On the evening of 10 September 2001, it seemed like just any other night. Parents tucked their children into bed, businessmen and women prepped for their presentations the next morning, families enjoyed just another meal together, and all seemed relatively right in the world. For ~3,000 Americans, this would be their last. For ~25,000 others, things would never be the same for them again.
At 0759 local time on 11 September, American Airlines Flight 11 bound for Los Angeles took off from Boston, it would be hijacked fifteen minutes later at the same time as United Flight 175 takes off from the same airport. Two more flights will take off over the next half an hour that are destined to be hijacked on this morning. Shortly after Flight 175 is hijacked, Flight 11 plunges into the North Tower of the World Trade Center complex at 0846. The tensions of the hijacking have now reached something tangible as the attacks on American soil have begun. American Airlines Flight 77 is hijacked moments later. Just after 0900, the second aircraft to be hijacked, Flight 175, collides with the South Tower. About a half an hour later, the last hijacking, Flight 93, takes place over Ohio.
New York had been shaken, and it seemed as if the world had ended. However, Washington D.C. was not destined to be spared this morning either. At 0937, Flight 77 crashed into western side of the Pentagon, striking at the U.S. Military. The strike came just before U.S. airspace is entirely shut down, diverting already airborne aircraft and refusing flights coming from outside the country. Passengers aboard Flight 93, however, had been able to connect the dots. These passengers took matters into their own hands, forcing Flight 93 to crash in a field in Pennsylvania well shy of it’s projected target on D.C.
America lost 2,977 souls this day. It was the largest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. Twenty years later, we haven’t forgotten.
Terrorism in the United States hadn't been anything new before 2001. Likewise, Islamic-based terrorism had been spurred largely by aftermath of the World Wars coupled with the Middle East being a point of contention during the Cold War. When the terror attacks of September 11 were revealed to be the work of al Qaeda, it was the first time many in the United States had even heard of this mysterious organization. However, the origins of the organization can be traced in some form to 1979 during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden, the organizations founder and leader, had travelled to Afghanistan from Saudi Arabia to organize resistance against the invading Soviets. So significant was bin Laden's exploits in Afghanistan that it had even warranted isolated American praise for standing up to the red menace.
During Operation Desert Storm, the United States had postured itself to launch attacks to liberate Kuwait and push Saddam Hussein's forces into Iraq. The step off point for operations was Saudi Arabia, and it was largely used to aid in the establishment of port facilities and logistics hubs within Kuwait City. The United States presence in Saudi Arabia spurred a large amount of resentment in many Arabic circles, including individuals such as Ayman al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri had been conducting terrorist operations in Egypt and at least up thru 1996 had been mentoring bin Laden (and later became the leader of the al Qaeda organization after bin Laden's death in 2011). Continued radicalization of individuals in the region continued to remain unchecked despite warning signs as early as 1996 of potential terrorist attacks against high-value targets on American soil.
Bin Laden cited numerous reasons for his decision to authorize the attacks on September 11, with support of Israel, sanctions against Iraq, and anti-Muslim rhetoric being the chief arguments.
A Culmination of 20 Years
Shortly after the attacks, they were claimed by the terrorist organization al Qaeda. U.S. intelligence gathering was sufficient enough to know that the mastermind was active throughout the Middle East with bin Laden being likely within the nation of Afghanistan. The "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" at the time was a Taliban aligned government that reportedly was friendly and harboring to the terrorist organization. Upon negotiations rapidly breaking down for the Taliban to hand bin Laden over, the United States along with a coalition force launched operations into the already war-torn nation. Coalition forces included (non-exclusive) Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Australia.
In addition to this, Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq was also identified as providing safe haven for al Qaeda operatives. Chemical weapons, non-conventionals, and potential weapons of mass destruction were also cited as potential reasons for campaigns in Iraq. Hussein was chief among individual destabilizers in the region and a heightened risk for continued safe-guarding of terrorist operations throughout the Middle East and Northeast Africa.
Despite the removal of bin Laden, Hussein, and numerous other operatives in the region, large amounts of insurgents remain in the Middle East. The rise of the Islamic State, as well as the resurgence of de facto regimes has resulted in a resumption - or rather continuation - of destabilization. Al Qaeda operations continue as well even after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Whether or not the situation has improved or not is something that only can be observed in the years forward. However, with warfare having been a normal part of history in the region, this seems rather unlikely.
On a Personal Note
11 September 2001 was a Tuesday, easy for me to remember the day of the week since I know what I was doing when I unknowingly had the news on in the background. I was always a procrastinator - at least that's how I was told it was (later it was just a matter of performing under time constraints). Sixth grade was the last year there was a "spelling" criteria in school, and I remember that Tuesday morning was when I'd usually do my take-home exam from Monday. Classes started at 0900, and since my mom left for work at 0730, I was usually up early to do things since school was literally in my backyard (our house was against the school field). So what was I doing that morning besides doing simple sixth grade spelling tests? I always had TV on (we hadn't gotten cable yet), and if I couldn't find anything, I'd have music on. This morning I couldn't figure out why everything seemed to be news, so I left the TV on in the basement, powered up the Zeos 486, and turned on Spyro Gyra's In Modern Times CD.
I'm not sure I even really paid attention to what was on the screen at that time. I had no idea that both planes had already struck the World Trade Center. I was destined to not know until about five till 0900 when our homeroom teacher came into the class and tearfully informed us. She was an instructor with a lot of emotion, and I remember initially having problems determining if she was being sarcastic or overreacting. It quickly proved itself to be very real and very serious.
It was the strangest day. I think the only rooms in the school that ever had lights on in it that day was the library, the administrative offices, and the rooms that had no windows. All of the classrooms were dark. Some of them were straight up empty. The only learning that happened that day was through watching that TV news coverage. I remember being in a classroom that I never had been in before or never was in since watching TV with other classes in the room and watching both towers fall. The only sound in those classrooms was the TV. There were no troublemakers. There was no gossip. There was no teacher-student questioning or the chatter of the typical teenager. Silence, and media.
The days slowly returned to normal after that - to whatever normal was. I remember having internal thoughts about how major and severe things were about to become. I remember that after that day that I had adopted a world view, rather than just running through my life up to that point. In a way, it was the loss of some innocence. The world suddenly became huge, unknown, and dangerous.
But in the days that followed, I remember how the community rallied. I remember days where the schools would line the streets to wave off local deploying military units (largely Army, National Guard, and Navy). I remember students talking about military and world affairs - with a certain degree of coherence. It seems so novel now in comparison. I also remember walking out into my back yard and looking at the sky trying to figure out "which contrails came from fighters" - despite really not understanding what aerospace defense meant at the time. Or recalling talking with my neighbors (who worked for the Army), or my mom's then-boyfriend (also worked for the Army) about things on the horizon. What sticks with me the most though, was that while it was scary...I don't remember being scared. Certainly not so scared that it made me shy away from what I still had wanted to do in life or who I thought were the heroes in life (the Sailors, the Airmen, the Soldiers, the Marines, and all the Officers and Civilians that support them).
And here I am, twenty years later...as a historian. It's a crazy thought. Even when you know that you're in the middle of history you sometimes fail to grasp just how significant it was. I think, for me, that's what September 11 was then. It's significance for me has only increased over the course of these years, and because of that I can safely say...
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