The 9/11 Terrorist Attacks on the U.S.

On September 11, 2001 the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack on its soil in its history. The attack was heartbreaking to U.S. citizens and prompted immediate political reaction. The U.S. government launched a War on Terror, specifically targeting the individuals who perpetrated the attack on 9/11.

At 8:46 a.m.(EDT) on September 11, 2001, a hijacked commercial jet (American 11) crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City. Seventeen minutes later, at 9:03 a.m., a second hijacked passenger jet (United 175) flew into the WTC South Tower. Both towers soon collapsed, pulling down or heavily damaging surrounding buildings.

At 9:37, a third jet (American 77) plowed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., followed 26 minutes later by the crash of a fourth flight (United 93) into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, about 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Passengers aboard the fourth plane, having learned the fate of the other three planes through cell phone calls, apparently attempted to retake the plane before it could reach its intended target, believed to be the White House or U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The hijackers crashed the plane before the passengers could regain control.

Reacting to the 9/11 attacks

The attacks killed a total of 2,977 people, including some 400 New York City police and firefighters.

Americans — and much of the rest of the world — were shocked. Millions had watched horrified as television cameras that had been focusing on the North Tower after the first attack captured the second plane hitting the South Tower.

The subsequent collapse of the towers was also carried live. National, state, and local officials scrambled to prepare for more attacks. Civilian air travel was shut down. Stock markets in the United States and around the world were badly shaken and posted severe losses. The New York stock exchange remained closed until September 17, and when it reopened the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) fell 1,369.7 points (14.3%) in one week — at the time, its largest one-week point drop in history.

Governments around the world denounced the attacks and offered support and solidarity. Most Middle Eastern countries (including Saudi Arabia) and Afghanistan expressed strong negative reactions to the attacks, Iraq being the notable exception.

United Nations (U.N.) Security Council Resolution 1368 condemned the attacks and determined to combat all forms of terrorism in accordance with the U.N. Charter.

Muslim organizations in the U.S., including the Islamic Society of North America, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the American Muslim Alliance also condemned the attacks and asked Muslim Americans lend aid and resources to help alleviate the suffering of those affected by the attacks.

Identifying the attackers – al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden

Investigations quickly determined that the attacks were carried out by 19 members of a fundamentalist Islamist group called al-Qaeda (“the base”). On September 17, President Bush formally identified al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as the mastermind behind the attacks. A wealthy member of a prominent Saudi Arabian family, bin-Laden had operated out of Afghanistan since the mid-1990s, under the protection of a group called the Taliban.

The Taliban (which means “student”) followed an extreme version of Islamic law and seized control of Afghanistan in 1998.In addition, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an advisor and financier of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was identified as a principal planner of the 9/11 attacks. Mohammed admitted his involvement in April 2002.

In various pronouncements, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda claimed several motives for its attacks against Western countries, among them: U.S. troop presence in Saudi Arabia, U.S. support for Israel, and the sanctions against Iraq. The 9/11 Commission detailed bin Laden’s calls for Muslims to kill Americans and drive them from Saudi Arabia, and bin Laden elaborated on his motivations in a 2002 “Letter to America.”

Taking on the Taliban Speaking to a joint session of Congress on September 20, Bush demanded the Taliban hand over bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders and dismantle terrorist training camps within Afghanistan.

On October 7, 2001, after Taliban leaders had rejected Bush’s demands, U.S. and British aircraft unleashed a massive bombing attack on major Afghan cities. The Afghan capitol of Kabul fell by mid-November. By mid-December, air attacks coupled with ground forces that included troops from the United States, allied countries, and anti-Taliban Afghan militia toppled the Taliban regime and dispersed al-Qaeda.

The Bush Administration never formally declared war on Afghanistan (which allowed it to claim it didn’t have to treat those captured as prisoners of war), but it did declare a War on Terror. President Bush proclaimed the war would continue and be fought on every front “until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”

Fighting terrorism on the U.S. home front

A month after the September 11 attacks, Bush pushed for a proposal called the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act — or the USA PATRIOT Act. The PATRIOT Act was approved 357-66 in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, the vote was 98-1, with only Senator Russell Feingold, D-WI, opposed.

The far-reaching “temporary” act (most of which was made permanent by Congress in 2006) greatly expanded the authority of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to conduct searches, look at medical and other personal records, such as what materials an individual took out from public libraries, and spy on those suspected of potential terrorist acts without court approval. It allowed foreigners to be held for up to seven days without charges or deportation proceedings.

In January 2002, the U.S. established a detention camp at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base to hold inmates defined as “illegal enemy combatants” in the War on Terror. President Barack Obama has pledged to close the Guantanamo Bay facility and transfer the inmates either to prisons in the U.S. or to other countries. Congress, however, prohibited the use of fund to transfer inmates to U.S. prisons and placed conditions on transfers to foreign countries in the 2011 Defense Authorization bill.

As of May 2011, Guantanamo Bay still holds 171 prisoners. In July 2002, Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to listen in on phone calls American citizens made to other countries and to monitor e-mails. The order wasn’t made public until 2005 and Congress didn’t sanction the actions until 2008.

In November 2002, President Bush signed a bill creating the Department of Homeland Security, consolidating dozens of government agencies, from the Secret Service to the Coast Guard, into one super-agency.

Understanding the 9/11 attacks: The 9/11 Commission

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission) was created in November 2002 to prepare a thorough account of the circumstances surrounding the attacks. In July 2004, the commission issued its report. It detailed the events of 9/11, establishing that al-Qaeda members carried out the attacks, and discussing how U.S. security and intelligence agencies were inadequately coordinated to prevent the attacks. The Commission concluded “the 9/11 attacks revealed four kinds of failures: in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management”.

The Commission report also discusses a series of warnings received by U.S. intelligence agencies during the spring and summer of 2001 indicating that al Qaeda planned “something very, very, very big.” Various sources establish that the U.S. Administration, CIA and FBI received multiple prior warnings from foreign governments and intelligence services.

While these warnings didn’t identify a specific date or target, all expressed belief in an imminent al Qaeda attack inside the U.S. Accordingly, CIA Director George Tenet briefed National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice on July 10, 2001 of an imminent threat from al-Qaeda. In addition, the President’s Daily Briefing from August 6, 2001 entitled Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US warned that bin Laden wanted a terrorist strike in the U.S., possibly involving hijacked airplanes, and that he maintained a network of operatives in the U.S. that could aid an attack.

Capturing or killing leaders of al-Qaeda

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a key figure in planning the 9/11 attacks, was arrested on March 1, 2003 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan and is currently being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

Osama bin Laden was shot and killed on May 2, 2011 inside a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by U.S. Navy SEALs and CIA operatives. On May 6, 2011, al-Qaeda acknowledged bin Laden’s death and vowed to retaliate.