September 11, 2001, Terrorist Attacks

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September 11, 2001, Terrorist Attacks

On September 11, 2001, a group of nineteen terrorists hijacked four passenger planes on their way across the United States. Under the hijackers' control, two of the planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City; a third plane crashed into the Pentagon building near Washington, D.C. The fourth plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania after passengers attempted to retake control of the plane. The immediate death toll was estimated at just under three thousand people.

The four strikes

The air strikes took place in less than an hour, beginning with the midair hijacking of American Airlines Boston–Los Angeles Flight 11. At some point after the plane's 8:00 am departure, a team of five men, armed with box cutters and claiming to have a bomb on board, overpowered crew members and passengers and took control of the plane. Turning the plane south the hijackers directed it toward their target: One World Trade Center (WTC) at the tip of Manhattan in New York City. At 8:45 am, Flight 11 crashed into the skyscraper's north side in the upper reaches of its 107 stories, setting off an intense fire with the twenty thousand gallons of jet fuel that it had carried for its intended cross-country journey.

With a daily population estimated at fifty thousand workers in the World Trade Center buildings, rescue efforts took on monumental proportions from the start. As firefighters raced up the floors of the WTC North Tower, thousands of office workers who escaped the effects of the initial impact poured out of the building in an orderly fashion. Workers in the tower's twin at Two World Trade Center also began to leave their building. At 9:03 am United Airlines Boston–Los Angeles Flight 175 crashed into the southeast corner of the upper floors of 2 WTC, killing its sixty-five passengers and crew members on impact. It, too, had been overpowered by a group of five terrorists.

Within minutes the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) shut down all air traffic at New York City area airports, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey closed all bridges and tunnels leading into the city. For the first time in history, the FAA announced at 9:40 am that all flight traffic across the United States was suspended; all flights already in progress were ordered to land immediately at the closest airport.

Meanwhile another group of five terrorists hijacked an American Airlines flight and directed it into a collision course with the Pentagon, the headquarters of the U.S. military, in Arlington, Virginia , near Washington, D.C. Upon impact at 9:43 am the plane ripped a 75-foot hole in the U.S. military building's west side and ignited an intense fire with its jet fuel. As an estimated twenty-three thousand Pentagon workers fled the building, staffers from the nearby White House also evacuated the area.

As the crisis on the ground unfolded, a struggle for control of a fourth hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight 93, traveling from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco, California , took place between a team of four terrorists and the plane's forty-five crew members and passengers. In the minutes after the hijackers seized control of the plane, several of its passengers had made phone calls to relatives and emergency officials and had learned of the fates of the other hijacked planes. Determined to prevent the plane from becoming another weapon of attack, a group of the passengers decided to overpower the terrorists. In the struggle to retake control of the plane, Flight 93 went down at 10:10 am, crashing into a rural area in southwestern Pennsylvania. Although everyone on board died on impact, no lives were lost on the ground. Many experts believe the U.S. Capitol building or the White House were the intended targets.

The terrible toll

Shortly before ten o'clock that morning, the earth shook around the WTC complex as the South Tower at 2 WTC began to list. Although the building was supported by immense steel pillars and had withstood the initial impact of the airliner collision, the intense jet fuel fire heated up to an estimated 2,000°F, and the supports softened. At 10:05 am the South Tower collapsed, sending tons of debris (shattered fragments of the buildings) into the streets of lower Manhattan and taking the lives of hundreds of rescue workers and office workers still trapped in the building. At 10:28 am the North Tower collapsed in similar fashion. The two tallest buildings on the New York City skyline disappeared in clouds of choking dust and debris.

Of the fatalities on September 11, 2,602 died in the World Trade Centers; 246 died in the four hijacked flights; and 125 people died in the Pentagon. Over 2,100 injured victims received medical treatment by emergency rescue teams in New York City. Adding to the physical damage of September 11, the forty-seven-story building at 7 WTC also collapsed, joined by the twenty-two-story Marriott Hotel at 3 WTC, two nine-story office buildings at 4 and 5 WTC, and an eight-story U.S. Customs house at 6 WTC.

Al-Qaeda and bin Laden

The following day the terrorist group al-Qaeda was firmly linked to the attacks. Al-Qaeda, a word that means “the base,” was formed in the late 1980s by Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden (1957–) and some of his colleagues, to carry out what they called a jihad, or holy war, on an international basis. “Jihad” is an Arabic term that means spiritual striving. In most interpretations of the Qur'an, the holy book of the Islam faith, jihad is considered either a reform movement from within or a call to defend Muslim peoples against aggression. Al-Qaeda's goal was to create a united movement of radical Islamic groups throughout the Muslim world. Among other things it vowed to expel non-Muslims from Muslim countries and to overthrow Muslim leaders it believes to have violated the key beliefs of Islam. The organization carries out its jihad through terrorist activities.

Al-Qaeda is not a single organization but a network of cells (small secret groups usually three to five people). Because secrecy and security are critical, cells do not normally communicate with each other. In fact members of one cell probably do not even know their colleagues in other cells. Estimates of al-Qaeda's 2001 membership vary from about five thousand to fifteen thousand; it is believed al-Qaeda cells were active in at least sixty countries, including the United States. Many of its members had been trained in camps in Afghanistan managed by bin Laden, one of the group's most visible leaders.

Bin Laden was wanted by the U.S. government for other terrorist attacks before September 11, 2001. In 1996, outraged by the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, he issued a statement he called a fatwa, a decree usually issued by a Muslim religious leader. Bin Laden's fatwa declared it to be the duty of Muslims to kill Americans. The initial fatwa limited itself to attacks on official American targets, but al-Qaeda's second fatwa in 1998 stated that all U.S. citizens who paid taxes were involved in their government's actions and were thus legitimate targets. In 2001 al-Qaeda circulated a videotape of bin Laden in which he used religious imagery in calling for a jihad against the United States.

The key players in the attacks

According to later reports of the 9/11 Commission, the September 11 plot was created and organized by Pakistani terrorist Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (c. 1964–), who later confessed to being the mastermind of 9/11 and numerous other terrorist attacks. Bin Laden approved the plan.

Of the nineteen terrorists who hijacked the four attacking planes, fifteen were from Saudi Arabia, the other four from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon. Several of them, including the leader of the group Egyptian Mohamed Atta (1968–2001), had been working undercover in cells in Hamburg, Germany, in the late 1990s. They had probably trained at the terrorist training camps in Afghanistan from 1999 to 2000, where they would have met Osama bin Laden. They did not fit what many thought to be the profile of a typical suicide bomber. Most were older than expected and well educated. Some had lived in Germany or the United States for years, blending into their communities. The hijackers seemed to have lived quiet, unassuming lives in the months before the assault.

Atta arrived in the United States in 2000. He enrolled in flight training school in Florida with one of the other hijackers. There he received instructions on how to fly a jet. More of the attackers arrived in the United States as the summer progressed; some attended flight training school. Atta traveled freely, inside the United States and abroad, no doubt receiving full instructions from al-Qaeda organizers in other countries. Atta was the pilot of the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center. In his luggage (which did not make the flight) authorities found instructions in Arabic, calling on the hijackers to be calm in their last moments before death and not to unnecessarily alarm their victims.

A war on terrorism

The September 11 attacks on U.S. targets by al-Qaeda agents brought about the first war between a national government and a terrorist network. Trying to fight al-Qaeda posed an enormous challenge: how to go to war and overcome an enemy that has no territory, no army, and no government.

In response to the attacks, U.S. president George W. Bush (1946–); served 2001–) immediately declared a war on terrorism. In March 2002 the United States launched an offensive against the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic government of Afghanistan that was harboring al-Qaeda. The offensive drove the Taliban from power and sent many al-Qaeda leaders into hiding. Bush restructured the U.S. government to establish a Homeland Security Department and enacted a number of measures to coordinate efforts of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Among his administration's new security policies, Bush sought more power for the federal government to gather intelligence, entering into controversial policies that detracted from Americans' civil liberties (protections for individuals from the power of the government; for example the right to privacy, the right to a fair trial, and freedom from torture). Bush then focused on Iraq in his war on terrorism, though it had not been linked with al-Qaeda in the past, and the Iraq Invasion , which began in 2003.