We all know where we were in South Africa during the late afternoon of September 11, 2001. Like the death of John Kennedy and Princess Diana, the destruction of the twin towers at the World Trade Centre in New York represented drama, which you seldom see in your lifetime.
Nearly 10 years later, Osama bin Laden – the architect of the attack – has been killed by American Special Forces. George W Bush, like the marshal in those old Western movies, called for his capture "dead or alive" and Barack Obama delivered on the request. The interesting question is who got the bounty of $25m for fingering the fugitive.
It is also nearly the 10th anniversary of the publication of a book that I co-authored with Chantell Ilbury called The Mind of a Fox. Launched in June 2001, it contained a letter to George Bush listing as his biggest threat a massive terrorist strike on a Western City. We wrongly talked of nuclear terrorism in the letter, but the flags which made us rank it as his primary uncertainty turned out in retrospect to be correct. They were the rise of Fundamental Islam during the 1990s; the re-equipping of terrorist movements in places like Saudi Arabia; and the two attacks on American embassies in East Africa in 1998.
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We offered the American president two scenarios in light of such an attack. The first one we called "Friendly Planet" in which nations found common ground to eradicate poverty and disease, to tackle problems of the environment and to root out dangerous criminal and terrorist organisations. The alternative scenario was a "Gilded Cage" in which the West tried to hole itself up; but the cage could be blown to smithereens at any moment by nuclear-armed terrorists or be gradually overwhelmed by millions of illegal immigrants slipping through the bars.
So what is the verdict 10 years on? We have not had another attack in the US since 9/11, which for Americans is the bottom line. Terrorist organisations have had their capability to mount an attack on a grand scale degraded by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their movements are more carefully monitored by better intelligence sources in the sky and on the ground. Moreover, the unrest in North Africa and the Middle East seems to be producing a new generation of young Arabs who are more concerned with democracy and economic advancement than religious ideology.
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Nevertheless, the threat of another event is still there, because the world has not become a friendlier place in the last 10 years. Many advanced economies are now mired in unemployment and debt as they slowly recover from the worst crash since 1929; and emerging economies like China have troubles of their own which include a potential property bubble, food price inflation and destruction of the physical environment. Hard times generally increase bitterness among ordinary people, and increasing bitterness opens the door to future divisions and war of a trade or military kind.
Hence, the 50/50 odds we were giving to the two scenarios 10 years ago have not really changed. The flags we now propose in favour of a safer and better planet are a quicker global economic recovery than anticipated; and greater international co-ordination to prevent nuclear proliferation and further terrorist outrages. The flags for the emergence of a more dangerous planet are a deterioration of the relationship between the West and the East as economic power shifts from the former to the latter; an uncontrollable scramble for the remaining resources in the world as oil, water and metals become scarcer commodities; and a complete loss of faith in the US dollar as a reserve currency that leads to another financial crash. A showdown with Iran over its nuclear programme is also waiting in the wings. Plus the regime change in Egypt, and possibly elsewhere in the Middle East, could have repercussions on Israel.
It will be interesting to see which flags go up over the next 12 months as an indication of where the global game is headed in the longer run. Meanwhile, an important chapter has closed on 9/11.
By Clem Sunter
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