[Part of Constituting America’s 90 Day Study - Days that Shaped America]
For those old enough to remember, September 11, 2001, 9:03 a.m. is burned into our collective memory. It was at that moment that United Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.
Everyone was watching. American Airlines Flight 11 had crashed into the North Tower seventeen minutes earlier. For those few moments there was uncertainty whether the first crash was a tragic accident. Then, on live television, the South Tower fire ball vividly announced to the world that America was under attack.
The nightmare continued. As horrifying images of people trapped in the burning towers riveted the nation, news broke at 9:37 a.m. that American Flight 77 had ploughed into the Pentagon.
For the first time since the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Americans were collectively experiencing full scale carnage from a coordinated attack on their soil.
The horror continued as the twin towers collapsed, sending clouds of debris throughout lower Manhattan and igniting fires in adjoining buildings. Questions filled the minds of government officials and every citizen: How many more planes? What were their targets? How many have died? Who is doing this to us?
At 10:03 a.m., word came that United Flight 93 had crashed into a Pennsylvania field. Speculation exploded as to what happened. Later investigations revealed that Flight 93 passengers, alerted by cell phone calls of the earlier attacks, revolted causing the plane to crash. Their heroism prevented this final hijacked plane from destroying the U.S. Capitol Building.
The final accounting was devastating: 2,977 killed and over 25,000 injured. The death toll continues to climb to this day as first responders and building survivors perish from respiratory conditions caused by inhaling the chemical-laden smoke. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in human history.
How this happened, why this happened, and what happened next compounds the tragedy.
Nineteen terrorists, most from Saudi Arabia, were part a radical Islamic terrorist organization called al-Qaeda “the Base”. This was the name given the training camp for the radical Islamicists who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Pakistani, was the primary organizer of the attack. Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi, was the leader and financier. Their plan was based upon an earlier failed effort in the Philippines. It was mapped out in late 1998. Bin Laden personally recruited the team, drawn from experienced terrorists. They insinuated themselves into the U.S., with several attending pilot training classes. Five-man teams would board the four planes, overpower the pilots, and fly them as bombs into significant buildings.
They banked on plane crews and passengers responding to decades of “normal” hijackings. They would assume the plane would be commandeered, flown to a new location, demands would be made, and everyone would live. This explains the passivity on the first three planes. Flight 93 was different, because it was delayed in its departure, allowing time for passengers to learn about the fate of the other planes. Last minute problems also reduced the Flight 93 hijacker team to only four.
The driving force behind the attack was Wahhabism, a highly strict, anti-Western version of Sunni Islam.
The Saudi Royal Family owes its rise to power to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792). He envisioned a “pure” form of Islam that purged most worldly practices (heresies), oppressed women, and endorsed violence against nonbelievers (infidels), including Muslims who differed with his sect. This extremely conservative and violent form of Islam might have died out in the sands of central Arabia were in not for a timely alliance with a local tribal leader, Muhammad bin Saud.
The House of Saud was just another minor tribe, until the two Muhammads realized the power of merging Sunni fanaticism with armed warriors. Wahhab’s daughter married Saud’s son, merging their two blood lines to this day. The House of Saud and its warriors rapidly expanded throughout the Arabia Peninsul fueled by Wahhabi fanaticism. These various conflicts always included destruction of holy sites of rival sects and tribes. While done in the name of “purification”, the result was erasing the physical touchstones of rival cultures and governments.
In the early 20th Century, Saudi leader, ibn Saud, expertly exploited the decline of the Ottoman Empire, and alliances with European Powers, to consolidate his permanent hold over the Arabian Peninsula. Control of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites, gave the House of Saud the power to promote Wahhabism as the dominant interpretation of Sunni Islam. This included internally contradictory components of calling for eradicating infidels while growing rich from Christian consumption of oil and pursuing lavish hedonism when not in public view.
In the mid-1970s Saudi Arabia used the flood of oil revenue to become the “McDonalds of Madrassas”. Religious schools and new Mosques popped up throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. This building boom had nothing to do with education and everything to do with spreading the cult of Wahhabism. Pakistan became a major hub for turning Wahhabi madrassas graduates into dedicated terrorists.
Wahhabism may have remained a violent, dangerous, but diffused movement, except it found fertile soil in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan was called the graveyard of empires as its rugged terrain and fierce tribal warriors thwarted potential conquerors for centuries. In 1973, the last king of Afghanistan was deposed leading to years of instability. In April 1978, the opposition Communist Party seized control in a bloody coup. The communist tried to brutally consolidate power, which ignited a civil war among factions supported by Pakistan, China, Islamists (known as the Mujahideen), and the Soviet Union. Amidst the chaos, U.S. Ambassador Adolph Dubbs was killed on February 14, 1979.
On December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, killing their ineffectual puppet President, and ultimately bringing over 100,000 military personnel into the country. What followed was a vicious war between the Soviet military and various Afghan guerrilla factions. Over 2 million Afghans died.
The Reagan Administration covertly supported the anti-Soviet Afghan insurgents, primarily aiding the secular pro-west Northern Alliance. Arab nations supported the Mujahideen. Bin Laden entered the insurgent caldera as a Mujahideen financier and fighter. By 1988, the Soviets realized their occupation had failed. They removed their troops, leaving behind another puppet government and Soviet trained military.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Afghanistan was finally free. Unfortunately, calls for reunifying the country by reestablishing the monarchy and strengthening regional leadership went unheeded. Attempts at recreating the pre-invasion faction ravaged parliamentary system only led to new rounds of civil war.
In September 1994, the weak U.S. response opened the door for the Taliban, graduates from Pakistan’s Wahhabi madrassas, to launch their crusade to take control of Afghanistan. By 1998, the Taliban controlled 90% of the country.
Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda warriors made Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan their new base of operations. In exchange, Bin Laden helped the Taliban eliminate their remaining opponents. This was accomplished on September 9, 2001, when suicide bombers disguised as a television camera crew blew-up Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic, pro-west leader of the Northern Alliance.
Two days later, Bin Laden’s plan to establish al-Qaeda as the global leader of Islamic terrorism was implemented with hijacking four planes and turning them into guided bombs.
The 9-11 attacks, along with the earlier support against the Soviets in Afghanistan, was part of Bin Laden’s goal to lure infidel governments into “long wars of attrition in Muslim countries, attracting large numbers of jihadists who would never surrender”. He believed this would lead to economic collapse of the infidels, by "bleeding" them dry. Bin Laden outlined his strategy of "bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy" in a 2004 tape released through Al Jazeera.
On September 14, amidst the World Trade Center rubble, President George W. Bush addressed those recovering bodies and extinguishing fires using a bullhorn:
“The nation stands with the good people of New York City and New Jersey and Connecticut as we mourn the loss of thousands of our citizens”
A rescue worker yelled, “I can't hear you!”
President Bush spontaneously responded: “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”
Twenty-three days later, on October 7, 2001, American and British warplanes, supplemented by cruise missiles fired from naval vessels, began destroying Taliban operations in Afghanistan.
U.S. Special forces entered Afghanistan. Working the Northern Alliance, they defeated major Taliban units. They occupied Kabul, the Afghan Capital on November 13, 2001.
On May 2, 2011, U.S. Special Forces raided an al-Qaeda compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, killing Osama bin Laden.