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Definition: September 11 from The Macquarie Dictionary

Chiefly US


11 September 2001; the day on which a terrorist attack in the US destroyed the World Trade Centre in New York and severely damaged the Pentagon in Washington, DC, causing the deaths of almost 3000 people.

Summary Article: September 11, 2001: An Overview
From Encyclopedia of American Studies

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, four teams of terrorists, a total of nineteen men, hijacked four U.S. airliners. They crashed two of the planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and one into the Pentagon just across the Potomac River outside Washington, D.C. In the fourth aircraft, passengers struggled to regain control of the plane, which crashed in Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board. The number of casualties, estimated at 2,795 on November 1, 2002, was significantly larger than any produced in the approximately 10,000 incidents of terrorism that had been recorded since 1968 and exceeded those at Pearl Harbor.

Similar to Pearl Harbor, the event was marked by heroic efforts on the part of firefighters and others to save lives and do their duty regardless of the costs. Subsequent commemorations of the event have demonstrated deep mourning for the victims, admiration for the heroic efforts of the firefighters, and patriotic determination on the part of citizens to do what is necessary to defend the nation.

This was not the first terrorist attempt against the World Trade Center. In February 1993 a truck bomb was detonated in its underground parking garage with the hope of toppling one of the towers. Eventually one of the terrorists, Ramzi Yousef, fled to the Philippines, from where he sought to sabotage twelve U.S. airliners. The plot was discovered and foiled, and Yousef was eventually apprehended in Pakistan.

Thus far terrorists have not used chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, which might have resulted in greater casualties, with the exception of anthrax mailings, which have not as yet been connected to foreign terrorism. As Brian M. Jenkins, an authority on international terrorism pointed out, a more likely method to create greater casualties would be coordinated attacks involving a number of planes, such as the coordinated attacks against American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, in 1998, by the followers of Osama bin Laden, the leader of the attacks of September 11, 2001.


The bin Laden network, al-Qaeda, originated in Afghanistan during the late 1980s. At the time, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) spent $3 billion to train and fund Islamic resistance groups, the mujahideen, in order to overthrow a Soviet-dominated regime in Afghanistan. When the Afghan war began in the 1980s, American planners were determined to avoid repeating the supposed mistakes of the Vietnam War. Specifically, there would be U.S. support, but no American troops. Islamic fighters from all over North Africa, many of whom, including bin Laden, were violently anti-Western, were invited to join the jihad (holy war). As the war progressed, some of the resistance groups sent emissaries to Washington warning that weapons supplied by the United States might end up in the hands of terrorists.

The effort against the Soviet-dominated regime was successful. In 1989 the Soviet military left, and in 1992 the mujahideen took Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Civil war followed. In 1996 the fundamentalist Taliban seized Kabul and subsequently established an atrocious human rights record, including severe restrictions imposed on women. The civil war continued, however, with the Northern Alliance of warlords—aided by Russia, Uzbekistan, Iran, and India—offering the principal resistance to the Taliban regime. Bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi who had left Afghanistan after the war and subsequently had been expelled from Saudi Arabia, returned to Afghanistan in 1996 and set up a close and mutually supportive relationship with the Taliban government.

The planning of September 11 was in concert with the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen on October 12, 2000; the embassy bombings in Africa; and a planned attack against the Los Angeles International Airport, aborted by a U.S. Customs Service official's discovery of explosives in the trunk of a terrorist's car. None of the earlier terrorist attacks, including bin Laden's probable involvement in attacks on U.S. troops in Yemen and Somalia in 1991 and 1993, or the earlier World Trade Center attempt, resulted in major retaliation by the United States. Perhaps the target for such retaliation was not clear, but no major effort was made by the United States to apprehend the terrorists or to effect a network of cooperation with other countries by which such an operation might have been accomplished. Thus a situation was created in which bin Laden could move with some freedom to implement his terrorist plans.

What were bin Laden's motives? As revealed by his videotaped broadcasts subsequent to the attacks and by his earlier statements, it appeared that they were fueled by a hatred of the West, a desire to have U.S. influence and military forces removed from the area, a hatred of Israel and of the West's support for it, and, more grandly, a desire to unite the Middle East in conformity with a militant version of Islamic fundamentalism. In this regard bin Laden could be seen in conflict not only with the West but also with more secular or westernized governments in the Middle East, particularly those cooperative with the West, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Algeria. Terrorist attacks thus also had as their targets such cooperative Islamic governments.

Osama bin Laden, in his “declaration of war,” wrote that “for more than seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of its territories, Arabia, plundering its riches, overwhelming its ruler, humiliating its people, threatening its neighbors, and using its peninsula as a spearhead to fight the neighboring Islamic peoples.” Bin Laden, in a sense, reached out to attack the United States as part of a strategy of civil war within the Islamic community, between secularists and fundamentalists, between nationalists and those who, like him, would unify the Arab world. In doing so, he evoked basic Islamic doctrine, which sees a militant Islam in continuous war with the West. This, in his view, was a war that had lasted for 1,300 years, punctuated by continuous Islamic defeats from the Crusades to the colonization of the Middle East by the French and British. In bin Laden's eyes, the leaders of the Arab world were mainly hypocrites and idol worshipers in league with the “devil” (the West), symbolized by its strongest power, the United States.

U.S. Intelligence

According to Melvin A. Goodman, former head of the Soviet section of the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), the failure of U.S. intelligence to provide adequate warning of the September 11 attacks was comparable to its failure to anticipate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. intelligence system, the largest in the world, was funded at about $30 billion at the time of the attacks. Although chief of the intelligence system, the director of Central Intelligence (DCI) had little authority over the personnel and procedures of the agencies, many of which were military, that make up the “intelligence community.” Poor coordination between the agencies and old rivalries seem to have been behind a failure to share intelligence and “connect the dots.”

Despite the end of the Cold War, intelligence assets were still disproportionately targeted at the former Soviet bloc. Supervision by both the executive branch of the U.S. government and from Congress appears to have been lax. It seemed that all involved agencies lacked necessary personnel with adequate area and language training, in the field as well as at home. In addition, liaisons between the U.S. intelligence system and those of other countries, where al-Qaeda might have been operating, apparently were inadequate. Finally, while many of the operatives of al-Qaeda were trained in Afghanistan and known at the time to the CIA, they were not adequately tracked.

In the period following the September 11 attacks, the intelligence system received an increase in appropriations of several billion dollars, coordination between the agencies was reputedly increased, recruitment of applicants with the necessary language and area training was stepped up, liaisons with other intelligence systems were improved, and the intelligence system showed increased sophistication in limiting economic support for terrorist groups. As of January 1, 2003, a full investigation had not been made of the intelligence system's possible shortcomings in preventing the September 11 attacks or its capacity to penetrate and eliminate a spy network of the extent or sophistication of al-Qaeda, which was thought to have connections in over forty countries. On January 28, 2003, in his State of the Union address, President George W. Bush said he would create a Terrorist Threat Integration Center to merge separate units at the CIA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and other agencies into a single government unit to strengthen the collection and analysis of foreign and domestic terror threats.

In addition to reforms in its operations, the intelligence community also received authorization through the Patriot Act to practice forms of surveillance, previously considered illegal, of citizens and visitors in the United States. The Justice Department also sought, and partially obtained—despite some adverse judicial rulings—the option to hold visitors and even citizens indefinitely without legal representation and without trial. Over a year after September 11, 2001, two American citizens continued to be held as military detainees without legal recourse. In addition, the government held incommunicado at the U.S. base in Guantanamo, Cuba, over six hundred prisoners from the Afghan campaign. Such infringements on civil rights were strongly criticized as violating the U.S. Constitution and were compared with such previous infringements as the deportation of thousands of immigrants following World War I and the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II. The administration defended such actions as necessary in its war to eliminate terrorism.

A Wake-up Call

The events of September 11 represented the first attacks on U.S. soil by a foreign power since the War of 1812. As a result many Americans began to take a renewed interest in the rest of the world; prior to the attack, many had virtually ignored foreign affairs. Another immediate effect of the attacks on the American public was a heightened sense of danger bordering on terror. Airline tickets were canceled and people began stockpiling food, buying gas masks, and watching television for the next announced attacks. In the period following September 11, this mood was maintained by frequent announcements from the White House, the CIA, and the newly established Office of Homeland Security that new attacks were expected or imminent.

The Office of Homeland Security, created quickly after September 11, assumed responsibility for the security of the United States against terrorism. Its activities included increased surveillance and security measures at airports, seaports, borders, and along the shoreline, at which terrorists and terrorist weapons—conventional as well as nuclear, chemical, or biological agents—could be introduced. Also included were heightened screening and surveillance of foreigners, particularly those from the Islamic world, entering the United States and already in the country. In addition the office assumed responsibility for improving and coordinating the response to a terrorist attack, should it occur, by improved training and equipment for medical emergency teams, firefighting, and other related activities.

In January 2003 Tom Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania, was confirmed as the first head of the Department of Homeland Security, a position of cabinet rank. Even at that date it was clear to most legislators that his organization still lacked the personnel, authority over related agencies, and funds to adequately prepare the United States to prevent a terrorist attack or deal with its consequences. Part of the problem was the difficulty of preventing terrorism against a country of the size of the United States; another problem consisted of interdepartmental rivalries that had reduced necessary cooperation and unified direction in the U.S. government and among state and local agencies.

Foreign-Policy Developments after September 11

In the days following September 11, the Bush administration proclaimed a war against terrorism and made a number of statements asking for the full cooperation of other countries. On September 20, 2001, President Bush, before a joint session of Congress, declared that the United States would “pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorists. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Despite some initial divergence in points of view between Secretary of State Colin Powell, who stressed multilateralism and diplomacy, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Richard Cheney, and others in the administration, a main line of policy emerged. It reflected the assumption that the United States, as the world's only superpower, had the strength and mandate to act unilaterally in foreign affairs, despite its need for cooperation in the war on terrorism. The policy also stressed a military resolution to problems, as opposed to using diplomatic or economic and social means. This policy was enforced with a huge increase in military appropriations, which in 2003 were in excess of $400 billion, if various components are included.

Following the September 11 attacks, the administration declared that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan had provided a territorial base and full support for the September 11 terrorists. A successful invasion followed, involving primarily U.S. military personnel using satellite-guided cruise missiles and bombs, with a small number of ground troops coordinated with dissident Afghan troops. The Taliban forces were quickly routed, and its leaders were killed, captured, or escaped mainly into Pakistan. A study by the University of New Hampshire estimated the number of civilian Afghan casualties to be 3,741; U.S. casualties were few.

Under the auspices of the United Nations, an Afghan government was established, eventually headed by Hamid Karzai. Karzai was from the Tajik ethnic minority group, which had been largely responsible for dislodging the Taliban. Exclusion of the Pashtun majority, however, created a large element of instability. By early 2003 Karzai's government still had little power outside of Kabul, severe economic conditions and even starvation were widespread, and Afghanistan's poppy production once again made it the major producer of opium in the world. Promises made by the United States and the countries of the European Union to provide long-term aid had not been kept, and “nation building” had not been successful.

Other major developments in foreign policy included the following:

  • The partial lifting of a ban on the assassination of foreign leaders by the CIA, initially imposed by President Gerald Ford, to allow for the assassination of al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders;

  • the endorsement of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon's policy of attempting to unseat, ignore, or exile Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and more generally, the Israeli position in its dispute with the Palestinians;

  • the announced abrogation in December 2001 of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, and a general withdrawal from multilateral treaties, including the “unsigning” of the treaty on the International Criminal Court, and a threat to withdraw all U.S. funding of UN peacekeeping; the refusal to consider ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban; the scuttling of pacts on biological weapons and small arms; the refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol on climate control or an agreement on the control of land mines, and others;

  • the conclusion of an arms control agreement with the Russian Federation that, while lowering the number of nuclear warheads to between 1700 and 2200 by 2012, failed to include any schedule or verification procedures;

  • a declaration by President Bush that Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, and Libya constituted an “axis of evil” and the subsequent leak to the press of a classified document, the Nuclear Posture Review, which proclaimed preemptive nuclear strikes against such states as an option of U.S. foreign policy;

  • and a declaration on September 20, 2002, called the National Security Strategy, that the United States seeks to maintain full military dominance, will resist any country that offers competition to this position, and considers preemptive action a viable policy.

In the context of these developments, President Bush declared that the government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq constituted an imminent threat to the region and to the United States and that the United States would impose a “regime change.” Members of the administration spoke not only of military action but also of the possibility of assassination, and began a massive build-up of U.S. arms in preparation for an invasion.

Following the conclusion of the Gulf War in 1991, inspection procedures had been instituted by the United Nations to prevent Iraq from maintaining or developing nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. Eventually Iraq, which had not adequately cooperated with the UN inspection team, insisted on its departure, using as one reason the infiltration of the team by agents of the CIA.

The call for a regime change in Iraq by the Bush administration was strongly criticized by some as an attempt, prior to the November 2002 elections, to divert U.S. public attention from a growing economic recession and from corporate scandals, some of which involved officials and political figures in the Republican party. The policy against Iraq was also criticized as being concerned not with immediate security issues but with the desire of the United States to control Iraqi oil. For its part, the administration denied such motives and stated as its purpose the security of the United States and the region. Other critics maintained that the United States still had not dealt adequately with the problem of terrorism, and that an invasion of Iraq would increase hostility to the United States and therefore increase terrorist activity. Nevertheless, polls indicated majority support for a policy of invasion, although these figures changed if the possibility was posed of significant casualties, if the United States acted without allies, and if it acted without UN support.

In the months following the president's statement of the U.S. intention to remove Hussein, the administration sought international support but achieved clear backing only from the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, Hussein had indicated his willingness to allow a UN team full access to the country, including previously restricted presidential palaces. He vowed that if the United States invaded, Iraq would fight in the cities, thus denying the United States the tactical advantages it had enjoyed by satellite pinpointing targets in the dessert during the Gulf War.

In 2002, UN inspectors, in accordance with a UN Security Council resolution, began searching Iraq for signs of weapons of mass destruction. By the end of January 2003, a “smoking gun” had not been found, although the inspection teams indicated a lack of cooperation by Iraq.

Another issue, which surfaced during this time, was the assumed need to occupy Iraq after a successful war. Critics maintained that if an effective government or civil administration had not been achieved in Afghanistan, such an administration could not be expected in Iraq. These critics pointed out that the expense for the war—estimated from $50 billion to over $100 billion, and a comparable figure for the occupation—would strain the U.S. economy, which during the year following September 11 had plunged into a deficit posture (reversing a trend of many years in which it had enjoyed a surplus). As the United States considered war, increasing protests around the country indicated that a divided rather than a unified nation would be the combatant. On January 28, 2003, President Bush in his State of the Union address said the United States would ask the UN Security Council to consider “Iraq's ongoing defiance of the world.” He said that the United States would consult the United Nations, but that if Saddam Hussein “does not fully disarm, for the safety of our people, and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.”

View of World Trade Center towers, with tower #2 exploding in a ball of fire. September 11, 2001. Tamara Beckwith, photographer. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Explosion at the Pentagon. Washington, D.C. September 11, 2001. Daryl Donley, photographer. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Crash site (close up). Shanksville, Pennsylvania. September 11, 2001. Mark Stahl, photographer. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Woman in street with ambulance in background. New York, New York. September 11, 2001. Don Halasy, photographer. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

  • Esposito, John L., Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (Oxford 2002) [a straightforward study of Muslim extremism and hostility to the United States and U.S. policy].
  • Hoge, James F. Jr.; Gideon Rose, eds., How Did This Happen? Terrorism and the New War (Public Affairs 2001) [an excellent survey of articles written after September 11, which is particularly strong on the Islamic background and intelligence problems].
  • O'Hanlon, Michael E., et al., Protecting the American Homeland: A Preliminary Analysis (Brookings Inst. Press 2000) [an excellent set of articles on homeland security that promotes the idea of increased authority and spending for a future office or department].
  • Rubin, Barry; Judith Colp Rubin, eds., Anti-American Terrorism and the Middle East: A Documentary Reader: Understanding the Violence (Oxford 2002) [a useful anthology of documents on all sides of the question, including the terrorist].
  • Seffer, John, ed., Power Trip (Seven Stories Press 2003) [an anthology that discusses the international implications of the September 11 attacks].
  • Stern, Jessica, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (Harper 2004).
  • Wright, Lawrence, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Vintage 2007).
  • Craig Eisendrath
    Copyright 2018 The American Studies Association

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