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There have been many defining moments in the rich history of the US, however very few historic events shook the world community and had such huge political implications as the terror attacks that took place on September 11, 2001. It is the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil in US history, and within the space of an hour these attacks inflicted more direct damage on the US, than the Soviet Union had inflicted during almost four decades of cold war. The event was witnessed by people around the world, and it showcased to the world how terrorism can inflict huge causalities even in a country which has such highly sophisticated security systems. The September 2001 attacks on the US have had a profound impact on world events and it acted as an important and influential interlude in modern evolution of America and its politics.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 started when 4 American transcontinental airliners were hijacked by Islamic extremists. The hijacked planes were used to strike different strategically selected targets across the US. A total of 19 hijackers were involved in the attack, and, later, it was found that all the hijackers were affiliated to the Islamist terrorist group Al Qaeda. Two of the four planes hijacked were deliberately flown into the twin towers of World Trade center in New York City and another plane was flown into the Pentagon outside Washington D.C.
The fourth plane did not reach the intended target and was crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. This plane too was believed to have flown towards a chosen target like the White house, the Capitol or one of the many nuclear plants along the East coast. It is assumed that the passengers of the plane overpowered the hijackers and foiled the attempt of striking any other target.
This was the first act of warfare that had occurred within the boundaries of the US since the civil war. When the first plane, loaded with 20,000 gallons of jet fuel, crashed into the world trade center, it appeared to be a freakish accident. The impact was on the 80th floor of the 100 storey building and killed hundreds of people instantly.
Live images of the evacuation were broadcasted in television immediately. The millions of viewers and onlookers gathered on site were shocked to see a second plane hitting the south tower minutes after the first crash. The second plane, appearing out of the sky, took a sharp turn and collided into the 60th floor and it caused a massive explosion of debris. America was under attack.
The first plane was piloted by the terrorists into the North tower of the World Trade center at about 8.46 a.m. and the second plane struck the South tower 15 minutes later. The third plane crashed into the pentagon by 9.40 a.m., and, within an hour, the fourth crashed in Pennsylvania. All the 19 hijackers perished and a total of 2750 people were dead due to the attacks in New York, 184 at the Pentagon and 40 at Pennsylvania. Among the dead were 400 police officers and fire fighters.
The monetary loss of the September 11 attack is estimated to be close to $ 500 billion without taking into account the huge number of job losses. The economy of lower Manhattan, the third largest business district of the country, was shattered. The NASDAQ remained shut from the day of attack till September 17, 2001. It is the longest period of market closure since the great depression of 1929. The insurance losses are estimated to be anywhere between $ 50 - 70 billion. When the markets reopened, the Dow Jones had dropped 1369.7 points and the US stocks lost $1.2 trillion value in a week.
The identities of the hijackers were immediately found out. Most of them were Islamic terrorists from Saudi Arabia and others were from other Arabic nations. Some of the hijackers had lived in America for close to one year and took flying lessons. Others had come to America a few months before the attack and acted as the muscle for the attack. They hijacked the plane using box-cutters and knives. They all boarded flights from east coast flying towards California. The flights were selected because they would be loaded with enough fuel for the long journey.
The targets selected had symbolic significance too. The World Trade center is considered to be the symbol of American wealth and materialism. Apart from the activities they represent, their stature too adds to their symbolic value. The twin towers dominated the skyline of the New York City and destroying them would be a symbolic attack on American commerce and power. It also was a symbol of capitalism, globalization and Western economic superiority. Similarly, the Pentagon represents the military power of the US. The terrorists, by attacking these landmarks, sought to undermine these symbols of American power and prosperity. In this way, the real target of the terrorists was US global hegemony.
The then US President George W. Bush gave a televised speech in the Oval office at around 7 p.m. on the day of the attacks, in which he delivered a strong message that, “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” No one claimed immediate responsibility for the attacks, and the 19 hijackers, all of whom were dead, did not leave behind any notes as to why they carried out the attack.
The suspicion turned on Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, almost immediately. He had a history of orchestrating attacks on American targets and was believed to be the mastermind behind the first World Trade Center attack that took place in 1993. He was also suspected of organizing other attacks such as the 1996 attacks on a housing complex in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 American soldiers and the American embassy bombing in Kenya and Tanzania.
Bin Laden was a Saudi exile living in Afghanistan, and he had earlier, in 1998, issued a Fatwa (an interpretation of an Islamic law) published on a London based Arabic News paper. In it he conveyed that America has declared war against God and called for murder of any American anywhere on earth. Few months later in an interview given by him to ABC- TV of Afghanistan he said that,
"We believe that the worst thieves in the world today and the worst terrorists are the Americans. Nothing could stop you except perhaps retaliation in kind. We do not have to differentiate between military or civilian. As far as we are concerned, they are all targets."
Osama claimed direct responsibility for the attacks in the year 2004 through a video sent to the Al Jazeera news network. In the tape, he conveys that the attacks were carried out to regain the freedom of Arab nations. He also added that the injustice and the inflexibility of the America-Israel alliance forced them to carry out the attack. He refuted Bush’s claim that America was attacked because it was a nation of free people. He says in the videotape that if he hated freedom he would have also attacked countries like Sweden. Instead he chose to attack America because America undermined freedom of their nation.
The September 11 attacks had given rise to varied explanations and conspiracy theories. While some point to a government conspiracy others argue that "Cheney-Bush energy junta" planned the attacks to take control of the Arab oil fields. However, all these claims have been mostly baseless and without sufficient proof.
The FBI was able to link the hijackers with Al Qaeda through the papers obtained from the left behind baggage of Mohamed Atta, the leader of the hijackers. His baggage found in the Boston's Logan Airport had the names and details of all the hijackers involved and their al Qaeda connections. Also, the NSA and German intelligence intercepted communications that clearly revealed Bin Laden’s hand in the attacks. Accepting that Al Qaeda was solely responsible for the attacks brings us to the next question – what were the causes that led to these attacks?
Again there are many theories concerning the probable motives of Al Qaeda. Some of the theories include that the extremists hate the freedom loving nature of America, poverty, the CIA, the Madrassas and the clash of civilizations. However, all these reasons seem plausible but are flawed. For example, the popular notion that Madrassas, religious schools teaching holy Quran, are breeding ground of terrorists is false, as the Madrassa graduates have hardly carried out any anti-western attacks.
One of the most credible theories that would explain the terrorist act witnessed on 9/11 is the blowback theory. Crenshaw (2001) argues that terrorism should be seen as a strategic reaction to American power. Bin Laden and his followers detested the US global hegemony. The attack, for the most part, was retaliation to the American foreign policy pertaining to the Middle East. The 9/11 commission report specifically states that the primary motivation of the nineteen hijackers was to hit US back.
In a letter written to the American people, in 2002, Bin Laden states a horde of reasons for the attacks. The significant reasons among them were US support of Israel in Palestine conflict, support to India in Kashmir issue, supporting Jewish aggression in Lebanon, imposing sanctions on Iraq and US troops being stationed in Saudi Arabia. He also mentions that the government of the Muslim nations act according to the consent and orders of US. The letter repeatedly stresses on his religious notions and the American military support to what he terms as ‘oppression of Muslims.’
The Afghan war against the Soviet Union, during which Bin Laden came into prominence, radicalized a generation of Arab extremists. They believed that they played a big part in that war and this led to formation of the Al Qaeda in 1988. Extremists base their justifications on a twisted and radicalized reading of the holy Quran, and recruit followers by making them believe that they are fighting for the defense of Islam.
Bin laden and his followers believed that the American army presence in Saudi Arabia, so close to the holy pales of Mecca and Madina, to be a humiliation inflicted on the Muslims. The US foreign policy concerning Middle East further aggravated this sense of humiliation and the modern communication technology aided the spreading of this propaganda. The perceived discrimination of the Muslim immigrants in the west was one other strong reason for such attacks.
Three of the four pilots involved in 9/11 and the two chief planners, Ramzi bin al Shibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were radicalized while they were living in the West. Homesickness, combined with alienation and discrimination, made them into anti-western terrorists. Other key reason, behind the 9/11 attacks, was Bin Laden’s belief that US was weak and a few strikes would make them withdraw from Middle East. His belief was based on incidents such as US withdrawal from Somalia after the death of 241 servicemen and withdrawal from Lebanon on 1983. According to Abu Walid al-Masri, an associate of Bin Laden, he believed that the US was much weaker than some of those around him thought.
In short, Bin Laden declared a war against the far enemy to hasten the death of ‘near enemy’ the Middle East regimes supported by America. He completely failed in this effort, because after the 9/11 the world community and majority of the Muslims stood with the American people. The immediate impact of the attacks was the Operation Enduring Freedom. The US led international force declared war against the Taliban regime of Afghanistan, which protected Osama bin Laden.
The attack began on October 2001, and, within two months, the Taliban was effectively removed from operational power. However, the war continued for years as the US led coalition forces had to wade off Taliban insurgency campaigns launched from the neighboring Pakistan. Osama bin Laden meanwhile evaded capture for many years as he took refuge in the mountainous terrain in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
He was killed on May 2, 2011 by US Special Forces, acting along with Pakistani intelligent forces, at a hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. President Obama announced a gradual withdrawal of US forces on 2011, and the world’s biggest man hunt ended. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, America enjoyed a brief period of moral supremacy. Phrases like ‘loss of innocence’ and ‘a nation violated’ were often used with reference to the incident. The attack caused a feeling of insecurity and fear in the US and the world in general. Even the Taliban were said to have been shocked when the entire Muslim world sympathized with the American people.
However, almost a decade after the attack, looking back America has squandered much of its support due to its actions after the attacks. The military campaigns against Afghanistan and Iraq (particularly the Iraq campaign) has proven costly, more so because of the economic downturn of 2008. The inconclusive results of the war and the alleged human right abuses committed by the American military have tarnished the image of the country worldwide.
In conclusion, it may be said that though there are conflicting arguments about the outcomes and consequences of the attack, it has permanently changed the political polarization of the country and has had a lasting impact on the lives of the Americans. Before 9/11, the American politics was defined by arguments over tax cuts and government.The 9/11 attacks have opened up special agendas and has forever changed the political scenario. It made Americans reexamine what is important and reshaped the values that defined an American. Above all, the attack instilled a renewed sense of national unity and awakened the world to a new kind of enemy.
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