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20 years since 9/11 — how al Qaeda’s attacks changed international affairs and US policies

On 11 September 2001, al Qaeda hijacked 4 planes, which crashed into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 people.

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New Delhi: It was a day that changed world history and America’s place in it. It has now been 20 years since the 11 September 2001 attacks, and they continue to have an abiding impact on international affairs and US foreign policy — especially in view of the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, following the US exit from its almost two-decade-long war.

On that fateful day in September, two US passenger flights hijacked by terrorists crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. A third plane crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth into a field in Pennsylvania.

Over 3,000 people died in the attacks, making them the deadliest on American soil.

The militant group al Qaeda took responsibility for the attacks, prompting then-US President George W. Bush to launch ‘The War on Terror’ — an ongoing military campaign led by the US and its allies, against extremist groups concentrated in the Islamic world. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were part of this campaign.

Current US President Joe Biden attempted to conclude the war in Afghanistan by ordering the withdrawal of troops in April this year. The Taliban stormed back to power in that country, capturing major provinces, and, on 15 August, capturing capital Kabul, with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fleeing. The militant group finally announced a caretaker government on 8 September.

Timeline of 9/11 attacks

On 9/11, al Qaeda targetted the World Trade Center, a symbol of the US’ economic power, and the Pentagon, headquarters of the US military. The Capitol Building, which houses the US Congress, was also on the hit list. The attacks were carried out by 19 militants associated with al Qaeda.

According to the BBC, the first plane hit the World Trade Center’s North Tower at 8:46 am ET (6:16 pm IST), while the second hit the South Tower at 9:03 am ET (6:33 pm IST). Both the 110-storeyed towers collapsed within two hours.

President Bush was informed about the second attack while at a photo-op with students at a school in Florida.

Meanwhile, a third plane destroyed one section of the Pentagon and a fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania after passengers tried to take control of the aircraft — otherwise, it would have headed for the Capitol Building.

In total, 2,977 people died either in the air or during the attacks; many of them were stockbrokers working in the World Trade Center. Last year, Edouard Pierre Goubert, a 9/11 survivor, told ThePrint: “The first thing I saw was debris falling by the glass window and the floor was shaking. But I looked around and people were still trading.”

He got a call from his wife who worked near the towers. She told him: “I think a small plane just hit your building. You better get out of there.”

The man who organised the logistics for the attacks was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, commonly known as KSM. According to a research paper published in Taylor and Francis in April 2008, KSM came up with the plan and presented it to the al Qaeda leadership.

The trial of KSM and four other alleged conspirators resumed on 7 September this year. The five conspirators, who have been locked up in a prison at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for 15 years, are to appear before the military tribunal for the first time since 2019.

Also read: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — ‘principal architect’ of 9/11 attacks whose trial resumes today

Aftermath: Patriot Act, hate crimes, Islamophobia

A month after the attacks, the Bush administration ushered in the USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.)

The act controversially expanded the government’s surveillance powers. Non-profit American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), like many others, alleged the US government used the act to snoop on civilians.

Airport security across the US was also tightened. The attacks also brought about hate crimes against immigrants in the US, and ‘Islamophobia’. An Indian Sikh immigrant was gunned down in Arizona — the first hate crime after 9/11.

Creation of Homeland Security dept, CIA ‘black sites’

In November 2002, about a year following the attacks, the Bush administration created the Department of Homeland Security, aimed at safeguarding the US against terrorism. It integrated several other government agencies under it, given that the lack of coordination and intelligence sharing among government agencies was a major concern after 9/11.

It has been argued in recent years that the department has focussed more on border security and immigration enforcement than terrorism.

The 9/11 attacks also prompted the creation of “black sites” by the CIA, which in military terminology refers to an undisclosed, unknown location where prisoners are detained and have no legal recourse. At these black sites, suspects of terrorism were detained and interrogated by the CIA for information on al Qaeda and other terror activities that could potentially put the US at risk.

Reports in subsequent years revealed that the US used abusive interrogation techniques at black sites, such as waterboarding, a means of torturing a captive in which water is poured over a cloth covering the face and breathing passages, causing the person to experience the sensation of drowning.

Such techniques were used on detainees at Guantanamo Bay detention camp, a US military prison in Cuba. Mohamedou Ould Slahi, for instance, is a Mauritanian who spent 14 years without charge in Guantánamo Bay.

Also read: What ISI chief Faiz Hameed’s visit to Kabul has to do with new Taliban govt

The hunt for bin Laden, invasion of Afghanistan, Kuwait  

The War on Terror “launched” two major wars, notes independent think-tank Council on Foreign Relations.

In October 2001, the US invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban regime in order to deny al Qaeda and the group’s mastermind, Osama bin Laden, a safe haven.

Though al Qaeda was allegedly created by the US to take on Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it didn’t fully side with the US either. By the 1990s, bin Laden envisioned it as a large global ‘jihad’ project and saw the West, primarily the US, as its enemy. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda carried out attacks on two US embassies in Africa in 1998.

In 2003, the US invaded Iraq, asserting that the Saddam Hussein regime was hiding weapons of mass destruction. In a 2005 article, Princeton academics Amy Gershkoff and Shana Kushner argued that the Bush administration convinced the American people that “a link existed between Saddam Hussein and terrorism generally, and Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda specifically”.

However, no such stockpile of weapons was found, leading to an inquiry. UK civil servant John Chilcot filed a scathing report, ‘Iraq War Inquiry Report‘, in 2016 against the US move, also criticising the UK PM, Tony Blair, for siding with the US war plan.

Al Qaeda, committed to a “global jihad against the West”, later inspired the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which took root in Iraq in the early 2000s, explains US think tank Wilson Center. Between September 2019 and August 2020, the US went to great lengths to eliminate senior leaders in both groups.

Peace negotiators and other experts have argued that the world could risk another 9/11-type incident if it abandons Afghanistan and refuses to engage with the Taliban.

bin Laden’s killing and Pakistan’s image

Al Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on 2 May 2011, under orders of the Barack Obama administration, by a US special operations unit. Though Pakistani intelligence services are believed to have helped the US track down bin Laden’s hideout, questions remain about Pakistan’s role in sheltering other terrorists as well.

While visiting Pakistan in 2011, former senator and current US climate envoy John Kerry conveyed to the Pakistani military establishment that US Congress members were questioning the economic aid to Islamabad after bin Laden’s death.

The Indian government welcomed bin Laden’s death and criticised Pakistan for harbouring militants. “You can be sure of one thing: American officials no longer regard Pakistan’s leaders with a great deal of trust, if they ever did,” said the Ministry of External Affairs a day after the killing.

Pakistan PM Imran Khan courted controversy when he called bin Laden a “martyr” last year, a view shared by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, when he hesitated to term bin Laden a “terrorist” in June this year. Today, Pakistan is believed to be one of the chief backers of the Taliban, now in complete control of Afghanistan.

(Edited by Paramita Ghosh)

Also read: Pakistan and China are preparing for a Taliban govt they don’t trust. So should India


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