THIS time next week I will be on my way to Iraq. It’s been a long time coming this opportunity to get back on the road as a foreign correspondent.

My last overseas ­venture was just before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic when I was in ­Afghanistan and the capital Kabul, ­listening to the growing fears of those ­Afghans who sensed that the Taliban takeover these past weeks was already in the offing.

Both Iraq and Afghanistan are two ­places that I’ve lost count of the times I’ve visited over the decades. Rarely though during all that time were my ­experiences in both more intense than in the ­immediate years following that one event of precisely 20 years ago yesterday.

Whenever I think of 9/11 and those attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and other targets in the United States back in 2001 a number of things flood into my mind.

The first is the words of the Bruce Springsteen song Nothing Man from his album The Rising, written in the ­immediate aftermath of 9/11 which ­became a sort of elegy to those dark times.

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Those lyrics from Nothing Man, ­expressing a life being “forever changed in a cloud of pink vapour”, take me ­instantly back to those live television moments when the Twin Towers were under attack. That cloud of pink vapour set against the “unbelievable blue” sky of New York that day and emanating as it did from the ­skyscraper after the first fuel-laden airliner crashed into the Trade Centre was to become an iconic symbol.

Little did I fully realise it then but like so many people that single event was also to change my own path in this world, ­effectively mapping out as it did much of my subsequent working life.

A video grab of the image would make the front page of many newspaper in the following days including a special ­edition of my own newspaper back then, the ­Sunday Herald, of which I was staff ­Foreign Editor at the time.

It’s become a bit of cliche to ask that question of someone: Where were you when 9/11 happened? But still people ask it of each other, so etched is the moment into the collective global psyche.

I’ll always remember that it was a ­Tuesday and I had only come into the newspaper office at the start of the ­working week to pick up a book before heading to the airport to begin a journey to Israel

Clustered around the news desk ­television, I came across most of my ­colleagues. On the screen in a live ­broadcast the first of the Twin Towers was already burning from the impact of the plane. Only when the second aircraft slammed into the remaining tower did the silence of my colleagues’ break, replaced by gasps and cries from those standing around.

It might seem remarkable looking back now, but I distinctly remember saying and colleagues confirm it, that I uttered the words “I think its bin Laden”.

The al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was no household name in those days, far from it, but I had been closely ­following his path and that of his Islamist followers for many years prior to 9/11 after ­bumping into him in Afghanistan back in 1989 when the Soviets pulled out and the country became a magnet for jihadists from around the globe.

I also knew of al-Qaeda’s desire to ­engage in transnational attacks and its track record of violence to date, albeit nothing quite on the scale of 9/11. Among these was the previous strike in 1993 on the World Trade Centre linked to bin Laden when six people were killed after a bomb in a van exploded under the Twin Towers.

Then there were the truck bombs that exploded at US embassies in Nairobi in Kenya and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania in 1998 killing 224, including 12 Americans.

It was two weeks after that attack that then US President Bill Clinton named bin Laden Washington’s biggest enemy and launched cruise missiles at sites in ­Afghanistan and Sudan.

Added to this background knowledge, my Sunday Herald colleague Neil Mackay based on an interview with a former CIA official had written months before 9/11 about a potential terrorist strategy of ­hijacking and flying commercial airliners into buildings.

It was Mackay too whose later ­investigative journalism would expose the US neo-conservative think tank the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and its role in underpinning the motives for going to war in Iraq after 9/11.

Leaving the office that day and heading to Glasgow airport en-route to Israel I already knew I was no longer going on holiday to visit friends and journalist ­colleagues but was back in work mode ­given that inevitably, what we had ­witnessed that day on television from New York, would have links to the ­Middle East and subsequent events would be played out there.

In the event I never made it beyond Heathrow airport on September 11, 2001. Israeli airspace like that of the United States, was shut down and my flight ­cancelled. Instead, I spent a sleepless and emotional night at Heathrow’s airport bars with crowds of Americans, many ­trying to get back to New York who also had flights cancelled.

Returning the next day to Scotland it was for nothing more than a turnaround and back again to the airport with a new destination earmarked.

This time I was on my way to Pakistan and Afghanistan, as it slowly became clear that bin Laden and al-Qaeda were what US President George W Bush ­described as the “prime suspects” behind this ­attack that in the end would take ­almost 3000 lives and 20 years later today would account for 1 million deaths as the subsequent related violence and conflicts of the “war on terror” played themselves out across the globe.

In the days that followed I found ­myself in the Pakistan frontier town of Peshawar that borders Afghanistan. On its ­smoggy, humid streets most Pakistanis and ­Afghans were as courteous and polite as I remembered them to be from previous visits during the years of the Soviet War in Afghanistan.

Some things however had changed. Street vendors now sold books on the Taliban, maps of Afghanistan and T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Jihad is the way”.

One morning while waiting at ­Peshawar airport, a Pakistani man ushered two ­toddler boys toward me. “I would like you to meet my two sons, this is Osama and this one Saddam,” the father announced, touching each of the boys on the head in turn.

At first, I thought it was a joke. The father’s way of saying to a rarely seen Westerner at that time, do these boys ­really look like terrorists or a threat to the world? But there was no humour in the man’s voice or eyes, and just as quickly as he had introduced the boys, he quickly led them away.

Perhaps it should have come as no ­surprise then that in the years that ­followed much of the Arab and Islamic world in which I found myself from Iraq to Somalia and Syria sadly became ­cauldrons of suspicion, hatred and ­violence.

Across the Middle East region ­especially the geopolitical fallout from 9/11 was as twisted, charred and contorted as the girders and ruins of the smouldering Twin Towers were just a few years earlier.

There is an old Arab Bedouin saying: “I, against my brothers. I and my ­brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world”.

That’s how it seemed back then and at many times since in places such as Iraq and Syria, where unholy alliances born out of the the US driven “war on ­terror” created a labyrinthine conflict from which a diplomatic escape route seems unfathomable.

Four years after 9/11 as its aftermath burned on, I found myself in the Iraqi town of Tal Afar. By then the city’s ­notorious reputation was already well ­established. Situated on a smuggling route in the north-western desert of Iraq, near the Syrian border, it was known to be a toxic mix of Islamist extremism, ­insurgency terrorist infiltration and inter-ethnic tension.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq, an off shoot of bin Laden’s franchise, called the shots back then and the town was largely in the hands of its hard-core Iraqi and foreign jihadis.

Tal Afar’s stone fortifications and ­narrow alleys had a haggard look about them. It was a suspicious, threatening place, full of checkpoints and where shops remained shuttered, with townspeople peering warily from front doors and gates

While there as a correspondent embedded with the US Army’s 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment and the 82nd Airborne Division, I was told a terrible story that epitomised Tal Afar’s reputation.

It concerned a 14-year-old Iraqi boy who had been kidnapped from his ­family and press-ganged into service by a cell of Islamist insurgents operating in one of the city’s Sunni neighbourhoods.

During questioning by the Americans after his capture, the boy told how he had been raped and abused by the insurgents, before being given the job of holding down the legs of victims they beheaded.

Throughout the traumatic period of his detention by some of the most uncompromising and barbaric fighters in Iraq, the only reassurance the boy was ever given was that of promotion – that he himself would one day become an executioner.

It’s the countless stories of innocents likes this that are the “other” postscript to 9/11. Those stories of many ordinary civilians across the world who are still paying the ultimate price for both what al-Qaeda ignited that day 20 years ago this weekend in the US and the subsequent US “payback”.

The so called “war on terror” was a ­conflict that not only ripped up the ­Geneva Convention but gave rise to names unheard of before and now made infamous, places like Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and the Guantanamo Bay ­detention camp.

It gave us CIA “black sites” and led to outsourcing of wars leading to the use of private security firms. It also brought us hitherto almost unheard-of things like “extraordinary rendition” and “waterboarding”.

It led to a dramatic growth in what has been called “dirty wars”, the hallmarks of which are targeted killings, the snatch and grab of individuals and directing drone and cruise missile strikes.

TWENTY years on after the start of the US global war on terror the cost stands at $8trillion and almost one million deaths and still as I write, the human toll rises in Afghanistan especially.

Springing up alongside this has been a vast tidal wave of refugees, more barriers, walls, fear and suspicion. There is no sign either of it relenting any time soon.

If the world experienced some degree of consensus in terms of disgust at the 9/11 attacks, then within a few years the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had put paid to that.

One afternoon on the rooftop of a ­compound in the Iraqi town of Baquba while embedded with the US Army’s First Infantry Division, an American officer told me that he was proud to be part of the “payback for 9/11”.

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In the street beneath us just minutes ­before, two car suicide bombers had rammed their vehicles into the walls, ­leaving the body parts of the drivers and their Iraqi victims strewn across the street.

None of these people were part of the 9/11 conspiracy or attacks I put it to the officer. “How can you say that?” the ­officer asked in reply, incredulity in his voice. “Iraqis, Afghans, all ragheads are responsible,” he snapped with a racist conceit.

Such thinking was not uncommon among many US soldiers I met in Iraq or Afghanistan for whom their reason for ­being there was still inextricably ­connected to the events of 9/11.

It will be strange to return to Iraq in the coming weeks, not least off the back of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the US drawdown from Afghanistan.

Current US president Joe Biden might have claimed to have ended America’s “forever wars” but mark my words, the “war on terror” will go on.

It will just be prosecuted even more cynically and covertly than ever before.