The American Legion Magazine | 9.1.11
By Alan W. Dowd
It began as a picture-perfect September day, clear and sunny across much of the eastern United States. Pilots call it “severe clear”—the kind of low-humidity, cloudless conditions that allow aviators to see forever. But in an instant, that perfect day turned into a nightmare. The skies over New York City were streaked by flame and smeared with smoke. One side of the Pentagon was charred black. A patch of Pennsylvania smoldered with the faint traces of battle. And gray ash covered a maimed Manhattan. “Night fell on a different world,” as President George W. Bush observed.
Osama bin Laden’s global guerilla war had reached our shores. “We do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians,” he warned in 1998. “They are all targets.” That became brutally clear on September 11, 2001.
Whatever we call September 11—the beginning of a war, the end of America’s invulnerability, an exclamation point to decades of unanswered terror, al Qaeda’s high-water mark, America’s wakeup call—one thing is beyond debate: It changed us, and it changed the world. Tommy Franks, the general who would command the early phases of America’s counterstrikes against bin Laden, called September 11 a “crease in history,” a fault line that changed how we piece together the past, how we live the present, how we look at the future.
The following are snapshots of how different our world is 10 years later.
In the Skies
It’s fitting to begin where the terrorists began their day of infamy, at the airport. Air travel was deformed by 9/11. Before 9/11, a typical traveler could arrive at the airport minutes before takeoff, rush through baggage check, hop on a plane and wave to his family as he taxied away. After 9/11, travelers arrive hours early to navigate the labyrinth of security checks; they are subjected to full-body searches and an array of active and passive monitors; eight-month-old babies have been patted down and 75-year-old congressmen strip-searched;[i] and once travelers make it through that harrowing, humiliating gauntlet, they walk amidst of an armed camp of militarized police forces, sometimes bolstered by National Guard units.[ii] Fighter jets circle above some airports, just in case. There are strict rules governing where non-travelers can go inside the airport, when to stand on the plane, how much shampoo to pack. And after 9/11, every passenger steps on the plane wondering What if all that screening didn’t work?
The enemy forever altered New York’s skyline, maiming Manhattan and killing 2,752 innocent people inside the World Trade Center (WTC) and aboard the planes that felled the towers. [iii]
The enemy’s prime target was truly a center for world trade, a fact underscored by the 115 nationalities represented in 9/11’s final death toll. Today, a memorial, a museum and a new skyscraper are taking shape where the towers once stood. The footprints of the towers form two reflecting pools, with the monument’s walls serving as waterfalls. Grimly but aptly reminding us that the enemy’s war against America began long before 9/11, the memorial includes the names of every person killed in the attacks on February 26, 1993, and September 11, 2001.[iv]
Nearby, a massive skyscraper is edging heavenward; it should be open for business in 2013.[v]
The enemy killed 184 people when Flight 77 slammed into our nation’s military headquarters. A little girl of three was the youngest to be murdered.
The Pentagon was a target because, like the WTC, it is a symbol of American power. Within those five walls, Americans have planned peacekeeping missions for the Balkans and Lebanon; humanitarian efforts to save Berliners, Somalis and Kurds; the defense of Korea, Vietnam and Kuwait; the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban; and the defeat of German fascism, Japanese militarism, Soviet communism and suicidal jihadism. Yet America’s military does more than wage wars. Even as SEAL Team 6 finished off bin Laden, other U.S. forces were nurturing a fragile peace in Iraq, building Afghanistan, providing emergency care in Peru, assisting Japan after the killer tsunami, conducting medical outreach in Malawi. The ship that buried bin Laden—USS Carl Vinson—was leading post-quake relief efforts in Haiti a year earlier.
The war on terror actually began on Flight 93, when its 40 passengers and crew mounted a heroic effort to wrest control of the doomed plane. A memorial to their sacrifice is under construction in southwest Pennsylvania,[vi] and rightly so. As the 9/11 Commission concluded, the objective of Flight 93’s hijackers was to attack “symbols of the AmericanRepublic: the Capitol or the White House.” The enemy was “defeated by the alerted, unarmed passengers of United 93.” [vii] As Paul Greengrass, director of the film United 93, observes, “they were the first people to inhabit the post-9/11 world.”
Think about that phrase: Because of 9/11, America’s history is split in two. There is the pre-9/11 era, a decade when war seemed unthinkable. And there is the post-9/11 era, a time of war.
As in the Cold War, when administrations of both parties followed the same roadmap in confronting the Soviet threat, there is a remarkable amount of continuity between the Obama and Bush administrations on post-9/11 policy: President Barack Obama retained key members of Bush’s national-security team; modeled his Afghanistan surge after Bush’s Iraq surge; expanded the drone war that began under Bush; continues the arduous effort of helping Afghans build institutions to resist jihadism; has embraced Bush’s freedom agenda for the Middle East;[viii] and, as evidenced by operations in Yemen and Pakistan, continues to strike terror targets with or without UN permission.
In that gray area between the battlefront and the home front, the Obama administration is relying on military commissions set up by the Bush administration to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM) and other al Qaeda operatives, has kept in place or expanded Bush’s post-9/11 intelligence orders[ix] and continues to employ Bush’s indefinite detention orders.
Likewise, despite all the heated rhetoric, there is consensus in Congress on the means and ends of this war. Democratic-controlled and Republican-controlledCongresses have blocked the movement of Gitmo detainees into the United States,[x] extended the PATRIOT Act several times, invested hundreds of billions for homeland security[xi] and appropriated $1.283 trillion for wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and other fronts.[xii]
Not only did 9/11 make those distracting news-tickers a permanent part of our TV screens, it also spawned and/or propelled an entire genre of TV shows and films centered around global terrorism: The Unit, 24, Threat Matrix and E Ring all focused on counterterrorism, while 9/11 heavily influenced the plotlines and story arcs of The West Wing, CSI New York and Rescue Me.
On the big screen, WorldTradeCenter, United 93, Munich, The Kingdom and Fahrenheit 9/11 were among the films that wrestled with 9/11 and its consequences. Likewise, the latest adaptation of the Batman franchise—with its terrorist villains, unappreciated hero, complicated moral dilemmas and grim remedies—seems a thinly-veiled parable for the post-9/11 world.
USS New York, with 15,000 pounds of steel from Ground Zero forged into its hull and “Never Forget” as its motto, put to sea in 2009. USS Arlington, named in honor of the Pentagon, was launched in 2010. USS Somerset, named for the county where Flight 93 went down, will soon join them.
Al Qaeda inspired the March 2004 attacks against Spain’s commuter trains, which killed 191 people, wounded 1,841 and toppled the Spanish government. Similar bombings in Britain killed 52 and injured 700 in July 2005. But true to form, the British wouldn’t be bullied by madmen.
The al Qaeda onslaught drew NATO into Afghanistan, where the alliance is engaged in its largest, longest combat operation ever—3,000 miles away from its Brussels headquarters.
U.S. troops began arriving in Djibouti in 2003. [xiii] A perfect perch for responding to terror threats in Africa and the Arabian peninsula, Djibouti hosts some 2,000 U.S. troops.
Lawless Somalia provides an ideal environment for al Qaeda and its kindred movements. U.S. forces have struck terror targets in Somalia repeatedly since 9/11, including drone strikes in 2011, special ops assaults in 2009, missile salvos in 2008, airstrikes and Naval attacks in 2007, and backing Ethiopia’s invasion in 2006.
Yemen may be the epicenter of al Qaeda activity today. The Yemeni branch of al Qaeda has been implicated in the 2010 parcel-bomb plot, the 2009 attempt to destroy Northwest 253, prison breaks and attacks on Western embassy targets. In addition, Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people during a 2009 shooting rampage at Ft.Hood, routinely communicated with al Qaeda elements in Yemen. [xiv]
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who turned 9/11 into a day of infamy were from Saudi Arabia. So was bin Laden himself, who explained in 1996 that the central aim of his global guerilla war was “to expel the occupying enemy from the country of the two holy places,” better known as Saudi Arabia.
In other words, bin Laden’s casus belli was an unforeseen byproduct of what Saddam Hussein had done in August 1990, when he invaded Kuwait. After U.S. troops ejected Iraq’s army from Kuwait, they stayed in Saudi Arabia to protect Saudi oilfields from Saddam’s army. That galvanized al Qaeda, which carried out the 9/11 attacks, which triggered America’s war on terror.
By the end of August 2003, the United States had withdrawn its forces from Saudi Arabia—13 years after they arrived.[xv] Yet the U.S. continues to play a role in Saudi Arabia, assisting with the creation of a 35,000-man security force to protect Saudi oil facilities, the largest of which was targeted in a failed al Qaeda attack in 2006. [xvi]
Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was not connected to the 9/11 attacks, but Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was connected to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the bin Laden lieutenant who ignited Iraq’s postwar civil war. According to high-level British officials, Zarqawi traveled to Iraq in May 2002, met “senior Iraqis” and established a presence in Iraq six months before the U.S.-led invasion.[xvii]
What Saddam Hussein failed to grasp in such risky dealings was that 9/11 had changed the very DNA of U.S. national-security policy. “Any administration in such a crisis,” as historian John Lewis Gaddis concludes, “would have had to rethink what it thought it knew about security.”[xviii] Was deterrence possible? Was containment viable? Was giving Baghdad the benefit of the doubt responsible? The Bush administration’s answer to each question was “no,” which led to a preventive war that toppled Saddam’s regime and liberated 24 million Iraqis—and a postwar war that claimed more than 4,450 Americans.
Saddam Hussein’s associations, behavior and record with weapons of mass destruction fueled a presumption of guilt that, when mixed with America’s profound sense of vulnerability after 9/11, created a deadly combination. This is perhaps the most fundamental way 9/11 is linked to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: The latter did not perpetrate the former, but the former taught Washington a lesson about the danger of failing to confront threats before they are fully formed. In the same way, the appeasement of Hitler at once had nothing and yet everything to do with how America waged the Cold War against Stalin and his successors.
Defectors from Iran’s intelligence service recently testified in federal court that Iran had “foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks.” [xix] Although the 9/11 Commission concluded that “There is strong evidence…Iran facilitated the transit of al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11,” the blue-ribbon panel found no evidence Tehran was aware of planning for 9/11. [xx]
We may never know the extent of Iranian involvement, if any, in 9/11. What we do know is that the post-9/11 wars on Iran’s borders had the effect of erasing Iran’s main regional rivals, that Iranian-built bombs and Iranian-backed fighters have killed Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that Iran is building a nuclear arsenal capable of doing far worse. [xxi]
Unknown to most Americans before 9/11, the so-called “Stans” of Central Asia have grown increasingly critical to the war effort, serving as supply arteries into Afghanistan. Even Russia, America’s Cold War enemy, has opened its territory to a steady stream of NATO cargo bound for Afghanistan.
It took just weeks for the U.S. to topple the medieval Taliban regime and smash al Qaeda’s headquarters. A decade later, Afghanistan is free from the Taliban’s reign but still bleeding America.
Since 9/11, there has been a debate over the dysfunctional Pakistani government, with one side arguing that Islamabad is doing its best to rein in its unwieldy intelligence service and military, and the other arguing that Islamabad is complicit in what its intelligence operatives do—and what its military won’t do. SEAL Team 6 settled that debate. Elements of Pakistan’s government had to know that the most wanted man on earth was living next door.
Like the 9/11 targets, which were symbolic to the enemy, the bin Laden takedown is largely symbolic. It’s a potent symbol, underscoring America’s resolve, resilience and reach. But just as the elimination of Yamamoto didn’t end World War II, bin Laden’s death doesn’t end the war on terror. Bin Laden is dead; “bin Ladenism” is not.
A jihadist group affiliated with al Qaeda laid siege to Mumbai in November 2008, killing 183 people, including six Americans.
Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the Bali bombings in October 2002, which killed some 200 people.
KSM and Ramzi Yousef, the man behind the 1993 WTC bombing, were based in the Philippines in the 1990s.[xxii] After 9/11, U.S. special ops units began assisting the Philippine army in its fight against al Qaeda affiliates. The result has been one of the most successful battles in the war on terror.
Arlington National and other cemeteries hold more than 6,000 U.S. troops who have died waging what one scholar aptly calls “the wars of 9/11.” [xxiii] The fallen are moms and dads, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives, sweethearts and buddies—and heroes.
[i] AP, “Congressman forced to strip for airport security,” Jan. 8. 2002, http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2002/01/08/dingell.htm; ROBERT A. CRONKLETON, "Photo of pat-down of baby at KCI goes worldwide," The Kansas City Star, May 10, 2011, www.kansascity.com/2011/05/10/2865800/photo-of-pat-down-of-baby-at-airport.html#ixzz1M4uZk8YE.
[ii] Donna Miles, “California Guardsmen Help Enforce Airport Security,” American Forces Press Service, http://www.ng.mil/news/archives/2006/08/082806-CA_airport_security.aspx.
[vii] The 9/11 Commission Report, p.14.
[viii] Marc Thiessen, “Barack Hussein Bush?” AEI Enterprise Blog, May 20, 2011, http://blog.american.com/2011/05/barack-hussein-bush/.
[ix] Steve Luxenberg, "Bob Woodward book details Obama battles with advisers over exit plan for Afghan war," Washington Post, September 22, 2010.
[x] Wall Street Journal, “Vindicating Guantanamo,” April 5, 2011; Kara Rowland, “Despite Obama’s vow Gitmo still open,” Washington Times, January 17, 2011; Peter Finn and Anne E. Kornblut, “Guantanamo Bay: Why Obama hasn’t fulfilled his promise to close the facility,” Washington Post, April 23, 2011; Peter Flanders, “Congress bars Gitmo transfers,” Wall Street Journal, December 23, 2010.
[xi] Department of Homeland Security Budget in Brief - Fiscal Year, 2003-2011, http://www.dhs.gov/xabout/budget/editorial_0807.shtm, http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/brief_documentary_history_of_dhs_2001_2008.pdf, http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/budget_bib_fy2010.pdf, http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/budget_bib_fy2011.pdf, http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/Budget_BIB-FY2006.pdf, http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/Budget_BIB-FY2007.pdf, http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/budget_bib-fy2008.pdf, http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/budget_bib-fy2009.pdf, http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/budget-bib-fy2012.pdf, http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/budget_fy2009.pdf, http://www.dhs.gov/xabout/budget/editorial_0391.shtm, http://www.dhs.gov/xabout/budget/editorial_0573.shtm, http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/FY_2004_BUDGET_IN_BRIEF.pdf, http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/FY_2005_BIB_4.pdf; Veronique De Rugy, FACTS AND FIGURES ABOUT HOMELAND SECURITY SPENDING, American Enterprise Institute, http://www.aei.org/docLib/20061214_FactsandFigures.pdf, December 14, 2006.
[xii] Amy Belasco, “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11,” CRS Report, March 29, 2011.
[xiv] RICHARD ESPOSITO, MATTHEW COLE and BRIAN ROSS, “Officials: U.S. Army Told of Hasan's Contacts with al Qaeda,” ABC News, Nov. 9, 2009, http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/fort-hood-shooter-contact-al-qaeda-terrorists-officials/story?id=9030873; http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/al-qaeda-recruiter-focus-fort-hood-killings-investigation/story?id=9045492 ; Kristina Wong, “Yemen: Major Staging Base for al Qaeda,” ABC News, January 5, 2010; “Cleric linked to FortHood shooting suspect a target in Yemen raid on al-Qaeda hideouts,” Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com/news/nation-world/world/20091224-Cleric-linked-to-Fort-Hood-shooting-9035.ece
[xv] Alfred Prados, “Saudi Arabia: Current Issues and U.S. Relations,” CRS Report, February 24, 2006.
[xvi] Robert Burns, “U.S. quietly expanding defense ties with Saudis,” Associated Press, May 19, 2011.
[xvii] Cited by Tony Blair, A Journey: My Political Life, p. 384 (2010).
[xviii] John Lewis Gaddis, Surprise, Security and the American Experience, pp.80-81, 2004.
[xix] Benjamin Weiser and Scott Shane, “Court filings assert Iran had link to 9/11 attacks,” New York Times, May 19, 2011.
[xx] The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004, p.241.
[xxi] SAVID E. SANGER and WILLIAM J. BROAD, "Watchdog Finds Evidence That Iran Worked on Nuclear Triggers," New York Times, May 24, 2011.
[xxii] Jim Michaels, “Philippines seen as model for counterinsurgency,” National Journal, March 30, 2011.
[xxiii] Simon Serfaty, “The United States, the European Union and NATO after the Cold War and Beyond Iraq,” CSIS, June 15, 2005, p. 13.