Sept. 11 A 'Fundamental Turning Point' For Blair
SCOTT SIMON, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. When planes struck New York's World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, British Prime Minister Tony Blair cut short his appearance at a Labor Party conference and rushed back to London. In a televised broadcast that night, Mr. Blair offered his unconditional support to the United States.
TONY BLAIR: This is not a battle between the United States of America and terrorism, but between the free and democratic world and terrorism. We therefore here in Britain stand shoulder to shoulder with our American friends in this hour of tragedy, and we, like them, will not rest until this evil is driven from our world.
SIMON: Former Prime Minister Tony Blair joins us now from London. He now heads the Tony Blair Faith Foundation among other activities, and is the quartet representative for Mid-East peace. Mr. Blair, thanks so much for being with us.
BLAIR: Thanks Scott.
SIMON: Sixty-seven Britons died in New York that day. As you noted, this was also the largest terrorist act in British history. Did you see the world differently after that day?
BLAIR: Yes, I did. I mean, for me it was a fundamental turning point. Not that I hadn't seen a lot of this terrorism building. I mean, it hadn't really impinged on the public consciousness much, but anyone who was a leader at that time was seeing individual acts of terrorism around the world. Obviously, quite a strong network of extremism operating.
But really what changed it was a — as I say, the sense that if they could have killed 30,000 or 300,000 rather than 3,000, they would have.
SIMON: Do you think aligning Britain as closely as you did to the United States made your country more vulnerable to terrorism?
BLAIR: I think it obviously made us more disliked and detested by those practicing the terrorism. But then on the other hand, I think not to have stood with America for that reason would have cowardly and wrong, and, you know, my view very strongly from the beginning, and it remains the same still today by the way, is that standing with America was important because 9/11 was not simply an attack on America.
It was attack on a set of values, a way of life, and it was attack by people whose objective was to terrify and to deter people from doing what otherwise they would want to do and would think it right to do.
SIMON: Did the campaign to end terrorism get sidetracked by the war in Iraq?
BLAIR: Well, I don't think so myself. I mean, I understand why this would take a different view, because I think was happened was that - I mean, the removal of Saddam was obviously — took two months, and that aspect of the war was over pretty quickly. But we then, I'm afraid then got sucked into the same battle that went on in Afghanistan that you can see in Pakistan today and Somalia and parts of the Middle East, and that is an extremism that is based on a perversion of religion, but is very strong.
SIMON: Something else has come up in recent days, reports by U.S. and British news organizations that the CIA and MI6 cooperated with Moammar Gadhafi's Libyan security service in a rendition, to send to terrorism suspect Abdel Hakim Belhadj back to Tripoli where he says he was tortured, and Mr. Belhadj is now one of the rebel leaders who overthrew Gadhafi. Some sources in Whitehall say they had ministerial approval. Did you know about Mr. Belhadj?
BLAIR: No, I didn't. I mean, I literally knew nothing about the individual case. The only thing I would say about this is though - you know, I just have to say this because it's difficult to say, but it does need to be said. You know, the reason why we were cooperating with regimes around the world, particularly after September 11th, was to try and protect our people.
SIMON: So did that cooperation include Libyan security services?
BLAIR: Absolutely. We were cooperating with Libyans (unintelligible) we were making clear at the time, because some of the people that were going to fight our soldiers, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, and some of the people who were creating terrorism in different parts of the world were from Libya.
SIMON: Is the world safer now for having had suffered this terrible crime, but also heard this warning bell ten years ago?
BLAIR: Well, that's a very good question and I'm not sure it's capable of a very easy answer. I think in one sense it is because I think we now have a far greater understanding of what we're dealing with. I think we're, you know, actually did real damage to al-Qaida in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the security measures we introduced. On the other hand, I think, as I say, this narrative, this ideology, no, I think that's still with us.
And my view of it now, which is rather different from maybe ten years ago is that this is a generation-long struggle, and there are many different facets to it. Now, I think our understanding means that we're better placed to win and defeat it. And by the way, in the end I'm optimistic. You know, the majority of Muslims are decent, sensible people. And, you know, there are masses of people within the Middle East for example that are genuine modernizing, democratic forward-looking people, open-minded people.
But it's those that are of the closed mind persuasion are still strong, they're still there, and they're well organized. So I don't know. That's a pretty nuanced answer to your question I'm afraid, Scott, but I think it's probably accurate.
SIMON: Former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Tony Blair. Thank you, Mr. Blair.
BLAIR: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.