CAIRO: Hafez Al-Mirazi and Yosri Fouda, two prominent journalists, highlighted the stark contrast between the negative associations of Islamic fundamentalism that characterized the beginning of the post-9/11 era with the renewed, positive spirit of the Arab Spring, in a discussion held at to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
“Muslims were at least forced to feel that they had lost the moral high ground as a result of 9/11 and for an entire decade they had to face that….Just as people looked to see how America would react after the night of September 11, people were wondering the same thing about January 28 [the original Day of Rage during the Egyptian Revolution].
“Strategically speaking, what is going to happen tomorrow in response to the events of today?” Fouda pondered.
“I was in Cairo on January 28, 2011, covering the events from the Al-Arabiya office for my show at the time,” Al-Mirazi reminisced. “Leaving the office at one or two in the morning was much like the time I left the Washington office back on September 11. In Cairo, there were no police to be seen; it was dark, everybody was waiting for the next day. Only God knows now what will prevail….this is a different world, a different environment.”
Amidst the chaos of the Sunday student and worker strikes on the American University in Cairo’s campus in New Cairo, a reflective and tranquil space was carved out in Moataz Al-Alfi Hall, where an event paying homage to the 10th anniversary of 9/11 took place.
As part of the university’s “Meet the Media Discussion” series, Al-Mirazi and Fouda, deeply knowledgeable of the 9/11 attacks from both personal and professional experiences, led the conversation on “how the event was looked at from this side of the ocean,” as prefaced by Al-Mirazi.
Al-Mirazi, Washington bureau chief of Al Jazeera at the time of the attacks, was joined by Fouda, co-author of “Masterminds of Terror: The Truth Behind the Most Devastating Attack the World Has Ever Seen” and talk show host of “Akher Kalam” on Cairo-based ON TV. Together, they recounted how their perspectives on 9/11 and the post-9/11 world had evolved over the course of the past 10 years.
It was through the Al Jazeera office in Doha that Al-Mirazi, then based in Washington, D.C., first learned of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
“Are you watching CNN?” he remembered the conversation as going. “There was an aircraft that hit a tower of the World Trade Centers in New York.” Al-Mirazi’s mind was not focused on the present; instead, his mind was racing as he shuffled through his memory for historical context. He immediately thought of 1993, the year in which the first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center occurred. “You immediately began to connect the dots and that is when you realized that what you saw [on television] was not normal.” Just hours later he was on his way to the Al Jazeera office at the National Press Club, and his route took him past the Pentagon, the site of another 9/11 attack, where he could still see smoke and ash coming from the building.
Al-Mirazi recapitulated, “I remember saying on air on Al Jazeera that night: ‘This is not something that Washington will take likely. I think that it is good for any government that could be suspected of having a role in the attacks to come forward with a clear statement.’”
“September 11 changed the face of the world. However, to what extent are we still living in it and how relevant is it? On that day, not so many people knew what to expect [in the days to come], not even those who knew Osama bin Laden themselves,” Fouda mused.
Fouda, then working with the BBC’s fledgling Arabic channel, recalled the surface appeal of bin Laden. The way Israelis were treating Palestinians, the killing of Iraqi children because of UN sanctions, the hypocrisy of foreign regimes; these were all grievances that most people were feeling at the time. Bin Laden’s actions seemed to broach these grievances in an unavoidable way. Fouda noted, “Few would disagree with what bin Laden essentially stood for. However, when you discuss the question of how, not what, he demonstrated, I could come across few who would agree with the random killing of civilians, whether Muslim or not. “
According to Fouda, the 9/11 attacks cost a meager $0.5 million. He primarily credits Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 “masterminds” and hijackers, rather than bin Laden, with the operation’s efficacy and resourcefulness.
“I think before 9/11, if we had had 100 bin Ladens and no Mohammed Attas, I don’t think that any of it would have happened. I know that this is a strong statement, but to know the details, who contributed what and how … it was Mohammed Atta with his leadership on the ground; he was a perfectionist, unlike [bin Laden]. Osama bin Laden was a figure out there to give religious legitimacy.”
This counters the view that American national security analyst Peter Bergen, a respected counterpart of Fouda’s, espoused during bin Laden’s lifetime. The first Western journalist to have been granted an interview with bin Laden, Bergen asserted that as long as bin Laden was alive, Al-Qaeda was very much alive as well.
The planning behind the 9/11 attacks still remains fairly abstruse. However, few have delved as deeply into researching the topic as Fouda has. In 2002, he interviewed Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin Al-Shibh, both of whom admitted to their substantial involvement in the 9/11 planning during the interview.
“I remember I wanted to see if he [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] would blink when he tried to convince me of his argument. He didn’t and that impressed me … You could easily be swayed by [Al-Qaeda’s] point of view; we are all human beings.”