], of course, was 9/11. And the outpouring from the Canadians was just extraordinary—I mean—the outpourings of sympathy and support. It was just a crazy time in the press office. I was in the office almost 24 hours a day for at least the first week.

You know, there were countless offers of support. But there was a classic example. You know, we have so much that is similar about the two of us, living in the same continent and speaking the same language. We have a lot of similarities and the Canadians admire the United States in some ways if you get them privately, alone. But the offers to help were extraordinary.

If you remember, briefly, all the flights that were in the air, coming across the Atlantic, were told they could not come into the United States. Many of them, of course, were beyond the point of no return and could not fly back to Europe. So they all landed on the east and west coasts of Canada. Canada opened up all these old airports – there are amazing photographs of old runways, with weeds in them because they had been shut-down air force bases, with gleaming 747s and 767s lined up alongside them. Thirty thousand foreigners, mostly Americans, landed suddenly in these places … in these remote outposts in Newfoundland and other places. And the travelers were to be put up in whatever remained of an airport or at a gymnasium or whatever.

Canadians all got in their cars, drove out to the airports, and said “We want to bring these people back to our homes and they can stay in our guest rooms and we’ll feed them.” There was such an outpouring of affection and support that way that we ran out of Americans to give them. We had more offers of help than we had people who needed help….You had the occasional rabid left-winger who would say “Well, America had it coming to them.” But that was really, really rare in the early months after 9/11.

Q: Were you seeing a concern at the time in Islamic fundamentalism?

ii-passengers-220SHINKMAN:  Not very much. The main way that came up was that there has always been a feeling that the border with Canada is porous, and that terrorists would come into Canada – because their immigration rules are less strict than ours – and then slip across the border. But there are large Muslim communities in Toronto and to a certain extent in Montreal but, at least then, Islamic fundamentalism wasn’t a major influence that anyone was worried about more than in the Muslim community in Chicago or somewhere like that….

[The Canadians] really did a remarkable job…..I was reading remarks that [Ambassador Paul Cellucci] delivered up in Ottawa recently. He said that by far the strongest memory he will take was coming out of the Parliament building when he was about to address a gathering on the Friday after 9/11…and seeing something like a hundred thousand people gathered on the lawns and down side streets in the center of Ottawa. It was just astonishing, absolutely astonishing.

“No one can get in. No one can get out”

Stuart Bernstein
Ambassador to Denmark

 

Danish Flag2BERNSTEIN:  I really believe that 9/11, which occurred three weeks after I got there [to Denmark], changed the job a great deal. I was thrown into this war against terror, and everything related to terrorism and counter-terrorism. The main responsibility, as I look back on it, was developing a relationship with the leadership of the government, so that when you’re sent in by the President or the State Department you can be effective. And they use you quite a bit, to go in and either ask for things or object to things. But my overall job was to get in there and present the United States in a positive way. To win friends and influence people, that’s what the main job was….

[9/11] really hit me like nothing has ever hit me in my life, really. I mean, here I am, an ambassador for three weeks, and I am running back to the United States to go to my nephew’s wedding for a few days. I am on a Scandinavian Airlines plane from Copenhagen to Washington. The pilot knew I was on the plane, and after we were on there quite a time, almost to Washington, he comes back with this expression on his face that I knew something was wrong.

You immediately think, your family, the President. He said, “Mr. Ambassador, I need to talk to you.” He takes me right outside the cockpit, and he says, “I’m sorry to tell you, Mr. Ambassador, your country has been attacked. Two planes went into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon, and there were five more planes. They have closed the country down. No one can get in. No one can get out.”

I said, “You have got to be kidding. Are you serious? Is this—I am a businessman, I have been an ambassador for three weeks, and my country has been attacked?” Never in the history of our country has the mainland been attacked. I go into the cockpit and I call the embassy, and they tell me what is happening and what is going on. They said, “I hope you can get the hell back here; we need you.”

So, the plane went to Iceland and refueled. We went to Bergen, Norway and dropped off passengers. They let me stay on the plane, and at one o’clock in the morning I got back to Denmark. I had left at 10:40 in the morning; I got back there at 1:00 the morning.

TERROR VIGILI went to the Embassy—hundreds of people in front of the embassy at 1:00 – 1:30 in the morning, lighting candles and so forth. I went home; I got a few hours’ sleep, got up at 6:00 and went to work. Thousands came to the Embassy, lighting candles [and] bringing messages. I went out and talked to the press, I talked to the Embassy staff, all the people concerned about their security. I went out maybe four or five times just to thank all the people for coming to share their respect for those who had died. It changed my life; it changed the role of my job.

The day after, there was a memorial service in the church where I spoke, shown live on television. I had bodyguards that I had never had when I first got there, and had those bodyguards until I left….

Q: Was there much of a Muslim community that we were knowledgeable of and concerned about in Denmark?

BERNSTEIN:  It’s known that there are some terror cells in Denmark. It has traditionally been a safe haven for their families and where they raise money. So there hadn’t been any problems in Denmark, but certainly, American ambassadors in Europe were targets, as representatives of our country. They had a pretty good Muslim community.

One of the things I was trying to do was to get the moderates to speak up. Islam is one of the great faiths, and it’s not in the Koran to kill people to get their political points of view across, and there are moderates that need to speak up. For some reason, they don’t do it like they should.

 

 

Twin-Towers

 

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“The Worst Day” — 9/…

by Chris Sibilla time to read: 11 min
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