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Events that marked the start of the 21st century

Published on 01/01/2010


From a lair in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden shook the United States to the core on a blue-skyed day in 2001, setting the stage for a decade of conflict.

Nineteen Al-Qaeda hijackers took over four passenger jets on innocuous domestic flights: two crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York, one into the US Defense Department headquarters in Washington and one into a Pennsylvania field after passengers fought the gunmen. Altogether 2,973 people and the hijackers were killed; the towers crumbled, leaving New York with deep scars, and the US vision of the world changed immediately.

Bin Laden remains free but 9/11 transformed George W. Bush’s presidency and scarred the United States, setting about a security revolution at home and costly wars abroad.

The United States received enormous world sympathy after the attacks. But the US image has been damaged by the Guantanamo ‘War On Terror’ prison camp, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal and other acts in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are still 210 inmates at Guantanamo, many of whom have been held without charge since 2002. Many will eventually be sent home. Some could end up at a jail in Illinois.


Within months of the Twin Towers falling, the United States and other western powers helped an Afghan coalition overthrow the hardline Taliban government in Afghanistan. On March 19, 2003 US planes fired bombs in a bid to kill Saddam Hussein and within 24 hours had begun an invasion of Iraq with allies such as Britain that badly split the Western world. Whether it was justified remains a topic of bitter debate but the toll has been huge.

There are still 115,000 US troops in Iraq, where tens of thousands of civilians have died, along with nearly 4,400 US troops and about 320 from other nations. US numbers should fall to 50,000 by the end of August 2010 ahead of a promised withdrawal by 2011.

More than 500 foreign troops have been killed in Taliban and Al-Qaeda attacks this year in Afghanistan, which has become the top geo-strategic priority. There are currently more than 100,000 foreign troops — more than 70,000 of them US — battling the resurgent Taliban and US President Barack Obama has ordered 30,000 more to go there.


A huge ‘megathrust’ earthquake off the coast of Indonesia on December 26, 2004, set off a tidal wave up to 30 metres (100 feet) high around the Indian Ocean that killed around 220,000 people.

The event still haunts the beaches and coastal villages of the countries devastated by one of the worst natural disasters of the past 100 years.

Poor villagers in Indonesia — which suffered three quarters of the deaths — Sri Lanka, India and Thailand were worst hit, but supermodels, sports heroes and business tycoons lapping up the winter sunshine all told of their narrow escape clambering up palm trees or onto hotel roofs.

There were unlikely tales of heroism, such as 10-year-old British girl, Tilly Smith, who saved 100 lives when she used her knowledge of tsunamis from a recent geography lesson to clear a beach at Phuket in Thailand. Billions of dollars were donated in humanitarian aid, but on top of the huge damage caused to mangroves, coral reefs, forests, coastal wetlands and vegetation, for most of the communities it is an event that will take more than a lifetime to get over.


The earthquake that tore apart China’s Sichuan province on May 12, 2008 was a once-every-4,000-year event, experts say.

The tremor rippled along a faultline below the cities of Yingxiu, Beichuan and Nanba, killing 88,000 people who were trapped in buildings or caught in landslides and floods sparked by the 7.9 magnitude event. Millions were left homeless.

Seismologists say the strong seismic wave, unusual geology and the failure of three subterranean "barriers" against the shock added to the potency, making the quake so rare.

But the collapse of schools, hospitals and factories in several areas raised questions about how rigorously new building codes have been enforced since China’s 1974 Tangshan quake which killed hundreds of thousands.

In the latest fallout, Huang Qi, a dissident who campaigned for the parents of children killed in the quake, was sentenced to three years in jail on a state secrets charge in November.


The world was late to recognise the dangers of rising temperatures and the leaders of the main world powers and the rising economies took it down to the wire to make a vague accord on how to battle climate change when they met at a summit in Copenhagen this month.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that most of the temperature rise over the past 60 years has been caused by increasing emissions of greenhouse gases generated by human activity such as fossil fuel burning and deforestation. Scientists have warned the world now faces severe flooding, drought, storms and other phenomena because of global warming. The polar ice sheets are already retreating.

There is still much disagreement over how to act. The US Congress rejected the Kyoto Protocol which was a first attempt to limit emissions. The question now is how to make the United States and China (the world’s top two polluters), Europe, India, Brazil and South Africa reconcile their different visions and economic needs to work together on the climate crisis.

A new attempt on a global accord is to be made before a new summit in Mexico in December 2010.


Ignoring repeated alarm bells, the US carried on living off international credit until the "sub-prime" crisis erupted and brought down iconic US investment bank Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008.

Stock markets plunged, international credit markets froze and high-profile banks that had bought or repackaged bad-risk US mortgage accounts fell like skittles — Merrill Lynch had to be taken over, while American Insurance Group needed a 170-billion-dollar injection.

The credit crisis quickly engulfed every corner of an increasingly globalised financial and economic system and triggered a worldwide recession. Emergency summits were held and a wholesale collapse of the banking system was narrowly avoided.

Major powers jump-started their economies with giant stimulus packages. But poverty and unemployment levels have risen and there has been widespread outrage over bankers’ bonuses and scandals such as the 21 billion dollars that New York financier Bernard Madoff lost.

As the decade draws to a close most developed countries have returned to modest levels of growth, but new powerhouses are emerging economies such as Brazil and China, heralding a new era for international economic affairs.


At the start of the decade, Barack Obama was just a senator in Illinois state’s legislature, plotting ways to get a seat in the US senate. After a heady rise, he has become the first black president of the world superpower, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and one of the most recognisable faces on the planet.

Obama and the US Democrats won a crushing presidential and legislative victory on November 4, 2008, capping his sensational ascension.

Most put the start of Obama-mania at the 2004 Democratic convention, when the little-known Chicago politician with a ready smile wowed leaders with a dazzling appeal for American unity and the need to overcome entrenched political divides.

He beat Hillary Clinton to the Democratic nomination and hammered Republican John McCain in the presidential vote. But many experts were astounded when the young leader won the Nobel prize only nine months after taking office. The Afghanistan war, economic crisis and the challenge of reforming America’s dysfunctional health care system have all eaten into his domestic popularity. The wars and the deadlocked Middle East peace process have hit his standing abroad. But Barack and Michelle Obama are still style leaders and his "Yes We Can" message still reverberates around the world.


The Venerable Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005, was the second longest serving Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church in Vatican history — his 27-year-tenure beaten only by Pope Pius IX.

A Polish national, John Paul II broke many Vatican moulds. He was the first non-Italian pope since the 16th century, he is credited with playing a key role in the downfall of communism in Europe, and used the mass media and travel to get his message across in a way that would have made predecessors shudder.

There was no wavering in the Vatican’s conservative position on contentious social issues such as birth control, abortion and divorce. But he attracted a mass following among the young and tried to promote social justice.

He was the most travelled pope in history, but Parkinson’s Disease left him increasingly frail during the last five years of his life.