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9/11 memories: Sherard Cowper-Coles

We asked the former UK ambassador to Afghanistan: where were you on 9/11?

On 11 September 2001, I had started work, three days earlier, as Britain's ambassador to Israel. Exhausted, I had just returned to my residence when my defence attaché, Tom Fitzalan Howard, rang and told me to turn the TV on at once: something strange and terrible was happening in New York.

For the next couple of hours I watched, horrified and fascinated, as the spectacle unfolded, first in Manhattan and then across the Potomac at the Pentagon. I knew that this attack - which I suspected had to be the work of al-Qaeda - would affect Middle East diplomacy and much else for years to come.

I decided to call the embassy team together to take stock. On my way to the office, I telephoned the heads of both main Israeli intelligence agencies to ask for their assessment. Both were still in shock, and had concluded that the scale of this was so huge as to be beyond the capability of any terrorist organisation. It had to have been organised by a state. We sent a telegram to London that night, reporting those and other, generally very worried, Israeli reactions. We spent the next few weeks reminding London and, through London, Washington that Israel should not be ignored in the initial (and now-forgotten) rush to reach out to the Arab and Muslim worlds. For example, it went down very badly in Tel Aviv that, shortly after the attacks, Donald Rumsfeld decided deliberately to omit Israel from a Middle East visit. It was a huge relief to the Israelis when Tony Blair decided to come to Israel on one of his whistle-stop tours.

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This article first appeared in the 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11