Clem Sunter | Twenty years after 9/11: How can we make the world a safer place?

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The scene of the devastation following the 9/11 attacks, 20 years ago. Photo: Gallo Images/Getty Images
The scene of the devastation following the 9/11 attacks, 20 years ago. Photo: Gallo Images/Getty Images

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Clem Sunter asks whether the risk of another attack of a similar magnitude on America or any other nation has diminished or not. 


In The New Century, a book published in South Africa in 1992, I wrote the following: 'The growth of fundamentalist Islam poses a serious challenge to Western lifestyles and values. This in itself is not a geopolitical problem. It only becomes one if attempts are made by zealots to impose Islam on countries wishing to pursue other paths of development. How much further it will spread and at what rate is unknown. Equally unknown is whether the spreading of an idea will degenerate into a war of beliefs. A nuclear jihad is not out of the question.'

Nine years later, in The Mind of a Fox, Chantell Ilbury and I wrote a letter to the American President, George Bush. An extract from the letter reads as follows:

'You only need one terrorist organisation to hold the rich old millions to ransom by planting a nuclear bomb in the middle of one city for everyone to realise that conventional military capability is useless against such a threat.'

Three months after the publication of this book, 9/11 happened. It was not a nuclear strike, but the impact of the planes bringing down the Twin Towers in New York has been felt massively to this day. It proved how vulnerable America, the mightiest military machine on the planet, was to such an unconventional attack. 

The real question now is whether, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the risk of another attack of a similar magnitude on America or any other nation has diminished or not. Certainly, it will be argued by the defence and intelligence chiefs in America that, over the past 20 years, the capability of all known terrorist organisations intent on a repeat attack has been all but effectively neutralised. 

Equally, the international surveillance systems of drones and other spying mechanisms, to stop any new groups emerging with the same level of lethality, are very much in place and continuously operational. Airlines and airports have a much higher degree of security too. In other words, everyone is aware of the threat and has taken steps to eradicate it in a way that was not the case on 10 September, 2001.

On the other hand, some flags that could turn red have recently gone up. The hasty and embarrassingly chaotic withdrawal of American and other forces from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban as the ruling entity have significantly boosted the uncertainty factor in the region.

READ | John Matisonn: The truth about Afghanistan was there for all who looked

The next few months will reveal whether a pragmatic relationship will be forged between a reformed Taliban and the West, or whether the situation will revert to the agitated one of the late 1990s. Actions will speak louder than words. 

Moreover, Joe Biden's remark that never again will America try to impose its brand of democracy on another country speaks volumes on the loss of power and presence in the world suffered by his country in this century.

Nevertheless, it is in the interests of China, Russia, India and Pakistan to maintain peace in the area. Indeed, with the requisite amount of help from its friends, you can paint a favourable scenario of Afghanistan rising from the economic poverty it is in and developing a new spirit of social harmony. Agriculture and minerals will form the backbone of its recovery.

The second flag to watch concerns the general level of uneasiness in the Middle East.

Israel's recent conflict with Hamas does not bode well for peace, and neither does Saudi Arabia's ongoing rivalry with Iran.

On another front, America has not yet rejoined the international agreement with Iran, which prohibits them from producing weapons-grade uranium. Furthermore, stories are rife that they are edging closer to possessing the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons in America's absence. This would be crossing a red line for America and Israel, as they do not want any chance at all of a nuclear jihad. One wonders what they will do to halt Iran if they feel it is necessary to do so. Could that provoke a much broader war in the region?

The third flag is around religious extremism and the ability of the internet to promote it.

It is not only adherents of Islam who are being groomed by special sites to take armed action against other religious communities in the world. It applies to all religions, and it is getting worse because of the level of inequality among human beings caused by the pandemic and climate change. 

While rich nations and rich people within those nations have taken measures to protect themselves from the worst consequences of these two phenomena, the poor have had to bear the real brunt of more infectious variants of Covid-19 affecting their health and extreme weather conditions destroying their homes.

Below the surface, there is plenty of anger among the masses to be exploited by radical groups, using religion as their tool to incite hatred of others.

In addition, the widening variance in living conditions is creating more refugees wishing to flee from the poorer to the richer countries. This raises the risk that among the immigrants, there may be potential terrorists with evil intentions in mind.

Likewise, there may be young people who are totally innocent on arrival, but are subsequently groomed to be terrorists by charismatic individuals in their new country of abode.

READ | Extract: Clem Sunter and Mitch Ilbury's 'Thinking the future': 'We are not rational beings'

In a recently published book, Thinking the Future, Mitch Ilbury and I have featured two philosophical giants who offer valuable insights on this issue. The first is David Hume, a Scottish philosopher belonging to the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th Century. He said: 'Reason is the slave of passion.' Hume alerts us as to how we, as emotional beings, are sometimes whipped up into a state driven more by how we feel than by rational thought. 

The second is Veronica Wedgewood, a British historian of the last century who observed: 'Human life is essentially dramatic; it is born and exists in conflict.' Based on these two perceptive quotes, you can blame emotion and conflict for the messy history of progress and regression that we have had throughout our existence as a species. Will that ever change? You may not think so, particularly in light of the aforementioned flags. 

However, in answering the question posed about whether the world has become a safer place since 9/11, I can only quote what Mitch Ilbury and I said in summing up our views about religion in the book:

'Despite our reservations about faith playing any role in thinking the future, we want to acknowledge that faith is an incredibly important and enriching aspect of our spirituality. Billions of people follow one religion or another. Faith can divide us, but it can also spur people to do things beyond the call of duty.'

As we argue in the book, being a good futurist means that you look at multiple futures and do your best to increase the odds of the preferable one and decrease the odds of the undesirable one.

Let's hope we have learned enough from our past to allow different religions to co-exist as best as possible and positively reinforce one another. It would be a fitting tribute to all those who tragically died during the 9/11 attack to make this commitment.

You've got to have faith within reason to live a contented life. We must all learn that. 

- Clem Sunter is a futurologist, keynote speaker and scenario planner.


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