The Global War on Terrorism

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The Global War on Terrorism

Major Figures

Sayyid Qutb

The beginning of the Global War on Terrorism can be traced to a small town in upper Egypt called Musha, where Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966) was born in 1906. The studious Qutb (pronounced kuh-tub), eldest of six children, wrote the documents that would form the philosophical foundation of radical Islamic terrorists around the world. It could be said that Qutb’s writings were the spark that lit the fires of September 11.

Early Life

Qutb had a rigorous religious upbringing. Qutb’s mother, Fatimah Husayn ’Uthman, was a devout Muslim woman and impressed upon her children the importance of the Koran, the holy book of the Islamic faith. She even pushed her children to memorize the Koran and invited professional Koran narrators to visit the Qutb home. Qutb memorized the Koran by age ten.

The studious Qutb also received a thorough, Western-style education. When he was thirteen, Qutb left his native village for the Dar al-’Ulum secondary school, which offered a secular curriculum intended to train students for work in the Egyptian government. Qutb earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Cairo University in 1933, where he taught after graduation. He then found work in Egypt’s Ministry of Education before traveling to America in late 1948 for graduate studies.

On this trip, Qutb developed a negative attitude about the West, which would later grow into intolerant philosophies about non-Muslims and Westerners.

Qutb’s Time in America

Qutb first arrived in New York City amid the prosperous holiday season and the post-WWII economic boom in the United States. Many new immigrants were moving into the city, and many buildings were under construction, making the environment materialistic, crowded, noisy, and overwhelming for someone from a modest upbringing in Egypt. His time in New York also exposed him to several instances of loose sexual morals that clashed with his notions of propriety. He called Americans “… a reckless deluded herd that only knows lust and money.” This alien environment made Qutb feel isolated. He wrote to a friend in Egypt, “Here in this strange place, this huge workshop they call ‘the new world,’ I feel as though my spirit, thoughts, and body live in loneliness. What I need most here is someone to talk to … to talk about topics other than dollars, movie stars, brands of cars—a real conversation on the issues of man, philosophy, and soul.”

Shortly thereafter, Qutb enrolled in Wilson Teachers College (today part of the University of the District of Columbia) to study English. Here, his attitude toward America continued to harden. After encountering more superficiality and sexually aggressive women, Qutb confided in a friend that he thought Americans exhibited “a primitiveness that reminds us of the ages of jungles and caves.”

In the summer of 1949, Qutb moved to Greeley, Colorado, to attend the Colorado State College of Education (now known as the University of Northern Colorado). While Greeley was less crowded and frantic than the other cities he had visited, Qutb experienced further examples of what he considered sexual immorality, racism, and superficial religion. Wrote Qutb to a friend, “The soul has no value to Americans. There has been a Ph.D. dissertation about the best way to clean dishes, which seems more important to them than the Bible or religion.”

Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood

In 1950, the more radical Qutb returned to an Egypt gripped in government corruption, poverty, unemployment, and despair. In this unstable environment, an Islamic fundamentalist organization called the Muslim Brotherhood began to attract members and influence. The Muslim Brotherhood had the goal of bringing about universal Islamic rule as opposed to Western, secular representative democracy.

Qutb took up his former job in the Ministry of Education, but was soon drawn into a coup with the Muslim Brotherhood to overthrow the corrupt King Farouk. The coup was carried out by an unlikely alliance of military officers led by Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Brotherhood in 1952. Some of the planning for this revolution was done in Qutb’s house in Helwan.

After King Farouk left Egypt, strains grew between Nasser’s government and the Muslim Brotherhood. Nasser envisioned a modern, secular, industrialized society where the people closely identified themselves with their nation. The Brotherhood sought a Muslim society, where Islamic values were imposed on every facet of life. This difference of opinion soon grew to animosity between Qutb and his former ally Nasser.

Trouble in Egypt

In 1954, Nasser jailed Qutb for three months. After being released, Qutb became editor of the Brotherhood’s magazine, al-Ikhwan al-Muslimu. In August 1954 the government shut the newspaper down for publicly opposing a treaty between Egypt and Britain. On October 26, 1954, one of the Muslim Brothers attempted to assassinate President Nasser. The attempt failed, and many prominent Brotherhood members, including Qutb, were jailed.

Qutb was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, where he suffered from chronic health problems as well as torture. Moved to a prison hospital in May 1955 due to deteriorating health, Qutb spent the next ten years writing In the Shade of the Koran, a large commentary that set forth his beliefs on turning Islam into a political enterprise to reshape society by Koranic precepts.

Because of an intercession on his behalf by Iraqi president Abdul Salam Areb, Qutb was released from prison in 1964 and immediately began plotting to overthrow the Egyptian government. Qutb was arrested within a year for this subversive activity. Following a three-month trial, Qutb was hanged on August 29, 1966.

Enduring Significance

The Islamist movement Qutb advanced did not die with him. In 1964, Qutb published Milestones, an Islamist manifesto based on In the Shade of the Koran. These books form the philosophical foundation on which Islamic radical groups like al-Qaeda build their house of terror. Qutb’s intolerant philosophy is well illustrated by the following statement:

The white man in Europe or America is our number-one enemy. The white man crushes us underfoot while we teach our children about his civilization, his universal principles and noble objectives … Let us instead plant the seeds of hatred, disgust, and revenge in the souls of these children. Let us teach these children, from the time their nails are soft that the white man is the enemy of humanity and they should destroy him at the first opportunity.

Qutb’s untimely death may have given his writings an enduring power and lit the jihadist fires of a new generation of Islamists.

Ayman al-Zawahiri

Born to a distinguished Egyptian family of scientists, academics, and attorneys, Ayman al-Zawahiri (1951–) grew up in the prosperous Cairo suburb of Maadi. An excellent student, he followed his father into the medical profession by enrolling in Cairo University’s School of Medicine. He is now best known as an al-Qaeda leader and a key proponent of violent Islamic radicalism.

Zawahiri showed an early affinity for Islamic radicalism. Zawahiri’s uncle, Mahfouz Azzam, took elementary school classes from Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual forefather of the modern Islamist movement. Qutb formed a close friendship with the young Azzam, who would later become Qutb’s lawyer and work with him on the Muslim Brotherhood magazine al-Ikhwan al-Muslimu. Later, when Qutb was about to be executed, Azzam often visited him and even received permission from Qutb to handle his personal property after his death. As a close confidant of Qutb and a believer in his cause, Azzam often told his nephew of Qutb’s ideas and the struggles he endured. These stories had a profound effect on the impressionable young Zawahiri.

In 1966, the same year Sayyid Qutb was executed for plotting against the Egyptian government, Zawahiri started his own cell of the Muslim Brotherhood, an extremist group with the goal of bringing about total Islamic rule in Egypt. Zawahiri was only 15 years old.

Al Jihad

The 1967 war with Israel, in which Egypt and several other Arab countries suffered a swift and stunning military defeat, humiliated many Arab Muslims. In the war’s aftermath, Islamic radical groups grew in popularity on the premise that Middle Eastern societies needed to return to pure Muslim religion to regain God’s approval.

Conditioned by his uncle’s lionizing of Sayyid Qutb, Zawahiri gravitated towards these groups while in college at Cairo University. Following the death of President Nasser and Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel, Islamist groups continued growing. Zawahiri’s cell grew to over forty by 1974. His cell merged with several others to create Al Jihad (also known as Egyptian Islamic Jihad). Their goal at the time was to reform Egyptian society to conform to Islamic law, which would be a model for uniting all Muslim countries under the Islamic caliphate.

Zawahiri was married in February 1978 to Azza Nowair, a pious young woman from a prominent family who would be a good partner for Zawahiri’s Islamist designs.

First Trip to Afghanistan

In 1980, Dr. Zawahiri was invited to go to Peshawar, Pakistan, to aid refugees from the Soviet-Afghan war. While interested in helping those affected by the war, he was also looking for a secure base of operations for Al Jihad; the mountainous terrain of Pakistan and Afghanistan could fit the bill. With the help of local tribesmen, he occasionally ventured into Afghanistan, where he saw the struggles and courage of the Afghan jihadists against the Soviets. Like his Uncle Mahfouz years before, Zawahiri now had heroic tales of Islamic struggle to tell young and impressionable recruits.

The Sadat Assassination and Prison

Zawahiri’s trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan inspired him to work more fervently to overthrow the Egyptian government. Zawahiri and other radicals were also motivated by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s signing of a peace treaty with Israel and the more secular direction in which Sadat wanted to take the country. On October 6, 1981, during a military parade commemorating the 1973 war with Israel, an Egyptian army officer sympathetic to the Islamist cause in Egypt stopped his vehicle next to Sadat’s viewing stand, and conspirators killed him with grenades and machine gun fire.

The government immediately rounded up known members of Islamist groups. Inexplicably, Zawahiri had a chance to flee, but did not leave when he had the opportunity. He was arrested on October 23, 1981.

The Egyptian security forces harshly tortured and interrogated suspected conspirators. Zawahiri, with his good education and ability to speak English, became the public spokesman for those held in connection with the assassination, elevating his visibility and status among Islamic radical groups. Released in 1984 after serving three years on weapons-trafficking charges, Zawahiri emerged from prison angrier, more radical, and more determined than before.

Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda

Zawahiri fled Egypt in 1985 to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Then, he found his way back to Peshawar, Pakistan, with the goal of rebuilding Al Jihad. It is likely that Zawahiri first met Osama bin Laden during this time.

Zawahiri strove to build a close relationship with bin Laden as their personalities, gifts, and circumstances seemed a good fit for one another. Bin Laden’s family fortune could help Zawahiri rebuild his group. While Zawahiri was scholarly, bin Laden was a natural leader. They both came to embrace the cause of global jihad.

After the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, Zawahiri joined bin Laden in Sudan in 1992, where Zawahiri once again took up his efforts against the government of neighboring Egypt. Here, he first started using suicide operators against political targets.

As Zawahiri worked more with bin Laden and came to rely more on bin Laden’s money, his focus shifted from bringing about an Islamic state in Egypt to attacking the United States. In February 1998, Zawahiri signed a public letter from bin Laden that implored Muslims to kill Americans whenever and wherever possible.

As a result of this new direction, Zawahiri was deeply involved in the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and he controlled the Yemeni al-Qaeda cell that attacked the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, in October 2000.

As a result of increased pressure from state security forces, lack of funding, and the operational coordination on previous attacks, Al Jihad formally merged with al-Qaeda in June 2001.

Enduring Significance

Ayman al-Zawahiri has proved to be an elusive and determined force for the global Islamist movement. He perfected the use of suicide operators for the cause of jihad, which would become al-Qaeda’s modus operandi in its war on non-believers and the West.

Furthermore, the struggles he has endured seem to have made him stronger and more determined and has inspired new recruits for the cause of jihad. As of March 2007, Zawahiri continues to issue propaganda through digital audio and video presentations on the Internet that support the Islamist cause. While the efforts of the United States and its partners in the Global War on Terrorism may have reduced his ability to move and operate, Ayman al-Zawahiri continues to be a driving force for the global Islamist movement.

George W. Bush

In the first year of his first term as American president, George W. Bush (1946–) dealt with terrorist attacks on the United States. The attacks of September 11, 2001, on New York City and Washington, D.C., compelled him to launch the war on Terrorism with American military in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over time, public support for these initiatives eroded.

Born July 6, 1946, in New Haven, Connecticut, Bush was the eldest child of George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara. His father went on to make a fortune in the oil business in Texas. The family moved to Texas when the younger Bush was two years old. George H.W. Bush later served as vice president in the Ronald Regan administration and became a one-term president in 1988.

Education at Phillips Academy and Yale

Bush attended elementary and part of middle school in Texas, where he was a talented athlete but a mediocre student. He had early political experience as a seventh grader by running for class president and winning. For the rest of his education, Bush was sent to an East Coast preparatory school, Phillips Academy. Again shining by playing three sports—baseball, basketball, and football—Bush continued to struggle academically.

Like his father, the younger Bush attended Yale University, where he became president of his fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon. Bush graduated in 1968 with an undergraduate degree in history. Returning to Texas, Bush settled in Houston, where his family lived. His first job was working for an agribusiness company. During the Vietnam War, Bush served in the Texas National Air Guard. He was never on combat duty.

Oil Business

Bush applied to and was rejected by the University of Texas Law School. Later, he entered Harvard Business School. Upon completing his M.B.A., Bush returned to Texas in 1975 and went into the oil business. Changing course for a time, Bush ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978; he lost the election by a small margin and returned to his oil business, Bush Exploration. Bush spent the next few years in the oil industry before selling out his shares in the company that had bought his business, Harken Energy, in 1990.

The Texas Rangers

Politics remained important to Bush, who worked on his father’s presidential campaign in 1988. He primarily helped the senior Bush with fundraising. After his father’s victory, Bush went back to Texas. He put together a group of seventy investors to buy the Texas Rangers, a Major League Baseball team. Though the Rangers were struggling when the group bought the team in 1988, their fortunes soon began turning around. In 1998, the group sold the Rangers for a tidy profit. Bush himself gained $14 million by the sale.

Texas Governor

In 1994, Bush again sought political office. He ran as a Republican for the governorship in Texas, promising to cut down on crime, institute welfare reform, and achieve autonomy for public school districts. Bush won, defeating incumbent Democrat Ann Richards.

As Texas governor, Bush appealed to both moderates and conservatives. Though still politically untutored—he stated he did not like briefings and meetings—Bush was a popular two-term governor. He gained national attention for his accomplishments in Texas, especially in his second term.

Two Terms as President

In the late 1990s, Bush decided to make a run for the presidency. In 2000, he secured the Republican nomination. With running mate Dick Cheney, who had been Secretary of Defense during Bush’s father’s administration, Bush eked out a hotly contested victory over Democrat Albert Gore, who had been vice president during Bill Clinton’s two terms as president. The race between the two candidates was so close there was no definite winner on election day, and problems with ballots in parts of Florida led to recounts. The controversy dragged on for a month. The recounts were ended by the U.S. Supreme Court, and Bush was declared the winner in early December 2000. Though it was determined that Gore had won the popular vote, Bush had enough electoral votes to win the presidency. Bush easily won re-election in 2004.

As president, Bush dealt with domestic issues like education reform, pushing his No Child Life Behind legislation through Congress in 2001. What essentially defined his presidency, however, was the War on Terrorism. Less than nine months after Bush took office, terrorists hijacked four jet liners. Two were crashed into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon, and the fourth crashed in rural Pennsylvania after passengers fought the hijackers. Among Bush’s responses to this attack were creating the Office of Homeland Security and improving security in American airports.

Response to Terrorist Attacks

After the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda took responsibility for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against U.S. targets, Bush authorized the launching of an offensive against the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan later in 2001. The Taliban had harbored al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, and many members of his organization. Though the Taliban were soon removed from power, efforts to locate bin Laden ended in failure. Bush remained committed to rebuilding Afghanistan and supporting their efforts to become a more democratic nation.

By 2002, Bush was calling for similar action in Iraq. In a September 2002 address to the United Nations, he demanded military intervention in Iraq because he believed Iraq and its leader, Saddam Hussein, possessed weapons of mass destruction. Though the United Nations declined to get involved or support the American position, Bush gained the support of the Republican-controlled Congress for military intervention in Iraq in October 2002.

Iraq Invasion

In mid-March 2003, the United States and a few of its allies, including Great Britain, invaded Iraq. Within a few months, Bush declared victory as Saddam and his political party had been removed from power and Iraq was thought secured. Though Bush said that this victory marked the end of military action in Iraq, the conflict dragged on for years as the American forces struggled to impose order in a country beset by warring religious and political factions.

As his second term in office progressed, Bush faced increasing domestic, even international pressure, about continued American involvement in Iraq. Though he promised Iraqis that he would not pull out troops before their new government was secure, more and more Americans expressed discontent over the situation. By June 2007, Bush’s approval rating had reached an all-time low at 26 percent, according to a Newsweek poll. The war was a primary reason for the low rating as 73 percent of those polled stated they did not approve of how Bush was managing the war in Iraq.

Despite low ratings, Bush believed in his course. Speaking to the nation in a televised address in January 2007, he proclaimed, “America is engaged in a new struggle that will set the course for a new century. We can and will prevail.”

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden is the mastermind behind the Islamic terrorist organization, al-Qaeda, and the group’s terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. His actions began the War on Terrorism in the 1990s. Despite ongoing efforts to locate him, bin Laden has remained elusive.

Bin Laden was born on March 10, 1957, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the son of Mohammad bin Laden and one of his several wives. His father was a wealthy business owner of a construction company, the Bin Laden Group, which built roads, infrastruce, and mosques in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden and his fifty siblings split their father’s multi-billion dollar estate after his death in 1968 in a helicopter accident.

Educated in Mecca and Jedda and raised in privilege, bin Laden was a dedicated Muslim from earliest childhood. After marrying his first wife at the age of seventeen, he entered King Abd al-Aziz University and studied public management. While a student, he became influenced by a professor, Sheik Abdullah Azzam, who was also a well-known radical Muslim. Bin Laden completed his degree in 1978.

Osama Enters the Fray

Bin Laden went to Afghanistan in late 1979 to join the jihad to defend the country against the Soviet Union, which had invaded it. He used his considerable wealth to fund the activities of the mujahideen (Muslim fighters) in Afghanistan. Bin Laden ensured they were trained, equipped, and fed, as well as had their medical needs met. Bin Laden himself even participated in several battles and demonstrated bravery.

While the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan lasted for a decade, bin Laden continued his activities in support of the jihad fighters. One situation eventually led to the founding of al-Qaeda. In 1984, bin Laden was the co-founder of the Maktab al-Khidmat (“Services Office”) with Azzam, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite its innocuous name, Maktab al-Khidmat recruited and trained jihad fighters from around the world.

Founded al-Qaeda

About six months after the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan in 1989, Azzam was killed in a car bombing. Though dejected by Azzam’s death, bin Laden was also inspired to carry on with what they started. To that end, he launched al-Qaeda, a militant network of jihad fighters, with members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. al-Qaeda consisted of thousands of radical Muslims who had been trained and financed through the Maktab al-Khidmat. Still committed to the cause, they were organized into secret cells around the world in their home countries. Led by bin Laden, al-Qaeda launched guerilla attacks against selected targets deemed heretical.

Bin Laden’s activities put him in opposition to his home country. He returned to Saudi Arabia in 1990 and began speaking out against the Saudi royal family as well as Saudi foreign policies. Bin Laden’s criticisms increased during the Gulf War, when Saudi Arabia invited American troops into the country as part of the war effort in 1990. He was placed under house arrest and later had his passport revoked.


As bin Laden came to be seen as a threat in Saudi Arabia, he was asked to leave the country. He left with his family, which included more wives and a number of children. They moved to Sudan, which had a militant Islamic government. While there, bin Laden founded a few businesses, including a construction company. Bin Laden also established terrorist training camps in the country, which trained a number of established militant Muslim groups and sent them to participate in conflicts involving Muslims.

While living in Sudan, bin Laden remained critical of the Saudi government and actively worked to bring it down. His actions included organizing assassination attempts on Saudis. In response, the Saudi government froze his assests—at least $200 million—in 1993. The following year, bin Laden renounced his citizenship and soon began using the Internet to organize his attacks as well as launder funds to fund them.

As bin Laden was working against Saudi Arabia, he was also targeting the United States and Americans abroad through al-Qaeda. The network was directly or indirectly responsible for killing Americans at a hotel in Yemen, shooting down American soldiers in Somalia, and the World Trade Center bombing, all in 1993. Bin Laden and al-Qaeda also aimed at others in this time period, including the attempted destruction of an airliner on its way to Japan in 1994 and an assassination attempt on the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, in 1995.

Back to Afghanistan

Pressured by the United States, Sudan ended its protection of bin Laden in 1996. In response, he moved his family and followers to Afghanistan that May, though his camps continued to operate in Sudan. At the time, Afghanistan was controlled by the Taliban, a strict, fundamentalist Islamic group led by Mullah Mohammed Omar. As in Sudan, bin Laden gave the Taliban financial support and helped rebuild Afghanistan’s infrastructure, which had been severely damaged during the Soviet occupation. In return, the Taliban supported the terrorist work of bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and allowed him to found more training camps for al-Qaeda terrorists.

In August 1996, bin Laden declared jihad against both Americans and Jews and called for Muslims to expel them from Saudi Arabia and Israel. Later that year, nineteen Americans died in a suspected al-Qaeda attack on a military complex in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden took his attack on Americans a step further in 1998 when he issued a fatwa (a religious proclamation) that demanded the death of all Americans. al-Qaeda’s jihad fighters responded by bombing two U.S. embassies located in East Africa resulting in death or injury to thousands.

An Enemy of the United States

Recognizing that bin Laden was a significant threat, the U.S. government moved from labeling him an extremist to watch to indicting him on charges, including for the embassy bombings in November 1998. A $5 million reward was offered for information leading to his arrest at the same time. The following year, he was placed on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “most wanted terrorist” list.

The Taliban grew tired of bin Laden by the late 1990s because of the international attention and anger he drew to Afghanistan, and they asked him to stop his military and political activities. Despite being kept under watch by Taliban soldiers, bin Laden played a role in the failed campaign to bomb major New Year’s Eve celebrations in 1999. More successful was his alleged role in the suicide bomber attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000 in which at least twelve soldiers lost their lives.

Orchestrated 9/11 Attacks

On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda operatives hijacked four major airliners in the United States. Two were crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, and another hit the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked plane was taken over by the passengers who thwarted the attack by crashing it in Pennsylvania. About 3,000 people died as a direct result of these attacks.

After September 11, President George W. Bush presented requested proof of bin Laden’s involvement in 9/11 and demanded the Taliban turn him over. Because of the Taliban’s continued refusal, the U.S. government attacked Afghanistan in what was known as Operation Enduring Freedom. Beginning with air strikes and later including ground troops, Americans and non-Taliban Afghanis fought against the Taliban as well as al-Qaeda. Despite efforts to secure bin Laden, it is believed he escaped from Afghanistan during a battle at the Tora Bora cave complex.

After 2001, bin Laden’s whereabouts were unclear as he remained in hiding in remote areas. He irregularly issued videotapes and missives in support of al-Qaeda activities in the years after the attack. While it is believed bin Laden could be in Pakistan or even dead, the truth is unknown, though the United States upped the bounty on his head to $25 million.

Major Battles

September 11, 2001

The terror attacks of September 11, 2001, by Islamic radicals against the United States are arguably the most significant military and historical event since the end of World War II. The attacks by nineteen al-Qaeda operatives who hijacked four commercial passenger jets set in motion a new worldwide political dynamic that will shape world events for decades to come.

The Attacks on the World Trade Center

September 11, 2001 fell on a Tuesday. At Logan International Airport in Boston, Washington Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., and Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, NJ, nineteen men boarded, respectively, United Airlines Flight 175 and American Airlines Flight 11, American Flight 77, and United Flight 93. On their persons they carried small knives (most likely box cutters), which had passed through airport security unnoticed, as well as pepper spray.

The planes were all destined for cities on the west coast and were fully loaded with jet fuel for their cross-country flights. Over approximately the next ninety minutes, starting with Flight 11 at 8:14 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, the four planes were hijacked by the terrorists onboard. Although exact details varied by plane, the general pattern of events saw the terrorists subduing or killing the flight crew, then herding the passengers and flight attendants to the back of the plane, claiming there was a bomb on the plane and warning against any attempts at heroics. Under the guise of flying the hijacked planes toward a nearby airport, the hijackers instead turned the aircraft toward their assigned targets.

Flight 11 was the first plane to hit, striking Tower One of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. The fuel-laden plane exploded between floors 94 and 98 killing all 92 people aboard the plane and hundreds inside the tower itself, which immediately began burning.

Initially thought to be a horrible accident, the deliberate nature of the crash became increasingly clear when, eighteen minutes later, Flight 175 crashed into Tower Two. Like Flight 11, Flight 175 hit its target traveling at hundreds of miles per hour, laden with more than ten thousand gallons of jet fuel. Unlike the first crash, this second crash was captured by dozens of amateur and professional videographers, who had had their cameras trained on Tower One. The haunting image of a silhouetted plane exploding into the side of Tower Two went out live nationwide as the story morphed from one of a tragic accident to that of a deliberate attack.

As massive evacuations of the two World Trade Center towers began, President George W. Bush, who had just sat down in a Florida classroom to read to a room full of elementary school students, was informed by his Chief of Staff that “America [was] under attack.” In a move later praised by his supporters and condemned by his critics, President Bush remained in the classroom for another ten minutes before meeting with advisors, issuing a brief public statement, and departing the school for a nearby airport to board Air Force One.

The Attack on the Pentagon and Flight 93

As F-15 fighter jets scrambled to protect New York City airspace, two more planes were hijacked. Flights 77 and 93 were soon turning around and heading toward their Washington, D.C., targets. At 9:37 a.m. , Flight 77 slammed into the side of the Pentagon, killing all aboard, along with 125 personnel inside the building—a relatively small death toll owing to the fact that the stricken wing of the building was largely unoccupied at the time thanks to recent renovation work.

After the Pentagon strike all U.S. airspace was shut down—incoming flights from overseas were diverted to Canadian airports. As the 10:00 hour neared along the Eastern seaboard, the only planes in the air were military aircraft, scrambled to protect New York and Washington, D.C., airspace; Air Force One, carrying the president and his staff; and Flight 93, which was approximately twenty minutes from its intended target when a passenger revolt forced the hijackers to roll the plane and deliberately crash it into a Pennsylvania field.

Collapse of the Two Towers

Meanwhile, the situation at the World Trade Center had grown increasingly desperate. Thousands of workers were trapped in both towers above the respective crash zones. Many attempted to reach the roofs of the towers in the hope of a helicopter rescue while around two hundred others, driven to desperation by the flames that were quickly spreading through the floors of the two towers, leapt to their deaths, much to the horror of onlookers. Meanwhile, city emergency personnel (the first responders, such as firefighters and police officers) were coordinating evacuation and fire-fighting efforts around and inside the entire World Trade Center complex.

Suddenly, at 9:59 a.m. , not quite an hour after it was struck, Tower Two collapsed, “pancaking” more-or-less straight down and unleashing a massive debris cloud of powdered glass and concrete across lower Manhattan. Half an hour later, Tower One followed suit.

Death Toll and Impact

The majority of the deaths sustained on 9/11 occurred when the towers collapsed. In all, counting both the airplane passengers and those victims on the ground, the attacks claimed at least 2,973 lives in addition to the 19 hijackers.

As the full impact of the attacks began to sink into the nation’s stunned consciousness, messages of sympathy poured in from the international community. Although no claims of responsibility were immediately forthcoming, connections were quickly drawn both in the media and among government agencies between the attacks and al-Qaeda.

When reports of missile attacks around the Afghan city of Kabul were reported on the afternoon of September 11, many assumed it was in retaliation for the terrorist attacks. Al-Qaeda’s connections to the Taliban, Afghanistan’s ruling party, were well known. Although the attacks were soon attributed to internecine warfare, the implications of the day’s events were clear. Indeed, within a month of the attacks the United States and its allies were engaged in open warfare with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The War on Terrorism had begun.

Events Leading to the Attacks

The September 11 attacks are part of a long campaign of purposeful and skillful terrorist activity that has its roots in a violent ideology. In the 1950s and 1960s, an Egyptian intellectual named Sayyid Qutb wrote several books that condemned the United States and proposed a radical, intolerant form of the Muslim religion that requires the government to be run by Islamic law. Following Qutb’s death, followers like Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden sought to put Qutb’s vision into reality. Terror is one of the tools they used.

Angry about the Arab world’s impotence against the nation of Israel and brought together by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Zawahiri, bin Laden, and their associates formed a terror group that would eventually become known as al-Qaeda (Arabic for “the base”). Formed sometime in the mid-1980s, al-Qaeda provides philosophical direction, recruiting support, training, funding, and other provisions to terrorist operatives to attack U.S. and Western interests.

As al-Qaeda continued to plan and execute operations, U.S. intelligence agencies were collecting evidence that should have been put together to identify the culprits, at least before the September 11 attacks. However, organizational turf fighting (between agencies like the FBI, CIA, and NSA) and overly broad interpretations of laws (meant to separate domestic and foreign intelligence work) prevented investigators from seeing the whole picture until it was too late.

Enduring Significance

The attacks of September 11 revealed how much had changed in the world. Following the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, governments around the world no longer had the dynamic of two competing world powers to shape their domestic and foreign policy. As a result, weaker governments, like that in Afghanistan, could not fully control their territory, which enabled terror groups to flourish. As September 11 showed, determined terrorists in faraway lands could use modern computer, communication, and transportation technology to plan and execute attacks directly against the United States.

Therefore, the United States and other Western governments are now much more active in strengthening governments in third world nations around the world to help keep Islamic radical groups at bay. The Western governments can now be expected to maintain or increase their involvement in countries with weak governments as well as take proactive steps against uncooperative governments.

However, this increased foreign engagement often causes tension within those countries and charges of American imperialism, which, in turn, Islamic radical groups use to rally recruits, gain financial supporters, and spread propaganda using media outlets sympathetic to their cause. Thus, September 11 highlights the no-win situation U.S. and Western governments face when trying to protect their people against ruthless, stateless terror groups.

Aerial Bombardment of Afghanistan

Shortly after the devastating terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, President George Bush announced that the operation had been planned and executed by members of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network al-Qaeda, who were being sheltered by the Taliban—the rigid Islamic government of Afghanistan. A few weeks later, the U.S. military launched Operation Enduring Freedom to topple the Taliban and to root out al-Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan. The campaign opened with an extensive aerial bombardment, followed by an allied ground assault.

The Taliban

The Taliban, a group of fundamentalist Muslim scholars and clerics, had taken control of most of Afghanistan by 1998. Throughout the 1980s, they had fought (with generous American support) to oust the military forces of the Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. After the Soviets withdrew, the Taliban subdued the various warlord factions and brought a measure of stability to the country.

However, the Taliban’s strict interpretation of religion, enforced by harsh autocratic rule, incurred general international censure. Furthermore, it was well known that the Taliban sheltered and aided groups that engaged in international acts of terror. Before September 11, 2001, only three countries—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

The economy of Afghanistan suffered, especially after the Taliban destroyed the poppy crop for religious reasons. Afghanistan had supplied a large portion of the world’s opium, an illegal drug made from poppies, and the trade had produced the majority of the country’s cash income. In addition, a harsh drought brought famine; by 2001, at least five million Afghans depended on foreign aid for survival.

The Ultimatum

On September 20, 2001, President Bush demanded that the Taliban hand over bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders. He also insisted that they shut down the many militant Islamist training camps in Afghanistan. The country, he asserted, had become “safe harbor” for terrorists. He also insisted that the Taliban should release foreign nationals who had been imprisoned for preaching Christianity.

The Taliban reacted with defiance. They denied having any knowledge of bin Laden’s whereabouts and made it clear that they would not hand him over even if they did. America had no right, they argued, to accuse bin Laden without proof of his complicity. They warned that Muslims everywhere would rise up against the West, should Bush carry out his threats. Spokesman Mullah Muhmajin told the press that “if the U.S. attacks us, we will declare jihad [holy war] against America.”

It was undeniable that, while Middle Eastern governments publicly condemned the Taliban and al-Qaeda, bin Laden had wide public sympathy in the Arab world. Understanding this, Bush took pains to isolate the Afghan leadership, essentially threatening any government who might sympathize with the Taliban. “Every nation,” he said, “in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Nevertheless, President George W. Bush did not enjoy the broad international support that his father had cultivated during the Gulf War. Aware that France, China, and Russia would oppose an armed invasion of Afghanistan, the Bush administration did not bother to seek United Nations (UN) approval before attacking. Instead the United States turned to Great Britain, who proved a staunch ally. Together the United States and Britain invoked Article 51 of the UN charter, which guarantees the rights of nations to act in self-defense.

They launched a series of air strikes against Afghanistan, beginning on October 7, 2001. Canada and Australia joined the effort after the commencement of hostilities. The military operation was initially codenamed “Infinite Justice.” However, that name was deemed to be blasphemous to Muslims. The name was accordingly changed to “Operation Enduring Freedom.”

The Attack

The air strikes targeted training camps, airfields, anti-aircraft radars, and launchers. The United States also gave air support to the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban resistance movement that controlled parts of northern Afghanistan.

The assault was unprecedented in its range of attack—cruise missiles were launched from submarines in the Arabian Sea; B-52 bombers took off from Diego Garcia Island in the Indian Ocean; and B-2 Stealth Fighters began their forty-plus-hour bombing runs from the United States. Even command centers were widely distributed—the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in Florida coordinated with the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Saudi Arabia. This was made possible by advancements in communication technology. Space satellites provided immediate and constant information flow on enemy locations and activity.

The United States and its allies flew about twenty-five thousand sorties before the end of 2001. Despite America’s state-of-the-art targeting and guidance systems, and despite Bush’s repeated claims that America had no quarrel with the Afghan people, hundreds of civilians, including some U.N. aid workers, were killed and injured in the bombing. As Donald Rumsfeld said in one interview: “If there were an easy, safe way to root terrorist networks out of countries that are harboring them, it would be a blessing, but there is not. Coalition forces will continue to make every reasonable effort to select targets with the least possible unintended damage, but as in any conflict, there will be unintended damage.”

The civilian population faced even greater dangers than the falling ordnance. Foreign aid organizations had largely abandoned the country. After months of famine, with the severe winter approaching, Afghanistan faced a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. Millions of refugees poured into makeshift camps at the border.

The U.S. military command was haunted by the specter of the Vietnam War, where American tactics had often created more enemies than they had killed. In order to win “the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people, American airplanes dropped thirty-seven thousand food kits over the civilian population, as well as medical supplies and propaganda. The U.N. and other aid organizations also stepped up efforts to meet the growing needs of the people.

The Taliban were quick to condemn the air attacks. They announced that their fighters had shot down an American plane, a claim that the Pentagon denied. Bin Laden himself also responded, releasing a taped message over the Arabic news station Al-Jazeera. The bombings, he said, were part of a global struggle between the “side of faith, and the side of infidelity.”

Invasion of Iraq

The invasion of Iraq began on March 20, 2003, with the bombing and cruise missile attack on an area outside of Baghdad where Saddam Hussein was thought to be hiding. The mission of the U.S. military in Iraq was to attack Baghdad and remove Saddam from power and ensure that the Iraqi military would not use weapons of mass destruction to threaten its neighbors in the region. Some have criticized the operation for not having broader strategic goals and for not sufficiently planning for the post-invasion activities that resulted in looting and a counterinsurgency that has continued since 2003.

Initial Attack

There were roughly 145,000 soldiers and marines who took part in the initial attack. There were three U.S. Army divisions, one beefed-up marine division, and one British division. The Army had 247 Abrams tanks and around the same number of Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. These forces were represented by the U.S. Third Infantry Division, the light air-assault 101st Airborne Division, and two light brigades from the 82nd Airborne and the 173rd Airborne Brigade plus Special Operations Forces totaling around 65,000 soldiers. The marines were numbered at around 65,000, and the British First Armored Division added 20,000 soldiers. The war plan was weakened by Turkey’s decision to not allow American troops to stage an attack from that country. An American division coming down to secure Baghdad from the north and to cut off Iraqi escape routes would have simplified the operation. The Iraqis were weaker than they were in the Gulf War (1990–1991), but they still had around 400,000 troops and 4,000 tanks.

The Third Infantry Division was really more of an armored division, and under the “speed” philosophy behind General Tommy Franks war plan, quickly drove ninety miles from the Kuwaiti border to An Nasiriyah. The tanks and infantry fighting vehicles took a key airfield in the south, and the marines came up to hold it along with the southern oil fields. The Third Infantry Division then turned north and skirted the Euphrates River and bypassed An Nasiriyah. The British took Basrah, the second largest city. Special Operations Forces prevented the enemy from attacking Israel with short-range ballistic missiles; they linked up with Kurdish fighters who were allied with coalition forces. The fighting was heavier than expected. Civilians were firing back at coalition armored columns with assault rifles, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades. The fighting became fierce in certain city blocks.


One aspect of the attack plan was its long communication and supply lines. The commanders knew that these supply lines would be difficult to protect since the attack began in Kuwait and Baghdad was roughly three hundred miles to the north. A U.S. Army Reserve transportation unit got lost by taking a wrong turn in An Nasiriyah and was subsequently ambushed several times. The unit suffered eleven killed, nine wounded, and seven captured. One of the soldiers, Private Jessica Lynch, was rescued later in captivity at an Iraqi hospital. Another difficulty was deep attacks to the enemy rear conducted by Apache helicopters. The 11th Air Attack Helicopter Regiment took some determined rifle fire and had to return to base without engaging the enemy. They failed to accomplish their mission of destroying armored vehicles and artillery pieces of the Medina Division north of Kuwait. One Apache was shot down and its crew taken prisoner. Thirty-one of the thirty-two helicopters had been hit by enemy rifle fire.

The weather also played a role in slowing things down. A huge sandstorm hit the area of operations on March 24 and lasted for three days, grounding aircraft and causing the desert to turn into mud. However, the coalition forces were able to use superior technology with radar, infrared, and thermal imaging for target acquisition. They still destroyed Iraqi armored vehicles and artillery—even those that were thought to be well hidden by the Iraqis. These attacks served to lower morale and break the Iraqi’s will to fight.

By April 3, the Third Infantry Division held Saddam International Airport. It then used this area as a jumping off point for huge armored attacks into Baghdad. Many of the pundits and retired military officers predicted that the attacking force would get bogged down outside the city. The surprise attacks worked rapidly, although the attacks were not without heavy fighting. Many American armored vehicles took numerous hits from assault rifles and rifle-propelled grenades.

Fall of Baghdad

The U.S. Army Third Infantry Division set up a command post outside the Saddam Airport while its tanks and vehicles probed into the city. The marines were approaching from the south and were holding ground and protecting lines of communication and supply. By early April, coalition forces were in control of Baghdad, and Saddam’s government had fallen. Saddam himself, however, remained at large.

Experienced military personnel knew better than to celebrate early; they began warning of the Iraqi counterattack that would be sure to come in the next months. The officers predicted demonstrations against U.S. occupation, terrorist attacks against U.S. personnel, and sabotage against the new government that was sure to come in the coming months.

These warnings proved correct, but the coalition forces still congratulated themselves on achieving their primary mission objectives. The oil fields were intact. Weapons of mass destruction were not used on coalition personnel (indeed, weapons of mass destructions were never found in Iraq), and ballistics missiles were not fired into Israel or at coalition troops.

Unfortunately, the Americans and their allies inherited a country in shambles. Iraqis had to fight for the basics of survival—food, shelter, and water. Electricity and waste treatment services were spotty before the war. It would be a herculean task to restore basic public administration facilities. The Iraqi people would have to wait in long lines for gas. Day-to-day life would be an ongoing misery for many Iraqis.

Capture of Saddam Hussein

The search for deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was conducted by several different military and intelligence units. On December 14, 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority announced it had captured Saddam Hussein alive. It was considered a triumph for the administration of President George Bush, who had made bringing Saddam to justice a major goal.

An Important Visitor

Army intelligence had heard from an informant that an important visitor was hiding out near the village of ad-Dawr. Groups of soldiers began to search the village. They came upon a farm building that had a suspicious-looking rug inside. One soldier lifted the rug to find a plastic cover. In this case, standard operating procedure would be to fire down into the hole or drop a hand grenade in case it had been booby-trapped. Before the soldiers could decide what to do, a person came out with his hands in the air. The figure who emerged looked similar to Saddam Hussein—although somewhat difficult to recognize with a thick, disheveled beard and long hair. The person, who turned out to be Saddam himself, was then taken into custody by special operations forces and Fourth Infantry Division soldiers of Operation Red Dawn.

The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) put out a call of triumph. CPA leader Paul Bremer told the media that it was time for the insurgents to put down their weapons. Many U.S. commanders said that the insurgency would be defeated with the capture of Saddam. They thought since the head of Iraq was captured it was doubtful that the Baathists or Sunnis loyal to Saddam would be able to retake command of the country.

The U.S. intelligence community working in Iraq basked in the glory of the capture and looked forward to the continued success of utilizing more intelligence that would be gleaned from Saddam. Baathists did indeed begin surrendering in substantial numbers after the capture.

After the Capture

Not all agreed that the new arrests would bring stability to Iraq. Some intelligence officers regretted that the CPA did not reach out to former Baath Party members (the party of Saddam) and include them in the new government. This would have allowed the new government to gain legitimacy, stability, and expertise. There was some blowback from the Saddam arrest. Video released by the Americans showed Saddam being examined by military doctors. They checked his teeth and looked for lice in his hair. Some Arabs considered this an undignified way to treat Saddam and felt that it led many to resent the Americans. Arab commentators thought that the video images of Saddam’s capture and medical examination would never be forgotten by Muslims and that more people would be drawn to the insurgency.

At first, attacks looked to be decreasing against the coalition forces. U.S. military commanders thought that the insurgency was beginning to weaken—even ending in some areas. But America’s difficulties in Iraq were just beginning. There were reports of detainee abuses at the prisons American forces were using to house the prisoners taken in Iraq. The numbers of detainees were skyrocketing. U.S. conventional forces were using large sweep and cordon missions to capture suspected insurgents. Military-age males were detained in villages. These prisoners were reportedly dropped off at overcrowded prisons. These new prisoners were often questioned aggressively, then released if they had little knowledge useful to military intelligence officials. Naturally, many of those released joined the insurgency.

U.S. military commanders were reportedly at odds over how to handle the insurgency. Very few were thought to be knowledgeable of urban insurgency tactics. Others thought that the best way to protect their troops was to go on the offensive and kill as many suspected insurgents as possible. This tactic backfired, and the ranks of the various insurgent groups swelled.

Iraqi Insurgency

After the fall of Baghdad to U.S.-led forces and the capture of President Saddam Hussein in 2003, a power vacuum existed in Iraq. Many groups struggled for dominance both at the national and local levels, and most were hostile toward the Americans. Despite the establishment of a new Iraqi government under President Jalal Talabani, Iraq remains unstable. Quashing this insurgency has proven difficult for the United States.

IEDs and Other Challenges

The goal of counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq is to win the political support of the Iraqi people—to have them accept the ideals of a representative democracy, adhere to the centralized authority of a federal republic, and conduct free elections for a popularly elected government. For this transformation to happen, the American personnel would need to be seen as facilitators of peace, stability, and rebuilding efforts. Instead the U.S. tactics have sometimes led the Iraqi people to believe that the Americans were not interested in helping them build a better life.

Part of the problem originally was that many American units were not trained for an urban counterinsurgency campaign. U.S. commanders did not agree on how many or what type of troops should be used to fight the insurgency. Large bodies of troops offered more security and force protection, yet offered more targets for the enemy, resulting in higher potential casualties. Smaller numbers of troops reduced the threatening presence of foreigners in Iraq, but fewer soldiers made it harder to stabilize sectors.

Dismounted patrols are necessary to fight an insurgency effectively. Soldiers must physically interact with villagers and collect information to find weapons caches and work with rebuilding efforts. However, this has proven difficult in Iraq. U.S. soldiers and marines must wear elaborate and heavy body armor in temperatures that reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit. It is extremely difficult to patrol carrying the extra pounds. However, if they do not wear the extra protection, they are vulnerable to injury from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or homemade bombs deployed in unconventional ways.

Another problem facing the U.S. military was the lack of appropriate personnel to stabilize and rebuild the country. There were not enough military police soldiers to handle much of the interrogation and jailing of detainees. Civil affairs personnel, part of the U.S. Army Special Forces, were also in short supply. These specialists serve as political and economic liaisons with local populations. They help Special Forces units set up vital counterinsurgency and counterintelligence links with the local populace.

Limited Progress

There were bright spots. The 101st Airborne fought a successful counterinsurgency campaign under Major General David Petraeus in the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. He established unity of command, a unified intelligence effort, and unified actions with the Special Forces. Petraeus was even able to get some Iraqi government employees paid for their services, which went a long way in improving the spirits of the Iraqis.

Petraeus eventually got promoted to Lieutenant General and was given overall command of the Multinational Forces in Iraq in 2007. He came up with a plan to “surge,” or reinforce, the American forces with five additional brigades. Petraeus and other observers have said this new strategy will take time to work. However, the American public is becoming more skeptical and hostile to the war in Iraq. Petraeus reported his findings regarding the troop surge to Congress in September of 2007.

Key Elements of Warcraft

High-Tech Communications

The Internet

Truly a wonder in terms of information sharing, the Internet makes it possible for people to exchange emails, purchase items, review financial information, discuss politics, and do a host of other activities nearly instantaneously all across the globe, provided they have a computer to access the World Wide Web. The Internet excels at the dissemination of information of any kind, so it is no wonder that various terrorist organizations and related hate groups are able to use the Internet to espouse their ideologies to anyone who happens to type in their URL. This makes the Internet a powerful tool for recruitment, and its highly anonymous, shifting nature makes it very difficult for anti-terrorist agencies to shut down any site for good. A Web page can appear one day, be moved to another server the next day, and show up with an entirely different URL on the third day. For this reason, marginalized terrorist groups who would otherwise have trouble getting their particular message out to potential recruits can do so fairly easily via the Internet, and in a manner that makes it difficult for authorities to respond to effectively.

While websites can aid in recruitment, the Internet can also enable terrorists to communicate with one another via coded emails or even coded websites. In this respect, the sheer size of information traveling across the Internet makes detection difficult, unless authorities are already aware of a suspect and are maintaining some form of electronic surveillance. If no such monitoring exists, with roughly fifty billion emails sent each day, groups plotting criminal or terrorist activities can send emails to each other—thereby keeping their individual locations anonymous and separate—and feel fairly confident that such communications will not be spotted due to the sheer enormity of data moving back and forth at all times.

Cell Phones

Cell phones provide another potential way for terrorist organizations to remain in contact but still keep individual locations a secret. However, intercepting cell phone messages is a relatively simple process technologically, and it does not have all the advantages of anonymity offered by email. Furthermore, as cell phone technology has been around for some time, governments and anti-terrorist agencies have become fairly adept at countering cell phone use by terrorist insurgents, so much so that some terrorist groups eschew the devices. One such government success can be seen in the 2006 airstrike that killed Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the leader of the al-Qaeda in Iraq organization. Along with other sources of information, U.S. officials were able to use cell phone usage to track al-Zarqawi to a house later targeted by two U.S. F-16 warplanes.

Although the al-Zarqawi strike can be seen as a government victory, in a larger sense, government monitoring of cell phones has some troubling aspects. The same year of the al-Zarqawi strike brought revelations that the National Security Agency had engaged in a domestic spying program starting as early as 2001. While President Bush authorized such actions secretly, many contend that such actions are in clear violation of American law. As of 2007, the final decision on the legality of this program—and of various portions of the Patriot Act—are still being hotly contested.

Regardless of the legal outcome of these acts, the rise of terrorist Web sites and the use of cell phones by terrorist groups merely illustrates that the continued struggle between established polities and those who wish to overthrow these organizations has entered the digital realm of high-tech communications.

Impact of the War on Terrorism

Of course, the war on terrorism is ongoing and—due to the abstract nature of the conflict—unlikely to ever end definitively; as long as there are governments and other similar large aggregations of people, there will be people who believe that violent means are necessary to bring down such organizations. Lessening the breadth of the War on Terrorism by calling it a clash between the West and the Middle East reduces the situation somewhat, but it does not really bring a viable end much closer into focus. Even if the situation in Iraq were somehow solved to most people’s satisfaction, there would still be agitators fomenting against the oppressive governments in the Middle East as well as the decades-long tension between the Palestinians and Israel.

Discussing the impact of the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the short-term consequences of the War on Terrorism is more achievable. Those attacks brought a massive outpouring of sympathy for the United States from nearly all corners of the globe. The September 12 headline of a French newspaper summed up the attitude best: “We Are All Americans.” Yet within two years France would lead the opposition to the United States’ latest efforts in the War on Terrorism: the invasion of Iraq. This shift in policy and attitude is directly attributable to the rise of American unilateralism and the international backlash it created.

To act in a unilateral fashion is to literally act in a “one-sided” manner, without the consent of other parties. Comparing the two wars against Iraq, the Gulf War of 1991 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, gives a good idea of the difference between the two approaches. The Gulf War was a United Nations–led effort that brought together more than thirty nations for the purpose of liberating Kuwait. By contrast, the 2003 invasion of Iraq was carried out in the face of international condemnation and expressly without the blessing of the United Nations.

The shift in approach between the two wars, and between the two Presidents Bush (George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush), is owed largely to the rise of neo-conservatism, a doctrine of post–Cold War right-wing thought that espoused the moral imperative of America, as the world’s sole superpower, to assume a leadership role on a global scale. This would be accomplished by projecting U.S. military strength across the world.

The election of George W. Bush in 2000 placed a strongly neo-conservative administration in charge of directing American policy, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, gave that administration the political capital to begin pursuing its goals. Strong majorities in Britain, France, Germany, Japan, India, and Russia supported the War on Terrorism. In fact, the new war was supported nearly across the board, the notable exceptions being the Middle East and China.

Although a small minority of world leaders criticized the invasion of Afghanistan as a “war of aggression,” the widespread global support for the U.S.-led action did not falter; a thirty-country coalition force took over security details in the country after the Taliban was defeated in late 2001.

It was only during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq that international attitudes began to shift. The change came from the ground up, as it were, as popular attitudes in many European countries began to turn against the Bush administration and its emerging policies. Even in countries that officially supported U.S. action, such as Britain, Italy, and Spain, the majority of the populace was soon registering its opposition to the war. Even Russia, which had its own history of Islamic terrorism, saw its popular support for the U.S. War on Terrorism drop by 20 percentage points in the run-up to the Iraq war. In Japan, a mere one in five citizens supported the war and Japan’s participation in it, limited as it was.

The motivation behind this shift in opinion was owed largely to what many saw as a transparent power grab on the part of the United States. For many, the case for war with Iraq was tenuous at best. There was a widespread feeling that the United States was rushing to war and was not willing to allow the United Nations time to locate the supposed weapons of mass destruction that constituted the main American casus bellum, or reason for war, against Iraq. Instead, it was widely believed that the United States was more interested in securing access to Iraq’s oil fields and establishing a permanent base in the Middle East from which to project its influence.

France and Germany led the international opposition to the impending military action. France, in particular, was critical of American intentions—Dominique de Villepin, the Foreign Minister of France, delivered a speech at the United Nations on February 14, 2003, arguing against aggression in Iraq. In return, France became a frequent target of American invective. Charges have also been leveled against France and Germany that their opposition to the Iraq war is in itself financial, driven by concerns of losing out on investments in Iraq’s oil industry.

Whatever the high-level motivations, the opposition of what many characterized as American imperialism was in full evidence on February 15, 2003, when simultaneous demonstrations against the impending war drew crowds across the world in excess of five million protesters. The demonstration in Rome surpassed three million participants, while London drew around one million. In all, there were protests in over six hundred cities.

The American invasion of Iraq, which went ahead in the face of such massive opposition, seemed only to confirm worldwide fears of America as a superpower out of control. By flouting international law, critics argue, the United States has set a dangerous precedent. The influence of the United Nations as an international regulator has been damaged, which may lead to an increase in aggressive action by nations around the world. And America’s reputation as a defender of freedom and human rights has been badly bruised.

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