September 11 Aftermath Essay Definition

Pakistan’s Continuing Dilemma

Kamran Asdar Ali

In May of this year, when Osama Bin Laden was revealed to have been living in the tranquility of a suburb in Abbottabad, a stone’s throw from Pakistan’s premier military academy, it again brought to the surface underlying tensions between the Pakistani and American governments. The relationship between the militaries of the two countries is an old one, and the mutual suspicion is not new either. […]

From Global Civil Society to Global War: A Decade of Disequilibrium

Jeffrey Ayres and Sidney Tarrow

A decade ago, coming off of parallel research projects on what some were then calling “global civil society,” we responded to a request from the SSRC that we contribute to an online forum on the impact of 9/11 from our work on transnational contention. […]

The 9/11 Syndrome: Europe, Islam, and Muslims

Rajeev Bhargava

The rest of the world should be grateful to Western civilization for having given it the concept of human rights. There are some things we cannot do to others, not because it is God’s command, because we will go to hell or earn spiritual demerit, but because of certain capacities that people possess. We cannot harm others because this is what we minimally owe them. This realization does not entail the idea of human rights as supreme, something over and above all other values in every context and at all times. […]

September 11, Ten Years On

Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira

Ten years ago I argued in this space that under global capitalism, wars among major nations no longer made sense and that the turning point from a world where the great countries were permanently threatening each other with war to a world of international economic competition had been the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. War made sense while there were real winners and losers—while the winner could reduce the loser to a condition of slavery, or impose taxes on its new colony, or incorporate its territory. […]

9/11: Landmark or Watershed?

Richard W. Bulliet

Was 9/11 a landmark event or a watershed event? I started posing this question to friends and students soon after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and urged them to keep it in mind as they watched the fallout over the passing years. […]

Reflections on September 11, Ten Years After

Bruce Cumings

It is a rare opportunity to be asked to reflect on an essay written a decade ago, now with the benefit of hindsight—of knowing what has happened, rather than anticipating what might happen—and with the tempting prospect of saying “I told you so.” But the truth is that the meaning of September 11 continues to recede just as the tenth anniversary arrives, or remains as difficult to fathom now as it was then. […]

Since September 11, 2001 . . .

Veena Das

A decade of intense theorizing on the forms of violence and human degradation, on global connectivity, on demands that scholarship be done in “real time” . . . a sense of urgency . . . disciplines are aggressively asked to prove their relevance . . . a deep disquiet on the part of many radical scholars and public intellectuals that the American public is increasingly becoming complicit in projects of warfare. We ask, are our senses being so retrained now that we cannot see the suffering of others or hear their cries? […]

Whither Cyber Terror?

Dorothy E. Denning

Ten years have passed since G-Force Pakistan, a group of Pakistani hackers with a history of defacing websites, announced the formation of the Al-Qaeda Alliance on one of their hacked sites. Declaring that they stood by Al-Qaeda, the defacement said they would be attacking major US and British websites and giving confidential data to Al-Qaeda authorities. […]

9/11+10: Remembering and Forgetting

James Der Derian

Ten years on, remembering 9/11 has become an event in and of itself.1 There is much to honor through memory—the loss of innocent lives, the sacrifice of the first responders, the coming together of communities, from the local to the global, against the terrorist attack on the United States. But there are also moments we […]

Rethinking Afghanistan after a Decade

Richard Falk

Reading what I wrote about Afghanistan a decade ago reminded me of how much my understanding of the role of war and hard power in upholding security for the nation and the world has changed. Actually, it seems clear to me that my views on Afghanistan back in 2001 were an exception to my general skepticism about Western interventions in the non-Western world, a view formed during ten years of opposition to the American role in the Vietnam War. […]

Secularism Makes a Stand

Wang Gungwu

Ten years ago, the shock of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, DC, led me to reflect on the impact of secularism on modern developments in East Asia, especially in Japan, whose postwar economic transformation had become the model for the region. I wondered whether the Enlightenment project that inspired the secularism had been misunderstood and led to government policies that damaged the faiths and religions that most people still believed in. […]

9/11: The Lightning Strikes of History

Elemér Hankiss

The famous French historian Fernand Braudel distinguished “macrohistory” from “microhistory.” The former is the history of significant political, economic, and social events, while the latter is the history of the proliferation of, and the slow changes in, people’s everyday lives. […]

The End of the American Century: 9/11 Ten Years On

David Held

9/11 was a crime against the United States and a crime against humanity. Treating the criminals who perpetrated it as soldiers at war with the United States and the West only elevated their status and standing and began the “War on Terror.” The war was as ill formulated as it was executed. […]

Echoes of 9/11: Anti-politics and Politics from Bush to Obama

Dick Howard

On November 12, 2001, I received a request from the German journal Kommune to send for their next issue, which was already in press, some reflections on the events of 9/11 and their implications for the future. The invitation was welcome; after all, what can an intellectual do in the face of such total destruction but try to construct some sense by using his most familiar tool, the word? […]

Unfulfilled Expectations of Democracy: Political Developments in Central Asia after 9/11

Alisher Ilkhamov

Before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia didn’t rank among the regional priorities of US foreign policy. Neither did ordinary Americans have much interest in this region. In 2000, taking part in a scholarly conference held at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I dared to complain that, to my observation, the average US citizen often doesn’t have any idea about the very existence of Uzbekistan and other Central Asian “stans” or where they are located. […]

9/11, Global Emergency, and the Crisis of Multilateralism

Kanishka Jayasuriya

The response I made some weeks after the attack on the twin towers by and large has been reinforced over the years. The core of my argument was the idea that the practices and language of security that were so pivotal to the response to the events of 9/11 risked marginalizing the broader context of power and interest that shapes these transnational issues. […]

“Traditionalist” Islamic Activism: Deoband and Deobandis, Ten Years Later

Barbara D. Metcalf

At the time of the 9/11 attacks, commentators trying to analyze Afghan support for Al-Qaeda put a great deal of emphasis on the Taliban’s sectarian orientation as “Deobandi.” Deobandis across South Asia were known for disapproval of what they took to be Sufi or Shia intercessory practices that might compromise monotheism; they also discouraged celebration of ostentatious life-cycle customs. […]

Change in Another Decade of Civic War

Peter Alexander Meyers

May Day. It is the feast of pagans and socialists and the namesake of distress. We are ten years into the age of 9/11. George W. Bush is gone and Barack Obama is again casting his voice into the air. No lilting refrain. No poetry. The president is most intent on gravity, although the teleprompter is oddly placed so he cannot look us in the eye. Here is a familiar story retold. Once upon a time, there was a bad man, an enemy to even his own people, like Benedict Arnold or Rasputin or John Wayne Gacy. […]

“Rescue” Ten Years Out: An Anecdotal Report on Afghan Women’s Challenges

Margaret Mills

After nearly a decade of foreign military intervention and with a visibly deteriorating security situation that has affected most of the country over the last three to five years, the primary concern of Afghan women and their families remains physical security, and second to that, economic and food security. […]

What We Have Learned from 9/11

Haideh Moghissi

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is upon us. The tragedy surely changed the global political landscape forever. The shockwaves it sent throughout the world, most notably through the United States, raised hopes that the tragedy would encourage probing of the causes of the event and help change Western governments’ foreign and military policies and adventures in the interest of reducing global tensions.

That has hardly happened. […]

The Paradoxes of the Re-Islamization of Muslim Societies

Olivier Roy

The 9/11 debate was centered on a single issue: Islam. Osama Bin Laden was taken at his own words by the West: Al-Qaeda, even if its methods were supposedly not approved by most Muslims, was seen as the vanguard or at least a symptom of “Muslim wrath” against the West, fueled by the fate of the Palestinians and by Western encroachments in the Middle East; and if this wrath, which has pervaded the contemporary history of the Middle East, has been cast in Islamic terms, it is because Islam is allegedly the main, if not the only, reference that has shaped Muslim minds and societies since the Prophet. […]

Retribution and Its Consequences

Luis Rubio

One of my teachers, Roy Macridis, was fond of saying that public policy, in particular that which is relative to foreign policy, should be evaluated not for its objectives but for its consequences. The theme that especially grieved him was the Vietnam War, concerning which his pithy affirmation was that the United States had achieved exactly the opposite of what it had set out to accomplish.

Ten years ago, my concern was that the American response to the brutal attacks of 9/11 would bring about precisely the opposite of what was intended. […]

Ten Years Later: The Pursuit of National Security Is Now the Source of Urban Insecurity

Saskia Sassen

Writing about 9/11 in 2001, right after it had happened, what I saw as an activating field, though not the origin, was the rapacious global political economy Western governments and firms have produced over decades and centuries. By “activating field,” I do not mean a cause, but a type of agency that enables, which might be one of several. This activating field has been one factor in many and diverse historic events—some emancipatory, such as the independence movements of the 1960s in Africa, and some brutal and murderous, such as the 9/11 attacks.

Being asked to write about what I see today, ten years later, I am struck by the emergence of yet another activating field—the urbanizing of wars and the associated global projection of even minor attacks. […]

America’s Global Implosion: From the Washington Consensus to the Arab Spring

Neil Smith

The most unpredictable result of the aftermath of 9/11 was surely the massive implosion of US global power.

A lot was of course predictable in the aftermath. It was clear that the US state would appoint itself the “global executioner,” as we suggested then, although less clear how this would work through. […]

Mourning the Arrested Memory of 9/11

Marita Sturken

So politicized, so fraught, and so painfully disappointing, the process of memorialization of the events of 9/11, symbolically focused on Ground Zero in New York City, was in many ways entirely predictable from the first months after September 11. […]

Planes, Trains, and Chemical Plants: China in 2001 and 2011

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

What kind of year was 2001?

American government figures and candidates for office can only answer this in one way—if, that is, they want to be seen as mainstream representatives of either of the main political parties. They have to begin by referring to the tragedies and traumas of 9/11 and move on to the challenges the country faced a decade ago in the aftermath of that horrific day. Leading members of a very different political organization, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), might be strongly tempted to respond to the query in a radically contrasting way, at least when talking among themselves. […]

Diaspora in History: Reflections on 9/11 in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring and UK Riots, 2011

Pnina Werbner

In my earlier essay posted on the SSRC website, I spoke of the “tragic predicament of a diaspora caught between deeply felt loyalties, at an historical moment not of its own making. Most British Muslims in the diaspora,” I commented, “witnessed the collapse of the World Trade Center’s twin towers on television, sitting in their living rooms, with the same helpless sense of horror as Western spectators. […]

The Attack on Humanity, Ten Years Later: Conflict and Management

I. William Zartman

A decade has passed since September 11, 2001. On our side, there is still bickering over construction of the memorial site in Manhattan, but the war over the mosque, or cultural center, nearby has gone into remission. Memorial services focus on the victims rather than on the clash of civilizations that the attacks represented. This year, we can even celebrate with fanfare, since Osama Bin Laden is dead, dumped ceremoniously into the Indian Ocean.

But, on the other side, the conflict is not over. […]

September 11 attacks, also called 9/11 attacks, series of airlinehijackings and suicide attacks committed by 19 militants associated with the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda against targets in the United States, the deadliest terrorist attacks on American soil in U.S. history. The attacks against New York City and Washington, D.C., caused extensive death and destruction and triggered an enormous U.S. effort to combat terrorism. Some 2,750 people were killed in New York, 184 at the Pentagon, and 40 in Pennsylvania (where one of the hijacked planes crashed after the passengers attempted to retake the plane); all 19 terrorists died (seeResearcher’s Note: September 11 attacks). Police and fire departments in New York were especially hard-hit: hundreds had rushed to the scene of the attacks, and more than 400 police officers and firefighters were killed.

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George W. Bush: The September 11 attacks

On September 11, 2001, Bush faced a crisis that would transform his presidency. That morning, four American commercial airplanes were hijacked by Islamist terrorists. Two of the planes were deliberately crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New…

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The plot

The September 11 attacks were precipitated in large part because Osama bin Laden, the leader of the militant Islamic organization al-Qaeda, held naive beliefs about the United States in the run-up to the attacks. Abu Walid al-Masri, an Egyptian who was a bin Laden associate in Afghanistan in the 1980s and ’90s, explained that, in the years prior to the attacks, bin Laden became increasingly convinced that America was weak. “He believed that the United States was much weaker than some of those around him thought,” Masri remembered, and “as evidence he referred to what happened to the United States in Beirut when the bombing of the Marines base led them to flee from Lebanon,” referring to the destruction of the marine barracks there in 1983 (see1983 Beirut barracks bombings), which killed 241 American servicemen. Bin Laden believed that the United States was a “paper tiger,” a belief shaped not just by America’s departure from Lebanon following the marine barracks bombing but also by the withdrawal of American forces from Somalia in 1993, following the deaths of 18 U.S. servicemen in Mogadishu, and the American pullout from Vietnam in the 1970s.

The key operational planner of the September 11 attacks was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (often referred to simply as “KSM” in the later 9/11 Commission Report and in the media), who had spent his youth in Kuwait. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed became active in the Muslim Brotherhood, which he joined at age 16, and then he went to the United States to attend college, receiving a degree from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in 1986. Afterward he traveled to Pakistan and then Afghanistan to wage jihad against the Soviet Union, which had launched an invasion against Afghanistan in 1979.

According to Yosri Fouda, a journalist at the Arabic-language cable television channel Al Jazeera who interviewed him in 2002, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed planned to blow up some dozen American planes in Asia during the mid-1990s, a plot (known as “Bojinka”) that failed, “but the dream of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed never faded. And I think by putting his hand in the hands of bin Laden, he realized that now he stood a chance of bringing about his long awaited dream.”

In 1996 Khalid Sheikh Mohammed met bin Laden in Tora Bora, Afghanistan. The 9-11 Commission (formally the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States), set up in 2002 by Pres. George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress to investigate the attacks of 2001, explained that it was then that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed “presented a proposal for an operation that would involve training pilots who would crash planes into buildings in the United States.” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed dreamed up the tactical innovation of using hijacked planes to attack the United States, al-Qaeda provided the personnel, money, and logistical support to execute the operation, and bin Laden wove the attacks on New York and Washington into a larger strategic framework of attacking the “far enemy”—the United States—in order to bring about regime change across the Middle East.

The September 11 plot demonstrated that al-Qaeda was an organization of global reach. The plot played out across the globe with planning meetings in Malaysia, operatives taking flight lessons in the United States, coordination by plot leaders based in Hamburg, Germany, money transfers from Dubai, and recruitment of suicide operatives from countries around the Middle East—all activities that were ultimately overseen by al-Qaeda’s leaders in Afghanistan.

Key parts of the September 11 plot took shape in Hamburg. Four of the key pilots and planners in the “Hamburg cell” who would take operational control of the September 11 attacks, including the lead hijacker Mohammed Atta, had a chance meeting on a train in Germany in 1999 with an Islamist militant who struck up a conversation with them about fighting jihad in the Russian republic of Chechnya. The militant put the Hamburg cell in touch with an al-Qaeda operative living in Germany who explained that it was difficult to get to Chechnya at that time because many travelers were being detained in Georgia. He recommended they go to Afghanistan instead.

Although Afghanistan was critical to the rise of al-Qaeda, it was the experience that some of the plotters acquired in the West that made them simultaneously more zealous and better equipped to carry out the attacks. Three of the four plotters who would pilot the hijacked planes on September 11 and one of the key planners, Ramzi Binalshibh, became more radical while living in Hamburg. Some combination of perceived or real discrimination, alienation, and homesickness seems to have turned them all in a more militant direction. Increasingly cutting themselves off from the outside world, they gradually radicalized each other, and eventually the friends decided to wage battle in bin Laden’s global jihad, setting off for Afghanistan in 1999 in search of al-Qaeda.

Atta and the other members of the Hamburg group arrived in Afghanistan in 1999 right at the moment that the September 11 plot was beginning to take shape. Bin Laden and his military commander Muhammad Atef realized that Atta and his fellow Western-educated jihadists were far better suited to lead the attacks on Washington and New York than the men they had already recruited, leading bin Laden to appoint Atta to head the operation.

The hijackers, most of whom were from Saudi Arabia, established themselves in the United States, many well in advance of the attacks. They traveled in small groups, and some of them received commercial flight training.

Throughout his stay in the United States, Atta kept Binalshibh updated on the plot’s progress via e-mail. To cloak his activities, Atta wrote the messages as if he were writing to his girlfriend “Jenny,” using innocuous code to inform Binalshibh that they were almost complete in their training and readiness for the attacks. Atta wrote in one message, “The first semester commences in three weeks…Nineteen certificates for private education and four exams.” The referenced 19 “certificates” were code that identified the 19 al-Qaeda hijackers, while the four “exams” identified the targets of the attacks.

In the early morning of August 29, 2001, Atta called Binalshibh and said he had a riddle that he was trying to solve: “Two sticks, a dash and a cake with a stick down—what is it?” After considering the question, Binalshibh realized that Atta was telling him that the attacks would occur in two weeks—the two sticks being the number 11 and the cake with a stick down a 9. Putting it together, it meant that the attacks would occur on 11-9, or 11 September (in most countries the day precedes the month in numeric dates, but in the United States the month precedes the day; hence, it was 9-11 in the United States). On September 5 Binalshibh left Germany for Pakistan. Once there he sent a messenger to Afghanistan to inform bin Laden about both the day of the attack and its scope.

The attacks

On September 11, 2001, groups of attackers boarded four domestic aircraft at three East Coast airports, and soon after takeoff they disabled the crews, some of whom may have been stabbed with box cutters the hijackers were secreting. The hijackers then took control of the aircraft, all large and bound for the West Coast with full loads of fuel. At 8:46 am the first plane, American Airlines flight 11, which had originated from Boston, was piloted into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. Most observers construed this initially to be an accident involving a small commuter plane. The second plane, United Airlines flight 175, also from Boston, struck the south tower 17 minutes later. At this point there was no doubt that the United States was under attack. Each structure was badly damaged by the impact and erupted into flames. Office workers who were trapped above the points of impact in some cases leapt to their deaths rather than face the infernos now raging inside the towers. The third plane, American Airlines flight 77, taking off from Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C., struck the southwest side of the Pentagon (just outside the city) at 9:37 am, touching off a fire in that section of the structure. Minutes later the Federal Aviation Authority ordered a nationwide ground stop, and within the next hour (at 10:03 am) the fourth aircraft, United Airlines flight 93 from Newark, New Jersey, crashed near Shanksville in the Pennsylvania countryside after its passengers—informed of events via cellular phone—attempted to overpower their assailants.

At 9:59 am the World Trade Center’s heavily damaged south tower collapsed, and the north tower fell 29 minutes later. Clouds of smoke and debris quickly filled the streets of Lower Manhattan. Office workers and residents ran in panic as they tried to outpace the billowing debris clouds. A number of other buildings adjacent to the twin towers suffered serious damage, and several subsequently fell. Fires at the World Trade Center site smoldered for more than three months.

Rescue operations began almost immediately as the country and the world sought to come to grips with the enormity of the losses. Nearly 3,000 people had perished: some 2,750 people in New York, 184 at the Pentagon, and 40 in Pennsylvania; all 19 terrorists also died. Included in the total in New York City were more than 400 police officers and firefighters, who had lost their lives after rushing to the scene and into the towers.

On the morning of September 11, President Bush had been visiting a second-grade classroom in Sarasota, Florida, when he was informed that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. A little later Andrew Card, his chief of staff, whispered in the president’s right ear: “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.” To keep the president out of harm’s way, Bush subsequently hopscotched across the country on Air Force One, landing in Washington, D.C., the evening of the attacks. At 8:30 pm Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office in a speech that laid out a key doctrine of his administration’s future foreign policy: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”

On September 14 Bush visited “Ground Zero,” the smoking pile of debris of what remained of the World Trade Center and the thousands who had perished there. Standing on top of a wrecked fire truck, Bush grabbed a bullhorn to address the rescue workers working feverishly to find any survivors. When one of the workers said that he could not hear what the president was saying, Bush made one of the most memorable remarks of his presidency:

I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us soon.

Bush’s robust response to the attacks drove his poll ratings from 55 percent favourable before September 11 to 90 percent in the days after, the highest ever recorded for a president.

The aftermath

The emotional distress caused by the attacks—particularly the collapse of the twin towers, New York City’s most visible landmark—was overwhelming. Unlike the relatively isolated site of the Pearl Harbor attack of 1941, to which the September 11 events were soon compared, the World Trade Center lay at the heart of one of the world’s largest cities. Hundreds of thousands of people witnessed the attacks firsthand (many onlookers photographed events or recorded them with video cameras), and millions watched the tragedy unfold live on television. In the days that followed September 11, the footage of the attacks was replayed in the media countless times, as were the scenes of throngs of people, stricken with grief, gathering at “Ground Zero”—as the site where the towers once stood came to be commonly known—some with photos of missing loved ones, seeking some hint of their fate.

Moreover, world markets were badly shaken. The towers were at the heart of New York’s financial district, and damage to Lower Manhattan’s infrastructure, combined with fears of stock market panic, kept New York markets closed for four trading days. Markets afterward suffered record losses. The attacks also stranded tens of thousands of people throughout the United States, as U.S. airspace remained closed for commercial aviation until September 13, and normal service, with more rigid security measures, did not resume for several days.

The September 11 attacks were an enormous tactical success for al-Qaeda. The strikes were well coordinated and hit multiple targets in the heart of the enemy, and the attacks were magnified by being broadcast around the world to an audience of untold millions. The September 11 “propaganda of the deed” took place in the media capital of the world, which ensured the widest possible coverage of the event. Not since television viewers had watched the abduction and murder of Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics in 1972 had a massive global audience witnessed a terrorist attack unfold in real time. If al-Qaeda had been a largely unknown organization before September 11, in the days after it became a household name.

After the attacks of September 11, countries allied with the United States rallied to its support, perhaps best symbolized by the French newspaper Le Monde’s headline, “We are all Americans now.” Even in Iran thousands gathered in the capital, Tehrān, for a candlelight vigil.

Evidence gathered by the United States soon convinced most governments that the Islamic militant group al-Qaeda was responsible for the attacks. The group had been implicated in previous terrorist strikes against Americans, and bin Laden had made numerous anti-American statements. Al-Qaeda was headquartered in Afghanistan and had forged a close relationship with that country’s ruling Taliban militia, which subsequently refused U.S. demands to extradite bin Laden and to terminate al-Qaeda activity there.

For the first time in its history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) invoked Article 5, allowing its members to respond collectively in self-defense, and on October 7 the U.S. and allied military forces launched an attack against Afghanistan (seeAfghanistan War). Within months thousands of militants were killed or captured, and Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders were driven into hiding. In addition, the U.S. government exerted great effort to track down other al-Qaeda agents and sympathizers throughout the world and made combating terrorism the focus of U.S. foreign policy. Meanwhile, security measures within the United States were tightened considerably at such places as airports, government buildings, and sports venues. To help facilitate the domestic response, Congress quickly passed the USA PATRIOT Act (the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001), which significantly but temporarily expanded the search and surveillance powers of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other law-enforcement agencies. Additionally, a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security was established.

Despite their success in causing widespread destruction and death, the September 11 attacks were a strategic failure for al-Qaeda. Following September 11, al-Qaeda—whose name in Arabic means “the base”—lost the best base it ever had in Afghanistan. Later some in al-Qaeda’s leadership—including those who, like Egyptian Saif al-Adel, had initially opposed the attacks—tried to spin the Western intervention in Afghanistan as a victory for al-Qaeda. Al-Adel, one of the group’s military commanders, explained in an interview four years later that the strikes on New York and Washington were part of a far-reaching and visionary plan to provoke the United States into some ill-advised actions:

Such strikes will force the person to carry out random acts and provoke him to make serious and sometimes fatal mistakes.…The first reaction was the invasion of Afghanistan.

But there is not a shred of evidence that in the weeks before September 11 al-Qaeda’s leaders made any plans for an American invasion of Afghanistan. Instead, they prepared only for possible U.S. cruise missile attacks or air strikes by evacuating their training camps. Also, the overthrow of the Taliban hardly constituted an American “mistake”—the first and only regime in the modern Muslim world that ruled according to al-Qaeda’s rigid precepts was toppled, and with it was lost an entire country that al-Qaeda had once enjoyed as a safe haven. And in the wake of the fall of the Taliban, al-Qaeda was unable to recover anything like the status it once had as a terrorist organization with considerable sway over Afghanistan.

Bin Laden disastrously misjudged the possible U.S. responses to the September 11 attacks, which he believed would take one of two forms: an eventual retreat from the Middle East along the lines of the U.S. pullout from Somalia in 1993 or another ineffectual round of cruise missile attacks similar to those that followed al-Qaeda’s bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Neither of these two scenarios happened. The U.S. campaign against the Taliban was conducted with pinpoint strikes from American airpower, tens of thousands of Northern Alliance forces (a loose coalition of mujahideen militias that maintained control of a small section of northern Afghanistan), and more than 300 U.S. Special Forces soldiers on the ground working with 110 officers from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In November, just two months after the September 11 attacks, the Taliban fell to the Northern Alliance and the United States. Still, it was just the beginning of what would become the longest war in U.S. history, as the United States tried to prevent the return of the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies.

In December 2001, faced with the problem of where to house prisoners as the Taliban fell, the administration decided to hold them at Guantánamo Bay, which the U.S. had been leasing from Cuba since 1903. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it on December 27, 2001, “I would characterize Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as the least worst place we could have selected.” Guantánamo was attractive to administration officials because they believed it placed the detainees outside the reach of American laws, such as the right to appeal their imprisonment, yet it was only 90 miles (145 km) off the coast of Florida, making it accessible to the various agencies that would need to travel there to extract information from what was believed to be a population of hundreds of dangerous terrorists. Eventually, some 800 prisoners would be held there, although the prison population was reduced to less than 175 by the time of the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

In his State of the Union speech on January 29, 2002, President Bush laid out a new doctrine of preemptive war, which went well beyond the long-established principle that the United States would go to war to prevent an adversary launching an attack that imminently threatened the country. Bush declared:

I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.

Bush identified those dangerous regimes as an "axis of evil" that included Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. At the graduation ceremony for West Point cadets on June 1, 2002, Bush elaborated on his preemptive war doctrine, saying to the assembled soon-to-be graduates and their families, “If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long.” Bush believed that there would be a “demonstration effect” in destroying Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq that would deter groups like al-Qaeda or indeed anyone else who might be inclined to attack the United States. Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith later explained,

What we did after 9/11 was look broadly at the international terrorist network from which the next attack on the United States might come. And we did not focus narrowly only on the people who were specifically responsible for 9/11. Our main goal was preventing the next attack.

Thus, though there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq had collaborated with al-Qaeda in the September 11 attacks, the United States prepared for conflict against Iraq in its global war against terror, broadly defined.

On March 19, 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, President Bush issued the order for war:

For the peace of the world and the benefit and freedom of the Iraqi people, I hereby give the order to execute Operation Iraqi Freedom. May God bless the troops.

On March 20 the American-led invasion of Iraq began. Within three weeks U.S. forces controlled Baghdad, and the famous pictures of the massive statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled from its plinth were broadcast around the world.

The September 11 commission and its findings

In 2002 President Bush had appointed a commission to look into the September 11 attacks, and two years later it issued its final report. The commission found that the key pre-September 11 failure at the CIA was its not adding to the State Department’s “watch list” two of the “muscle” hijackers (who were trained to restrain the passengers on the plane), the suspected al-Qaeda militants Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. The CIA had been tracking Hazmi and Mihdhar since they attended a terrorist summit meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on January 5, 2000. The failure to watch-list the two al-Qaeda suspects with the Department of State meant that they entered the United States under their real names with ease. On January 15, 2000, 10 days after the Malaysian meeting, Hazmi and Mihdhar flew into Los Angeles. The CIA also did not alert the FBI about the identities of the suspected terrorists, which could have helped the bureau locate them once they were inside the United States. According to the commission, this was the failure of not just a few employees at the CIA but a large number of CIA officers and analysts. Some 50 to 60 CIA employees read cables about the two al-Qaeda suspects without taking any action. Some of those officers knew that one of the al-Qaeda suspects had a visa for the United States, and by May 2001 some knew that the other suspect had flown to Los Angeles.

The soon-to-be hijackers would not have been difficult to find in California if their names had been known to law enforcement. Under their real names they rented an apartment, obtained driver’s licenses, opened bank accounts, purchased a car, and took flight lessons at a local school; Mihdhar even listed his name in the local phone directory.

It was only on August 24, 2001, as a result of questions raised by a CIA officer on assignment at the FBI, that the two al-Qaeda suspects were watch-listed and their names communicated to the FBI. Even then the FBI sent out only a “Routine” notice requesting an investigation of Mihdhar. A few weeks later Hazmi and Mihdhar were two of the hijackers on the American Airlines flight that plunged into the Pentagon.

The CIA inspector general concluded that "informing the FBI and good operational follow-through by CIA and FBI might have resulted in surveillance of both al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi. Surveillance, in turn, would have had the potential to yield information on flight training, financing, and links to others who were complicit in the 9/11 attacks."

The key failure at the FBI was the handling of the Zacarias Moussaoui case. Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, was attending flight school in the summer of 2001 in Minnesota, where he attracted attention from instructors because he had little knowledge of flying and did not behave like a typical aviation student. The flight school contacted the FBI, and on August 16 Moussaoui was arrested on a visa overstay charge. Although Moussaoui was not the "20th hijacker," as was widely reported later, he had received money from one of the September 11 coordinators, Ramzi Binalshibh, and by his own account was going to take part in a second wave of al-Qaeda attacks following the assaults on New York and Washington.

The FBI agent in Minneapolis who handled Moussaoui’s case believed that he might have been planning to hijack a plane, and the agent was also concerned that Moussaoui had traveled to Pakistan, which was a red flag as militants often used the country as a transit point to travel to terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. On August 23 (or 24, according to some reports) CIA director George Tenet was told about the case in a briefing titled "Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly." But FBI headquarters determined that there was not sufficient "probable cause" of a crime for the Minneapolis office to conduct a search of Moussaoui’s computer hard drive and belongings. Such a search would have turned up his connection to Binalshibh, according to Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, a leading member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of the FBI. The 9-11 Commission also concluded that “a maximum U.S. effort to investigate Moussaoui conceivably could have unearthed his connection to Binalshibh.”

The hunt for bin Laden

In September 2001 President Bush announced that he wanted Osama bin Laden captured—dead or alive—and a $25 million bounty was eventually issued for information leading to the killing or capture of bin Laden. Bin Laden evaded capture, however, including in December 2001, when he was tracked by U.S. forces to the mountains of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. Bin Laden’s trail subsequently went cold, and he was thought to be living somewhere in the Afghanistan-Pakistan tribal regions.

U.S. intelligence eventually located him in Pakistan, living in the garrison city of Abbottabad, and in the early morning hours of May 2, 2011, on orders from U.S. Pres. Barack Obama, a small team of U.S. Navy SEALs assaulted his compound and shot and killed the al-Qaeda leader.

Peter L. Bergen
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