September 11th Attacks

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On September 11, 2001, in the deadliest case of domestic terrorism in the history of the United States, a group of 19 terrorists hijacked four U.S. airliners for use as missiles against targets in New York City and Washington, D.C. The events shocked the country and the world and focused the U.S. government on a worldwide war on terrorism. During the 18 months following the attacks, the United States engaged in military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, causing changes in the regimes of both countries.

At 8:45 a.m. (EST), American Airlines Flight 11, hijacked after departing from Boston, crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Approximately 18 minutes later, another hijacked Boston flight, United Airlines Flight 175, crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center. Within an hour of the attacks, the Port Authority shut down all tunnels and bridges in the New York area, and the federal aviation administration (FAA) shut down all New York airports. Soon thereafter, the FAA took the unprecedented step of halting all air traffic nationwide.

About an hour after the initial attack against the World Trade Center, a Boeing 757, American Airlines Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon. The crash happened at approximately the same time as an evacuation at the White House. At 10:05 a.m., the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. At 10:10 a.m., part of the Pentagon collapsed.

As the Pentagon was attacked, another hijacked flight, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed in Pennsylvania, killing everyone aboard. Later, it was discovered that the passengers attempted to overcome the four hijackers. Passengers had learned their likely fates from cell phone calls informing them about the World Trade Center crashes. Government authorities later speculated that the plane's hijackers could have been targeting Camp David, the White House, or the U.S. Capitol building.

At 10:28 a.m., the north tower of the World Trade Center collapsed from the top down. As with the collapse of the first tower, debris rained down and a huge cloud of smoke and dust enveloped a wide area. Hundreds of rescue workers died as they attempted to evacuate the people from the buildings.

President george w. bush was visiting a Florida elementary school when he learned of the attacks. He quickly departed, stopping at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and Offut Air Force Base in Nebraska, before heading back to Washington. During the afternoon, Osama Bin Laden and the militant Islamic group, al Qaeda, surfaced as the main suspects. In an address to the nation during the evening of September 11, Bush vowed that the United States would make no distinction between terrorists committing the attacks and those nations harboring them, although he did not name Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, until more evidence could be collected against him.

Bin Laden, one of 50 children of a billionaire Saudi family, purportedly uses his approximately $300 million inheritance to fund al Qaeda. Al Qaeda (Arabic, "the Base") was organized by bin Laden in the late 1980s, bringing together "Arabs who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion," according to the U.S. state department. Al Qaeda's goal, the U.S. government says, is to "establish a pan-Islamic Caliphate throughout the world by working with allied Islamic extremist groups to overthrow regimes it deems 'non-Islamic' and expelling Westerners and non-Muslims from Muslim countries."

In 1998, bin Laden issued a fatwah, a religious edict calling for attacks on U.S. civilians. He had previously issued a fatwah urging the killing of U.S. troops. Bin Laden and his organization are believed responsible for the October 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Aden, Sudan, which killed 17. He has been indicted for the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, where 224 died and thousands more were injured; four al Qaeda members were convicted in connection with those incidents. He has also been charged in connection with events in Somalia in October 1993, in which 18 U.S. servicemen died. His terrorist activities garnered him a spot on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List in 1999.

On October 7, 2001, the United States sent warplanes and cruise missiles to Afghanistan to attack al Qaeda military installations and terrorist camps supported by the Taliban regime of that country. Great Britain joined the strikes, with intelligence efforts and logistical support provided by France, Germany, Australia, Canada, and others. In all, about 40 nations joined in a coalition with the United States, President Bush reported in an address to the country shortly after the strikes began.

The president characterized the fight against terrorism as involving military commitments, law enforcement actions, legislative and diplomatic actions, financial actions, and assistance to Afghanistan. Concurrent with the air strikes, Bush announced a humanitarian component of "Operation Enduring Freedom": airlifts of food, medicine, and supplies to the Afghan people. On October 8, 2001, he issued an executive order establishing the homeland security department, to "coordinate the executive branch's efforts to detect, prepare for, protect against, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks within the United States."

The air attacks against Afghanistan were followed by a controlled ground assault, as the United States assisted the Northern Alliance, a foe of the Taliban regime, in toppling the existing Afghan government. By December 2001, the Taliban had effectively been removed from power, and the United States and other nations began a process of rebuilding that country. Although bin Laden was constantly targeted during the attacks, the United States failed to capture him during the attack on the Taliban

regime (it is unknown as to whether he was killed during the attack). As of June 2003, bin Laden was believed to remain at large.

In December 2001, U.S. officials raided the offices of two Muslim charities headquartered in Illinois, the Global Relief Foundation (GRF) and the Benevolence International Foundation (BIF). These organizations were believed to have contributed money to terrorists who planned unspecified attacks on the United States. The crackdown on these groups was also a result of the U.S. government's belief that bin Laden and the al Qaeda network use charitable groups, manufacturing companies, and credit card fraud to raise money for terrorist operations. Cracking down on the fund-raising became one of the U.S. government's strategies for defeating terrorism.

Congress responded to the attacks, with the urging of the president, by passing the usa patriot act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-56, 115 Stat. 272, the Homeland Security Act of 2002, Pub. L. No. 107-296, 116 Stat. 2135, and other legislation designed to provide enhanced protection against further attacks. The United States has also continued its assault on terrorists and the nations that harbor them since September 11. In March 2003, the United States attacked Iraq, purportedly for Iraq's violation of resolutions banning its possession of weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration suspected that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gave support to bin Laden and al Qaeda, and the attacks on Iraq have been seen by many as a continuation of the war on terrorism.

The September 11th attacks also had a devastating impact on the U.S. airline industry. American Airlines and United Airlines each lost two planes during the attack, and the U.S. government ordered that all planes in the country remain grounded for a week following the attacks. In response to the heavy losses incurred by the airlines, Congress enacted the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act, Pub. L. No. 107-42, 115 Stat. 230, which was signed into law 11 days after the September 11th attacks. The act was designed to compensate air carriers for their losses during and after the attacks and also to preserve the continued vitality of the air transportation system in the United States. Despite this legislation, United Airlines filed for bankruptcy in 2002, and American Airlines bordered on bankruptcy during much of the period following the attacks.

The attacks had a greater impact on the victims of the attacks and their families. As part of Public Law Number 107-42, Congress enacted the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund to provide a form of recovery for the victims of the attacks. The U.S. Attorney General's Office administers the fund through a special master. Recovery under these provisions is limited to those who were physically injured during the attacks, so victims of non-physical, economic loss cannot recover. As of May 2003, fund administrators had issued 495 award letters to victims of the attacks and their families. The average award to the family of a deceased victim is $1.44 million.

further readings

Crotty, William, ed. 2004. The Politics of Terror: The U.S. Response to 9/11. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

Dudziak, Mary L., ed. 2003. September 11 in History: A Watershed Moment? Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press.

Friedman, Norman. 2003. Terrorism, Afghanistan, and America's New Way of War. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press.

Gokay, Bulent, and R.B.J. Walker, eds. 2003. 11 September 2001: War, Terror, and Judgment. Portland, Or.: Frank Cass.

Parenti, Michael. 2002. The Terrorism Trap: September 11 and Beyond. San Francisco: City Lights Books.


Terrorism; War on Terrorism.