Russian and American experts remember the tragic events of 9/11 and explain how they continue to influence our understanding of global security and stability.

Commemorating 9/11. Photo: Reuters

Twelve years ago on 9/11, four planes hijacked by Al-Qaida terrorists forever changed how we viewed the world. The Sept. 11 terror attack not only led to the “Global War on Terror” but it also changed our understanding of security and stability in a global, interconnected world.

To commemorate the 12th anniversary of 9/11, Russia Direct interviews Russian and American experts to find out what they felt when the terror attack happened and what lessons the world can learn from the tragedy.

Dmitry Suslov, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics

When I found out about the 9/11 attack, I felt that something apocalyptic happened. And these feelings were related not only to the terror attack but also to its long-term consequences. Given the influence and international heft of the U.S. as the hegemonic superpower, it was pretty clear that the U.S. response should be dramatic and extremely large-scale.

These events indicated that the world had changed and they destroyed the illusion that globalization brings only positive changes. On the contrary, it meant that globalization brings more controversial, heterogeneous elements as well as transnational threats that make this world less stable and less secure.

The main lesson from the 9/11 attack is that one shouldn’t destabilize the fragile regions in [the Middle East] because it brings about the clash of two civilizations. Sooner or later, there will be a backlash.

The second lesson is that Russia shouldn’t give up collaborating in this field with the U.S. and other countries regardless of their growing differences. And the Sochi Olympics give a good reason to step up this collaboration. Neither Russia nor the United States want the Sochi Olympics to be overshadowed by the threat of terror attacks. I hope that Moscow and Washington will have enough political will to continue the anti-terror endeavor. 

Gregory Feifer, former Moscow correspondent, National Public Radio (NPR), and author of “The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan.”        

I happened to be watching satellite television in Moscow when the 9/11 attacks took place, so I watched it taking place along with many others across the world. It was deeply wrenching and saddening – and still is – not only because New York, where I've lived many years, is my favorite city. The trauma affected the entire country, which has yet to fully recover.

Some lessons from the 9/11 attack itself have been learned, including the need to pay better attention to intelligence and information sharing between agencies. However, what happened in the immediate aftermath has had large and adverse consequences for American society and the rest of the world that are directly affecting some of the main issues facing us today.

The attack enabled a drifting, unpopular Bush Administration to undertake drastic measures, including launching the unnecessary, unjustified invasion of Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11. That helped convert a budget surplus into record deficits, seriously undermined American standing in the world and resulted in greater global insecurity and hundreds of thousands of deaths.

The larger so-called “War on Terror” was also used to justify giving government agencies sweeping powers over Americans and some foreigners, part of a culture of security that violates some of the most cherished liberties granted in the U.S. constitution.

Far from helping resolve the Syrian conflict, the shadow of Iraq is hamstringing international action today. If the Obama Administration successfully negotiates its perilous path to a decision over what to do about Syria and takes action, that may do something to help the United States to emerge from Iraq's legacy.

However, many other issues will remain, including the actions of the NSA and other intelligence agencies Edward Snowden has helped expose. Obama has helped to entrench these agencies instead of rolling them back, as he promised to do before his re-election.

Of course, Russia and the United States should collaborate on security issues to prevent violent attacks. However, Vladimir Putin's strenuous efforts to spoil relations between the two sides have done much to minimize the effect of the little cooperation that does take place. I don't see that changing anytime soon.


Victims of the 9/11 attack. Photo: Reuters

Fyodor Lukyanov, head of Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, editor in chief of Russia in Global Affairs

The first idea that came to my mind after the attack was that the footage from New York was so disturbing that it overshadowed anything in a Hollywood blockbuster.

Actually, I didn’t realize the scale of the event at that moment. I didn’t expect that this event would bring about such a large-scale shift in [geopolitics]. Now, twelve years on, when I assess this event, I understand that my first impression was correct. The [9/11 attack] didn’t change the world in general. The attack looked as thought it might produce a shift but then, eventually, it all comes back full circle.

The first lesson from the 9/11 attack is that the problem of terrorism is impossible to resolve separately from the rest of [the geopolitical agenda]. Yet the U.S. made an attempt to do this after Sept. 11, announcing a global anti-terror crusade and turning international terrorism into the core of international politics. Yet, it didn’t bring any results because terrorism is a very complicated issue.

Secondly, terrorism is not the cause, but the result. It’s like a tool. Fighting the consequences and ignoring the underlying reasons is not the best way to deal with the situation. What we’ve seen in the Middle East today since 2010-2011 is that the growth of instability resulted from an attempt to rearrange the whole region. This indicates that the system doesn’t work.

And this process is cancelling out all the efforts to fight against terrorism. It’s difficult to identify terrorists because our allies might turn out to be the friends of those terror groups against which we announced the anti-terror crusade.

No wonder, [the threat of] terrorism failed to bring something revolutionary and new in the international system. The necessity to work vigorously to fix the current misbalances is still alive and anti-terror measures that are based on the use of force are hardly likely to resolve the problem.

Moscow and Washington will be able to work together in this field to a certain extent. I am not sure if the Snowden case hampers the political prospects of anti-terror collaboration. However, on a professional level, it is possible to exchange data and information. Yet it doesn’t mean that Russia will rely on the U.S. in providing security, for example, at the Sochi Olympics. Likewise, the U.S. can’t be sure that the anti-terror collaboration with Russia will be so close.

Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., senior associate at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, D.C. where he writes and edits the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report

The main lesson of 9/11 is the growing threat of jihadism to the non-Muslim world and the moderate portion of the Muslim world. To combat that threat, we need to ally with all those under the same threat regardless of whether or not we like their political regime, the sensibilities of their political leaders, or their policies on other issues. 

The second half of the question I will answer in another way: The U.S.-Russian stand-off on Syria has demonstrated the costs of failing to overcome Cold War prejudices, compounding those prejudices with post-Cold war mistakes (NATO expansion without Russia, failing to fully support the Russian economy in order to support the Russian transition to democracy, and Russia's frequent, though understandable, overreactions to these U.S. mistakes).  Now Syria's rising jihadi threat is reinforcing the unlearned lesson of 9/11: the only winner in Western and Russian failures to cooperate in the war on terrorism and other areas is jihadism.

Unfortunately, U.S. and Russian actions in relation to the Tsarnaevs and the Boston Marathon bombing suggest pessimism over the prospects of sufficient cooperation between U.S. and Russian security in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics.  One ray of hope is the recent effort by Moscow and Washington to fashion a solution to the Syrian chemical weapons issue. If that is a success, perhaps it can be built upon to prevent a jihadi attack on Sochi.  Russia's Caucasus Emirate mujahedin has pledged to attack the Games.

The close proximity of CE mujahedin fighting alongside Al Qaida and other jihadist groups in Syria and the growing possibility of their acquiring Assad's chemical weapons in the chaos and dislocation of the civil war does not augur well for the security of the Games, for Russia, and its neighbors in the region. Perhaps, the international nature of the event – which gives the U.S. a stronger interest in this Russian event's security will spark greater cooperation at Sochi.

And, perhaps that experience, plus the Syrian crisis, will finally get the lesson of the jihadi threat across to those in the West obsessed with having Russia as an enemy and those in Russia still viewing the U.S. and the West in the same way.