9-11 Attack

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(PD) Photo: Office of Emergency Management
The twin towers of the World Trade Center under attack.

The September 11, 2001, attacks were simultaneous terrorist attacks upon the United States of America on the morning of September 11, 2001. Nineteen members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network hijacked four commercial airliners, crashing two into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and one into the Pentagon in Virginia. The fourth plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania, though the hijackers had intended to crash it into the White House. The 9/11 attack was the worst terrorist attack in the history of the United States.[1]

The American response was near-unanimous support for President George W. Bush's eventual angry declaration that this was an act of war. Groups calling themselves 'Al-Qaeda' were quickly identified as behind the attacks, with key figures located in Afghanistan. Bush sent American forces to support the Northern Alliance, a coalition of various groups opposed to the Taliban regime that supported and housed the Al-Qaeda network; air support for the Alliance was later joined by ground forces, resulting in the overthrow of the Taliban. NATO subsequently took over the primary military role.

The plot

The leaders of the plot were Arabs concerned with American "desecration" of Saudi Arabia. The plot was devised by a veteran 'jihadist' named Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, from a religious family in Kuwait, who had studied in the United States, which he hated violently. He helped his nephew plan the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. In 1996 he went to Afghanistan to join forces with Al-Qaeda, headed by Osama bin Laden. It approved his scheme in 1999, and supplied guidance, collaborators, training, safe houses, and about $500,000 to finance the operation. All of the plotters had to speak the same language so Arabs were chosen from Saudi Arabia or Yemen; some were recruited in Germany, where they had become accustomed to Western customs. The key hijackers entered the United States legally in 2000. Two of the 19 and possibly 11 others presented fraudulently altered passports when they entered the United States.

The plan was to attack the World Trade Center as the symbol of capitalism, the Pentagon as the symbol of American power, and the Capitol or White House as the source of American policy supporting Israel. The team had its own manual that justified violence by emulating the moment in early Islamic history when Muhammad canceled contracts with non-Muslims and organized raids (ghazwa) against the Meccans in order to establish Islam as a political order. No statement in the manual explicitly identifies the United States as the financial, military, and political center of the turn-of-the-21st-century non-Muslim world; rather, such identification is tacitly assumed, as was shown by the action itself. Instead, the manual prescribes recitations, prayers, and rituals by which each member of the cells should prepare for the ghazwa. Not the objective aim but the subjective intention is at the center of the manual.[2]

Sedgwick (2004) argues the goal was to provoke a response from the United States that would have a radicalizing impact on Al-Qaeda's constituency. Reference to public opinion in the Middle East, especially in Egypt, shows that this is indeed what has happened. Such an impact is a purely political objective, familiar to historians of terrorism from at least the time of Errico Malatesta and the "propaganda of the deed" in the 1870s. While no direct link between Malatesta and Al-Qaeda exists, Al-Qaeda was certainly in contact with contemporary theories that Malatesta would have recognized and seems to have applied them. Even though its immediate objectives are political rather than religious, Al-Qaeda is a distinctively Islamic group. Not only is its chosen constituency a confessional one, but Al-Qaeda also uses - and when necessary adapts - well-known Islamic religious concepts to motivate its operatives, ranging from conceptions of duty to conceptions of ascetic devotion. Terrorism that can be understood in political terms, Sedgwick argues, is susceptible to political remedies.

The attack

(PD) Photo: Michael W. Pendergrass / U.S. Navy
A section of the Pentagon after the attack. The attack on the Pentagon killed 64 passengers on board American Airlines Flight 77 and 125 people on the ground.

The four hijackings were timed to be simultaneous. "Muscle men" overpowered and killed stewards and pilots with box cutters smuggled past airport security, while the new pilots turned off the transponders needed for air traffic control, and flew the planes, each loaded with over 20,000 gallons of fuel, toward the targets.

The Air Force defense system, North American Aerospace Defense Command, did have a few fighter aircraft available, but no one had planned for airliners turned into weapons. The fighters were positioned for threats coming from outside the borders of North America. Domestic radar suitable for controlling fighters overland had long been shut down when Soviet bombers were no longer a significant threat; air traffic control uses transponders, not radar reflections. There was no simple way to find the airliners. With the transponder turned off, it would be necessary literally to read the number painted on the aircraft.

The fourth plane had a delayed takeoff and passengers on board learned by cell phone what had happened to the other three planes. They organized themselves spontaneously and rushed the hijackers, who deliberately crashed the plane before reaching Washington. For years afterward the nation searched for overlooked clues. Amidst the millions of pieces of evidence there was no smoking gun — no decisive clue that if understood and acted upon beforehand could surely have prevented the disaster

On most days 50,000 people worked at the World Trade Center and another 40,000 had appointments there. The two planes struck at 8:46 am and 9:03 am when the buildings, 110 stories tall, were only half full. The towers survived the impact of the huge aircraft, but the burning fuel weakened the steel support systems, and both collapsed straight down, leaving a gigantic hole in lower Manhattan. The total number killed by the four plane crashes was 2900. The world gasped in disbelief at the attacks, which live television broadcast in horrifying detail. Sympathy poured in from across the globe—apart from some Middle Eastern lands where the onlookers cheered.

Immediate response

Americans were awestruck by the way New Yorkers pulled together in the face of the greatest disaster ever to hit their city. Despite some initial panic and claims of looting,[3] many people took care of each other, and gathered in grief to honor the victims and help the survivors. From across the country fire and police departments sent rescue units as a symbolic gesture to honor the 343 firefighters and 60 police killed after they helped 25,000 people escape. Mayor Rudy Giuliani was to many a hero to the city and the nation for his response in organizing rescue, relief and healing operations, making him "Person of the Year" for Time magazine and propelling him to a presidential run in 2008. Psychologically, the nation joined together in a unity that had not been seen since the end of World War Two. Long-standing hostility and ridicule of New York City burned away; there was no opposition to Congressional votes of $20 billion in aid to the city. Over a billion dollars poured in as voluntary contributions to help the families of the victims. Despite economic losses that approached $100 billion, the emergency repairs were quickly made and the economy of the metropolis never faltered. However the national aviation and tourism industries suffered heavily as people were afraid of future hijackings. The overall economy had already slipped into a downturn and 9/11 made the recession worse. Giuliani ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 primarily on the basis of his performance in the crisis.

Overthrow of Taliban in Afghanistan

President George W. Bush, after a few hours of embarrassing confusion on September 11, found his voice. On September 20, 2001, President Bush told Congress that the attacks were an act of war. He laid responsibility upon Al-Qaeda and said its goal was to impose its beliefs upon the entire world. Bush stated that Al-Qaeda practiced a form of extremism that perverted the peaceful teachings of Islam and commanded them to murder Christians and Jews, and to kill all Americans. He went on to explain how the political-Islamic group had established a base in remote Afghanistan, protected by the Taliban regime. Bush issued an ultimatum: the Taliban must immediately turn over the Al-Qaeda leadership to American justice, or share their fate.

Bush stated numerous times that Americans respected the Muslim religion but he promised to systematically destroy terrorists--to hunt them down cave-by-cave and destroy them everywhere in the world, as he stated. No government would be allowed to harbor them. "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," he proclaimed. "From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime". Bush called on Congress to authorize military action in Afghanistan, which it did with near unanimous support. Meanwhile, U.S. pollsters confirmed that a strong majority of Americans supported the action.

World response

The immediate threat was in Afghanistan, and within weeks NATO forces, led by American and British troops, invaded. The longer range threat came from rogue nations that Bush termed "the Axis of Evil" — Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Long term global peace could never be assured as long as those states threatened to support terrorism and had the capacity and incentive to make weapons of mass destruction. Article 1-42 of the 2004 EU constitution requires member states to "act jointly in a spirit of solidarity if a Member State is a victim of a terrorist attack". The U.S. State Department quickly assembled a new alliance of willing friends, led by the United Kingdom. After the United Nations failed to enforce its own resolutions against Iraq, America and its new coalition partners demanded that Saddam Hussein resign; when he refused they invaded Iraq and ousted him in March 2003. Other counties, seeing America’s fierce determination, radically changed course. Pakistan stopped exporting nuclear technology and became a close ally in the war against Al-Qaeda. Libya renounced its own program of building weapons of mass destruction and was welcomed back into the community of nations. The world had been accustomed to long-winded speeches about the need for actions which everyone knew would never happen. Now there was action, and the world stood in awe of America's vast military power unleashed with cold fury. The lone superpower frightened many people around the globe, especially Muslims. Politicians from some of the countries of "Old Europe" (France and Germany) complained loudly, while those from "New Europe" — the nations recently liberated from Communism — supported America. It was clear that the United Nations could neither eliminate terrorism, nor reign in American determination to defend itself and avenge 9/11.

Dhanapala (2005) argues the UN has been at the forefront of the global campaign against terrorism since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, giving the campaign legitimacy and universality. The UN Security Council acted with remarkable speed with its Resolution 1373 and set up a counterterrorism committee with extensive powers. Its British chairman provided able leadership, but reservations over human rights issues, lack of funding for assistance, and the danger of duplicating the work of other UN bodies with specific mandates have been revealed as deficiencies. The general assembly condemned the events of 11 September 2001 and held debates on the subject later. The secretariat's views were expressed by several eloquent statements by the secretary-general and in a policy working group report that advocated a tripartite strategy of "discussion-denial-cooperation" and made 31 recommendations. Counterterrorism is only one tool in tackling terrorism. Human rights concerns must be addressed. A separate, functional commission under the Economic and Social Council is recommended to provide the international community with a universal forum for a focused discussion on terrorism.

Gregory (2005) argues 9/11 required a wide-ranging response across all three of the broad divisions of European Union (EU) policymaking competence: the economic and monetary union, common foreign and security policy, and internal security. These policy divisions make up the "three pillars" of the EU's political architecture. Gregory reviews general issues of accountability and human rights protection in the EU's policymaking and implementation process, the evolution of the EU's response to terrorism, and the general response to the 9/11 attack terrorist attacks. Gregory examines the implications of the various response measures adopted under each "pillar". The article demonstrates the emphasis that the member states have placed on security measures and the wider concerns that their content and speed of adoption left little scope for other views to be heard. The effectiveness of the response measures is crucially dependent on the variable implementation capacity of the member states.

The 9/11 attacks ushered in a period of improved foreign relations between the United States and China and Russia, both of which see themselves as potential victims of similar attacks.

Homefront impact

McCartney, (2004) argues that America's strong sense of exceptionalism shaped US foreign policy following the 9/11 attacks. Utilizing the perception of the American people that the nation was destined by God to bring a new order to the world, President Bush portrayed America as the guardian of freedom and values all people cherish. Bush also identified as evil the terrorists and all those who opposed America's efforts to liberate oppressed people everywhere, and he justified the use of unilateral preemptive attacks on other countries, namely, Iraq, as necessary to ensure that the United States was able to fulfill its divine mission.

In terms of domestic policy the most important result of 9/11 was the passage in October 2001, by bipartisan majorities, of a law formally titled "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001" (USA PATRIOT Act). The Patriot Act significantly enhanced the ability of law enforcement agencies to trace terrorist cells, especially those using the phone system or the Internet, to share information among many different security agencies, and to seize the financial assets used by terrorists. Civil libertarians worried that the PATRIOT act sacrificed some rights in the name of security. The millions who waited in much longer lines for airport inspections did not complain, for a heightened sense of security was essential to the restoration of confidence in the safety of the transportation industry.

Despite some fears that Americans would take out their frustration against Muslims inside this country, nothing of the sort happened. Law enforcement did increase their surveillance of foreigners from the Middle East, leading to debates about the wisdom of ethnic profiling. [4]

The second most important domestic result was the reorganization of multiple federal agencies dealing with terrorism. 22 different agencies with 180,000 employees merged into the Department of Homeland Security in the largest reorganization of the federal government in 50 years. The new department included the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, Customs, Immigration and Naturalization,, and the Transportation Security Administration (which took over airport security from private firms). Not included in the new department were the FBI and CIA. They remained independent, while promising better coordination and information sharing, as well as a redefinition of their primary mission as combating terrorism inside the United States and worldwide.

In September 2003 Bush told the FBI academy of the military and foreign policy advances that he had ordered to ensure national security. The White House publicized American efforts to expose domestic terrorist organizations and destroy their financial support, as well as efforts to defend critical infrastructure, harden security in cyberspace, fight biological and chemical terrorism, support first responders, and protect domestic agriculture and industry.


(PD) Photo: Denise Gould / U.S. Air Force
The "Tribute in Light" memorial, consisting of two towers of light that are composed of two banks of high wattage spotlights that point straight up from a lot next to Ground Zero.

Greenspan (2006) shows that vernacular and official practices dynamically intersected to create multiple narratives of September 11th . Specifically, narratives emerged out of groups', individuals', and institutions' negotiations over memorials' material and discursive qualities. Narratives on vernacular forms---homemade memorials at the WTC site created by visitors from around the world, testimonies during rebuilding hearings, and family members' private memorializations---marked multiple and contradictory histories of September 11th . They voiced senses of sadness and loss within and across national boundaries, alongside assertions of national power. Narratives on official forms---the site's viewing fence, designs for a future site, and September 11th museum exhibits---marked more monolithic and therefore exclusionary histories. They echoed themes of national strength but marginalized senses of loss and vulnerability, and representations of supranational components of the events. Further, groups and institutions strategically employed categories of "memory" and "history" to naturalize narratives that represented September 11th as "national", and marginalize narratives that represented the events over a supranational scale.

Ground Zero became an informal shrine, as New York's leaders debated how to handle the memorials and the rebuilding. Mayor Giuliani gained enormous prestige from his sensitive handling of the crisis, propelling him to a leading position in 2007 for the Republican presidential nomination in 2007.

Freedom Tower

Perhaps the greatest memorial to the attacks has not yet been completed. The New York City Freedom Tower, which will stand 1,776 feet tall on the site of the former World Trade Center, is the work of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Those behind the project hope it will "serve as a beacon of freedom, and demonstrate the resolve of the United States, and the people of New York City".[5] The site will also feature the Reflecting Absence memorial, which will honor the 2,986 men and women who died as a result of the terrorist attacks.

Turning point

9/11 was a turning point for the nation.[6] The experience of 9/11 changed the Bush administration's "defensive realism" approach to foreign policy into "offensive realism" based on the neo-conservative ideological system of which counterterrorism and counterproliferation of weapons of mass destruction were main themes.

Domestic American politics

The neoconservatism came under increasing attack by 2005. In the past national defense had focused on threats from a major nation state. Now the threat was invisible, insidious and of uncertain dimensions. Bush expanded the response to include Iraq, winning Congressional approval (but not UN approval) for an allied invasion of Iraq in 2003, which overthrew Saddam Hussein, established a democratic regime under UN auspisces, and attempted—without success—to stabilize the country against a Sunni-led insurgency. Bush's image soared in the polls, enabling his reelection in 2004.

Reaction against Bush

Starting in 2005, after years of stalemate and frustration in Iraq, American public opinion turned sharply against the war. Democrats won control of both houses of Congress in Nov. 2006 in large part by attacking the Bush policies, and saying the war in Iraq had diverted attention away from Al-Qaeda, which had relocated to remote mountains in western Pakistan. The Democrats were unable to change Bush's policies in 2007, and Congress voted to continue funding the war in Iraq. The instability of Pakistan added complexity to the challenge.[7]

In 2008 Bush continued to defend his Iraq war policies as necessary to prevent future attacks by Islamic radicals like those of 9/11. The main GOP candidates for president generally supported Bush's policies, especially Senator John McCain, who took personal credit for the "surge" policy that reduced the level of violence in Iraq in 2007. The Democratic candidates continued to oppose the war, but by early 2008 were talking more about other issues.[8]


  1. "Attack on the U.S. -- What happened?".
  2. Hans G. Kippenberg, "'Consider that it is a Raid on the Path of God': the Spiritual Manual of the Attackers of 9/11". Numen: International Review for the History of Religions (2005) 52(1): 29-58. Issn: 0029-5973 Fulltext: in Ebsco
  3. Claims about looting mainly came from Langewiesche, W. (2003) American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center. Strong criticism of the claims was published online by an organization called the WTC Living History Project Group, and has been covered by the New York Times: 'Rebutting a claim of tarnished valor; research challenges account of 9/11 looting by firefighters.' March 23, 2003. Firefighters also protested the claims: see Firehouse, 'Firefighters protest book that claims rescuers looted WTC.' November 17, 2002. Atlantic Monthly stood by Langewiesche, however: 'Letters to the editor' (scroll down).
  4. But the media did give a harsher image of Islam. See Evelyn Azeeza Alsultany, "The Changing Profile of Race in the United States: Media Representations and Racialization of Arab- and Muslim-Americans Post-9/11". PhD dissertation Stanford U. 2005. 259 pp. DAI 2006 66(8): 2973-A. DA3187259
  5. http://www.nyc-tower.com/
  6. Birkland, "The World Changed Today" 2004
  7. Adam Nagourney and Megan Thee, "With Election Driven by Iraq, Voters Want New Approach," New York Times November 2, 2006
  8. NPR, "Iraq War Fades as Issue in Election" Dec. 6, 2007; New York Times summary of Iraq issue; CNN summary of Iraq issue in election 2008