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2001 In Review: 11 September -- A Day That Changed History

  • Frank Csongos

The year 2001 witnessed the deadliest terrorist assault ever committed on American soil. It also marked the start of a new era, with many countries of the world uniting in an effort to battle the threat of international terrorism.

Washington, 12 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The most audacious terrorist attack in history took place on 11 September when two hijacked U.S. commercial jetliners crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

A third airliner struck and severely damaged the Pentagon, the headquarters of U.S. military might. The fourth suicide attack -- whose intended target may have been another government building in Washington -- ended in a crash in rural Pennsylvania after passengers apparently stormed the hijackers.

In all, nearly 3,300 people were killed in the September attacks, a casualty figure higher than that at Pearl Harbor, when Japanese forces struck U.S. Navy and Army bases -- also deliberately and without warning. But the Japanese attack, which took place six decades ago this month and brought the United States into World War II, did not target civilians.

The 11 September terrorist attacks -- allegedly masterminded by Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network -- precipitated the first major conflict of the 21st century -- the war against terrorism.

New York City's twin towers -- icons of global capitalism and free trade -- collapsed on that bright September day, burying thousands of victims in smoldering rubble. It will take months, if not years, to clear that debris. The shock and disbelief -- that such an event could happen in America -- will linger even longer. Said a volunteer rescue worker, "I never thought I'd see the World Trade Center pass by me in a dump truck."

U.S. President George W. Bush, in an address to a joint session of Congress nine days later, summed up the grief and the determination of a united America: "Great harm has been done to us. We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment. Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us. Our nation, this generation, will lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future."

Much of the world rallied around America. The French newspaper "Le Monde" published the headline, "We Are All Americans." Borders suddenly seemed to vanish. Country after country declared its readiness to help the U.S. hunt down terrorists. For the first time in history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) invoked Article 5 of its founding charter, which states that an attack on any member will be construed as an attack on all.

Said Arizona Senator John McCain, a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict and Bush's major Republican rival for the White House during the 2000 presidential primary elections: "I say to our enemies, 'We're coming. God may show you mercy. We will not.'"

All across America, flags flew everywhere -- in front yards, shop windows, on trucks and office buildings. A huge American flag adorned an outside wall of the damaged Pentagon. Donors rushed to blood centers. Military recruiting stations were jammed. Americans displayed a renewed spirit of unity and resolve not seen since World War II.

The spirit of pride and defiance -- one dockworker called the country the "Re-United States of America" -- held steady even after a series of letters containing anthrax bacteria were mailed to several U.S. news media outlets and some members of Congress. Five people were killed. Thousands were treated with antibiotics as a precaution against the deadly bacteria. Authorities said they suspected a single domestic source for these terrorist attacks, and an investigation continues into the anthrax-laced letters.

Bin Laden, believed to be hiding in Afghanistan, justified the 11 September attacks in a video statement sent to the Arabic-language television network Al-Jazeera. Bin Laden declared that America deserved to be punished for what he said is the occupation of holy sites in Saudi Arabia and for its support of Israel. Bin Laden called for a jihad -- a holy struggle -- against the infidels.

Media commentators noted that in the months that preceded the attacks, the 19 suspected hijackers -- most of whom were citizens of Saudi Arabia -- had blended into American society, awaiting the signal to attack. They said these operatives had mastered how to turn two of America's greatest strengths -- openness and technology -- into weapons against the American people. Armed only with small blades, the terrorists transformed U.S. airliners into flying missiles with the enormous power packed by tens of thousands of liters of jet fuel.

In his speech to Congress, Bush said those nations that support terrorism are no better than terrorists. He pledged an all-out war against terrorism. It is a battle, he said, that will be fought on several fronts -- military, diplomatic, and financial. It will also be a fight for the hearts and minds of the masses in the Muslim world. Bush predicted it will be a long campaign, probably lasting years. But, in the end, the president said, America will prevail.

In his speech to Congress, Bush said, "We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."

Richard Perle was an assistant secretary of defense during the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Perle, now an adviser to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, says Bush's decision not to differentiate between terrorists and those who harbor them is a policy change of "historic proportions."

Perle warned that, if America is to succeed, it must take decisive and bold military action to fight terrorism: "If the only way we can protect this country is by the use of force in each and every one of the countries that has been giving sanctuary and support to terrorism, then I believe that the president has made it clear that is what we will do."

For nearly a month after the terrorist attacks, the U.S. armed forces were mobilizing -- dispatching troops, aircraft, and warships to the region around Afghanistan. Bush said he wanted bin Laden "dead or alive" and called on Afghanistan's ruling Taliban to give him and his top associates up -- or face the consequences.

The Taliban refused. On 7 October, the U.S. responded by launching air attacks against Afghanistan in conjunction with ground assaults carried out by Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban forces.

Bush, in announcing military action, said: "By destroying camps and disrupting communications, we'll make it more difficult for the terror network to train new recruits and coordinate their evil plans. Initially, the terrorists may burrow deeper into caves and other entrenched hiding places. Our military action is also designed to clear the way for sustained, comprehensive, and relentless operations to drive them out and bring them to justice."

Within weeks, the Taliban militia -- which until recently ruled 90 percent of Afghanistan -- was dislodged from most of the territories. On 5 December, opposition forces hammered out an agreement near Bonn, Germany, to establish an interim government in Kabul.

Despite the relatively quick military successes in Afghanistan, most analysts believe the fight against terrorism will take years to conclude.

Some inside the Bush administration are said to be arguing that Iraq should be the next logical target in the war against terrorism. The regime of Saddam Hussein is identified by the U.S. State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism and is suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction.

For now, the U.S. government is refusing to spell out its planned course of action against Iraq. When asked by a reporter what would happen if Saddam Hussein refused to let UN weapons inspectors return to Iraq to see whether it is trying to produce biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, Bush said simply: "He'll find out."

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