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September 11, 2001 Previous
Digital History ID 3379


Osama bin Laden was born in 1957 to a Yemeni bricklayer. He was one of the youngest of nearly fifty children. Bin Laden grew up in Saudi Arabia, where his father founded a construction firm that would become the largest in the desert kingdom. He inherited millions of dollars after his father’s death and graduated from one of the kingdom’s leading universities with a degree in civil engineering.

In 1979, bin Laden left Saudi Arabia to assist Muslims in Afghanistan in expelling the Soviet army, which was trying to support a communist government in the country by raising money and recruits. During the mid-1980s, bin Laden built roads, tunnels, and bunkers in Afghanistan.

Although the U.S. had helped him and his fellow warriors expel the Soviets from Afghanistan, bin Laden would turn against the United States. He was furious about the deployment of American troops in Saudi Arabia--the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and home of the two holiest Muslim shrines--that had been sent to protect the oil-rich kingdom from an Iraqi invasion. He was also angry about U.S. support for Israel and the American role in enforcing an economic embargo against Iraq. His goal was to remove American forces from his Saudi homeland, destroy the Jewish state in Israel, and defeat pro-Western dictatorships around the Middle East.

By 1998, bin Laden had formed a terrorist network called Al-Qaeda, which in Arabic means “the base.” He also provided training camps, financing, planning, recruitment, and other support services for fighters seeking to strike at the United States.

American officials believe bin Laden's associates operate in over 40 countries--in Europe and North America, as well as in the Middle East and Asia. U.S. government officials believe bin Laden was involved in at least four major terrorist attacks against the United States’ interests prior to the September 11, 2001 attack: the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; the 1996 killing of 19 U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia; the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole at a port in Yemen, in which 17 U.S. sailors were killed.

Al-Qaeda viewed the U.S. responses to these attacks as half-hearted. In 1998, in retaliation for the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa, American cruise missiles struck a network of terrorist compounds in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. The pharmaceutical plant target was mistakenly believed to have been producing chemicals for use in nerve gas.

The September 11th Attacks

On September 11th, hijackers turned commercial airlines into missiles and attacked key symbols of American economic and military might. These hideous attacks leveled the World Trade Center towers in New York, destroyed part of the Pentagon, and left Americans in a mood similar to that which the country experienced after the devastating Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The succession of horrors began at 8:45 a.m., when American Airlines Flight 11, carrying 92 people from Boston to Los Angeles, crashed into the World Trade Center's north tower. Eighteen minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175, carrying 65 people, also bound for Los Angeles from Boston, struck the World Trade Center's south tower. At 9:40 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77, flying from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles and carrying 64 people aboard, crashed into the Pentagon. At 10 a.m., United Airlines Flight 93, flying from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco, crashed 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Passengers onboard the airliner, having heard about the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., apparently stormed the airplane’s cockpit and prevented the hijackers from attacking the nation’s capital.

Millions of television viewers watched in utter horror. At 9:50 a.m., the World Trade Center's south tower collapsed. At 10:29 a.m., the World Trade Center's north tower also collapsed.

More than 3,000 innocent civilians and rescue workers perished as a result of these acts of terror. This was about the same number of Americans who died on June 6, 1944, during the D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied France. This was nearly as many as the 3,620 American--the largest number of Americans to die in combat on a single day--who died at the Civil War battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. More Americans died in two hours on September 11th than died in the War of 1812, the Spanish American War, or the Gulf War.

The U.S. Response

The U.S. response to the September 11th attacks was immediate and forceful. Over a period of just three days, Congress voted to spend $40 billion for recovery. Then, like his father in the period before the Persian Gulf War, George W. Bush organized an international coalition against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban government in Afghanistan that supported it. He persuaded Pakistan, which had been the main sponsor of Afghanistan’s Taliban government, to support the United States diplomatically and logistically.

On October 7, 2001, in retaliation for the September 11th attacks, a U.S.-led coalition launched an attack against targets in Afghanistan--the beginning of what President Bush has promised would be a long campaign against terrorist groups and the states that support them. The American strategy in Afghanistan involved using American air power and ground targeting to support the Northern Alliance, the major indigenous force opposing the Taliban. Later, U.S. and British forces coordinated ground operations against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Afghanistan's rugged terrain, extremes of weather extremes, and veteran guerilla-style fighters presented a serious challenge to the American military. But the effective use of laser-guided missiles, cluster bombs, 2,000-pound Daisy Cutter bombs, unmanned drones, and U.S. and British Special Forces, in conjunction with indigenous Afghani forces, succeeded in overthrowing the Taliban government. However, some members of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban apparently escaped into isolated regions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Between 1,000 and 1,300 Afghani civilians were killed.

Civil Liberties and National Security: Trying to Strike a Balance

The war on terror has forced the nation to toughen its national security. Following the horrifying events of September 11, 2001, more than 1,000 people, mainly Arab and Muslim men suspected of having information about terrorism, were detained by the federal government. These detainees were held without charges, and their names and whereabouts were largely kept secret.

In the wake of the September 11th attacks, Congress enacted legislation that gave law enforcement agencies broader authority to wiretap suspects and to monitor online communication. Congress also expanded the government’s authority to detain or deport aliens who associate with members of terrorist organizations. It also authorized greater intelligence sharing among the FBI, the CIA, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and local law enforcement agencies.

President Bush responded to the attacks by proposing a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. Homeland Security would help to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, reduce the country's vulnerability to terrorism, and minimize the damage and recovery from attacks that do occur. The new department would be responsible for promoting border security, responding to chemical, biological, and radiological attacks, and utilizing information analysis.

Arab Americans and Muslim Americans

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks, some Americans directed their anger at Arab Americans, Muslims, and South Asians. In a suburb in Phoenix, Arizona, an Indian immigrant who practiced the Sikh faith was murdered in a hate crime. So, too, was a Pakistani grocer in Dallas, Texas. In Irving, Texas, bullets were fired into an Islamic community center. Some 300 protestors tried to storm a Chicago-area mosque. Near Detroit, Michigan, an Islamic school had to close down because of daily bomb threats.

”Those who directed their anger against Arab Americans and Muslims should be ashamed,” President Bush declared. "Muslim Americans make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country," he said. "They need to be treated with respect." Today, there are approximately 3 million Arab Americans in the United States. About a third live in California, Michigan, and New York.

Arab Americans belong to many different religions. While most are Muslims, many are Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jews, or Druze. Prominent political figures of Arab descent include Ralph Nader, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala.

According to a poll conducted by the Pew Memorial Trusts, approximately two-fifths of the nation’s approximately 7 million Muslim Americans were born in the United States, with the rest coming from 80 other countries. About 32 percent are South Asian, 26 percent are Arab, 20 percent African American, 7 percent African, and 14 percent report some other background. About a fifth are converts to Islam.

The Meaning of September 11th

The September 11th attacks dramatically altered the way the United States looked at itself and the world. The attacks produced a surge of patriotism and national unity and pride. However, the terrorist strikes also fostered a new sense of vulnerability.



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