On the morning of September 11, 2001, the United States experienced the most devastating and deadly homeland attack in its history. Millions watched as two jet airliners slammed into the towers of the World Trade Center. Plane crashes also occurred at the Pentagon and in a rural Pennsylvania field. Americans at first were stunned and angry but soon became resolute in finding and punishing the individuals who masterminded these attacks. Many questions remained. How could this have happened, given the heightened level of security throughout the summer of 2001? How could armed hijackers gain access to commercial airliners so easily? Why did the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) overlook or ignore obvious warning signs of an impending attack?
At the urging of the loved ones of the victims of the attack, the independent, bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission, was created by Congress. Putting partisan politics aside and guided by the strong and steady leadership of chairman Thomas H. Kean, the ten commissioners succeeded in presenting a fair and comprehensive account. The official public report was released on July 22, 2004, and was made available through the Government Printing Office and bookstores.
The first chapter of the report recounts in detail the hijackings that took place on that fateful morning. It is chilling in its depiction of innocent passengers becoming captive in what became flying bombs. Desperate cell phone calls from some of the passengers give the reader a horrifying account of the last minutes of the doomed flights. On the ground, air traffic controllers watched helplessly as three giant airliners, fully loaded with fuel, were diverted from their destinations and crashed into buildings.
Meanwhile, brave passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 struggled to subdue hijackers and gain control of the plane. There is no doubt that if they had not attempted to defeat their attackers, the White House or the Capitol building would have been hit. Although Air Force jet fighters could have scrambled to find Flight 93 in an effort to shoot it down, they would have arrived too late. As was later revealed, air traffic controllers did not know the exact location of the plane until after it had crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania. The male and female passengers and crew of Flight 93 will forever be remembered as heroes.
To understand the motivation for these attacks, the commission chronicled the rise of the al-Qaeda movement and its shadowy leader, Osama bin Laden. As far back as 1992, Muslim extremists’ hatred of the United States encouraged them to declare a jihad, or holy war, against the United States. Hiding out in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, bin Laden set up training camps for terrorists and convinced many to join the cause. The U.S. government was well aware of bin Laden and the threat he posed to Americans, but most security analysts in Washington were more concerned about attacks against American interests overseas than those on American soil.
It was not until 1996 that the U.S. government realized that bin Laden was the inspiration and organizer of what the commission called the “new terrorism,” meaning that such groups were not known before. When it became evident that bin Laden was not only the spiritual leader of the movement but also was actively seeking and training recruits, efforts were made by the CIA and other agencies to track his movements, freeze his assets, and eventually attempt to capture or kill him.
In August of 1998, however, bin Laden struck first, bombing U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. An all-out effort to find bin Laden and bring him to justice would prove frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful. As far back as December 4, 1998, President Bill Clinton was warned in an intelligence briefing that bin Laden was planning attacks on the United States, including the hijacking of airplanes. The lack of specific information made it extremely difficult to prepare or respond, but clearly America was in danger.
It is now known that the October 12, 2000, attack on the American Navy destroyer USS Cole, which killed seventeen crew members, was a full-fledged al-Qaeda operation, with the target having been selected by bin Laden himself. The question for the United States was how to respond. Several attempts to kill bin Laden either were...
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The Commission's report examines all aspects of the terrorists' planning and preparation for the attacks and the government's response, or lack thereof, to the terrorists' activities. Its investigation sought to expose all mistakes and missed opportunities that could possibly have prevented the attacks.
The report begins by painting explaining what happened on September 11, 2001. It then explores the history of modern terrorism, with an emphasis on the roots of al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, the perpetrators of the 9/11 plot. The founding and growth of al-Qaeda is reconstructed along with a parallel examination of the U.S. government's efforts to track and counter it. Concern within the government about the danger posed by al-Qaeda grew steadily throughout the 1990s. Al-Qaeda's terrorist ambitions and animosity toward the United States steadily escalated.
The Commission then tracks the beginnings of the 9/11 plot within Qaeda and traces the planning and growth of the plot over several years. As the 1990s drew to a close, numerous U.S. officials were pressing for decisive action against al-Qaeda. The government's efforts, however, were repeatedly thwarted by a lack of political will, legal impediments, and concern about public opinion. Al-Qaeda managed to plant operatives within the U.S. who began training at flight schools. Some intelligence and FBI officials became suspicious, but bureaucratic hurdles and a lack of inter-agency communication prevented further investigation.
By the summer of 2001, U.S. security and intelligence agencies had become alarmed as intelligence indicated that planning for a major attack was nearing completion. Yet, specific information on the nature of the plot was not available.
The events of September 11, 2001, are then examined in great detail and from several points of view. The police and fire response to the World Trade Center is traced from the first reports of a plane crash. As the disaster unfolded, its magnitude overwhelmed any ability to contain or control events. Yet, thousands of people were rescued.
The response to the attack is then examined. The war on terrorism is launched. This war was not to be merely retaliation against al-Qaeda but, rather, a generational struggle against terrorism in general. While the initial phases of the war are military in nature, over time it is expected to become a war of ideas.
Finally, the Commission recommends a plan for the reorganization of the U.S. government to address past mistakes and to better prepare for the challenges posed by terrorism.
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