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The September 11 Shock and Vulnerability of US National Security

The September 11 attacks of 2001 have been the most agonizing memory indelibly seared into the collective consciousness of the American people. That day marked a fatal blow to the dignity of the US, resulting in a gaping wound that, added to the Pearl Harbor wound of 1941, revealed the vulnerability of the US military and national security, particularly given the fact that the seismic September attack took place during the hardliners’ rule under President George Bush Jr. 

This punitive action which was carried out by Al-Qaeda, then led by Osama bin Laden, came as a response to the US disregard of the Taliban after fighting an all-out war on behalf of it and providing it with a considerable combat support against the Soviet Union, causing it to withdraw from Afghanistan, a long war that lasted throughout the 1980s and ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Historically, it was the United States that formed Qaedat Al-Jihad organization in Pakistan and Afghanistan, took over the arming and training of it, and co-financed it with a number of Gulf countries. The US’ abandonment of Al-Qaeda, ignoring the versatile combat experience it gained particularly in uneven terrains, was a big mistake as this caused the group to direct its power surplus to formulate a new combat doctrine, i.e. targeting the US and Israel. This new doctrine came into effect as has been evidenced by the attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the USS Cole bombing in southern Yemen, and the killing of the US ambassador in Libya. However, the most violent strike was that of September 11 attacks implemented using four civilian passenger aircraft that were hijacked and used to attack the two World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon, and the US Capitol, where the Senate and House of Representative meet.

The Planning and Implementation of the September 11 Attacks

How was the attack planned? 

Planning for the attack started in 1996 by Osama bin Laden’s assistant Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (kept in the US Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp since 2006), who picked out the 20 hijackers to implement the attack, 5 targets and 5 hijackers per plane. Among those hijackers were 16 Saudis, 2 Emiratis, a Lebanese, and an Egyptian, Mohamed Atta, who was the ringleader of the attack and leader of the Hamburg cell in Germany. Before joining Al-Qaeda, Atta was studying urban planning in Germany and was later sent with other members of the cell to the United States to obtain a civil aviation license (passenger and commercial) from two aviation institutes in Florida and Arizona. The planners decided that the training should be focused on Boeing 767 and 757 aircraft mainly because 1) these are the aircraft most likely used in long domestic flights and thus have a large fuel tank that can accommodate up to 38,000 or 40,000 liters of flammable clean fuel and 2) Americans (targeted to be punished) account for the largest proportion of passengers on domestic flights unlike international flights that non-US passengers constitute the majority of them.  

To reduce the hijacking time and resistance of passengers, avoid overburdening the hijackers, and make full use of the fuel tank capacity for bombing, planes needed to be hijacked from airports close to targets. New York and Boston airports satisfied this requirement. The four hijacked aircraft were owned by United Airlines and American Airlines, and were all heading to California airports in the far west of the US. 

For purposes of consecutive implementation, scheduled departure time for all planes was close enough (over 50 minutes) whereas actual implementation of the four attacks took 1 hour and 17 minutes.

How was the attack carried out? 

The hijackers booked tickets on these flights and arrived at the airports individually in rental cars, and checked in with false identities. The weapons they had were small plastic knives that weren’t detected by the x-ray machines. The attack was implemented morning of 11 September in the following sequence:

1- Target One: The 110th floor high North Tower of the World Trade, attacked at 8:46 a.m. by Mohamed Atta, resulting in the death of all those on board, i.e. 76 passengers, 11 crew members, and the 5 hijackers, apart from victims of the tower collapse.

2- Target Two: The 110th floor high South Tower of the World Trade, attacked at 09:09 a.m. by Marwan Al-Shehhi, an Emirati. The attack resulted in the death of all the 51 passengers, 9 crewmembers, and the 5 hijackers, let alone victims of the tower collapse.

3- Target Three: Headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, the Pentagon, attacked at 09:37 a.m. by Hani Hanjour, a Saudi, causing the death of all 53 passengers, 6 crew members, the 5 hijackers, and 125 Defense Department employees. As the Pentagon isn’t that high, the hijacked aircraft had crashed on grassland before the building collapsed and rolled over before colliding with the western facade of the building.

4- Target Four: The Capitol Building (Congress headquarters in Washington) attacked by Ziad Jarrah, a Lebanese. The plane couldn’t reach its target due to a clash between passengers and hijackers and ended up falling in a field in Pennsylvania at 10:03 a.m. with all passengers on board, crew members, and the 4 hijackers killed (one of them was left behind).

The twin towers were targeted near the top to avoid the heights of the surrounding buildings. The planes crashed into floors 85th and 93rd respectively, assuming that the huge fire will cripple pillars and cause them to bend whereas the heavy load of the upper floors would cause the successive fall down. It took the towers about 45 minutes to be reduced to rubble. The two buildings were completely damaged with only few remaining body parts, let alone the human and material losses in the area surrounding the collapse.

Two days after this traumatic event and vulnerability of the US national security on American soil, the then-President George Bush showed up at the site of the attack, holding a microphone, and spoke to the American people already angry at his arrogant administration, promising retribution against the perpetrators and combating terrorism until it is eliminated. This gave rise to the Invasion of Afghanistan early 2001, then controlled by the Taliban since 1996 which had connections with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan at that time. Then came the Iraq War in 2003 under the pretext of destroying Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that terrorists in the region could use against the US. 

As such, the subliminal idea that was promoted to the American people was that building a version of the US democracy in these two countries will defeat terrorism at the source by introducing a new life style and granting greater freedom. However, the George Bush administration seems to have forgotten or turned its back to the fundamental differences, unaware that democracies can’t be established over two decades. It took the United States a long time to establish the modern United States, knowing that racism continued to exist until the middle of the last century and that period saw a bitter civil war between the North and the South as well.

So, what were the results of the US endeavors to contain terrorism and eliminate it? Indeed, these US efforts backfired: the pace and spread of terrorism have increased since the US abandoned Al-Qaeda following the Soviet Union withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Islamic State is an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, expanding outside the parent state, and crises of the displaced and refugees sparked off threatening many regions of the world, particularly West Europe (a US ally).

Further, the Taliban came back to power in Afghanistan after entering into negotiations head to head with the United States, giving rise to the humiliating withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan which brought back to memory the US withdrawal from Vietnam. The withdrawal scenario is likely to be repeated in Iraq at the end of this year. 

In its 20-year war in Afghanistan, the United States spent about $200 billion, of which $88 billion on military expenditures and weapons systems, most of which went to the Taliban. This amount is larger than the US military aid to Egypt – or even Israel – all through the 42 years since signing the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty. 

Broadly, the United States must realize that it is no longer a global policeman and that the world has changed since 11 September 2001.

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