9/11/2001 +20

The expansion of government power used to deal with the very real threat of al Qaeda and other terror groups were, eventually, turned on other Americans. And here we are.

On the very clear, otherwise ordinary morning of September 11, 2001, ten hijackers took control of two fully fueled airplanes, and slammed them into the 1,368-foot-tall towers of New York City’s two tallest buildings, the World Trade Center.

Within an hour, the burning jet fuel had softened the buildings’ massive steel spines, and they collapsed—one floor falling into the one below it—until the pressure had reduced those giant symbols of American prosperity into millions of tons of dust and scrap metal. 

At the same time in Arlington, Virginia, another set of hijackers drove another plane headfirst into the Pentagon. Passengers on a fourth plane likely bound for the US Capitol—United Flight 93—courageously fought their hijackers, and the plane crashed into the ground near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, before it could reach its target. 

The deaths of those 2,996 people twenty years ago was the work of Osama bin Laden and his Islamst group, al Qaeda. For several years, al Qaeda had been bombing smaller American targets around the world, to little response. With the shocking scale of the 9/11 attack, he had finally gotten the attention of the United States government and its people. 

After the 9/11 attacks, nearly everyone in America understood that the nation now found itself at war—one that would be called, “the War on Terror.” But, in order to win a war, a country must impose its vision of peace on its enemy. In other words, a country’s leaders must ask, “what does it look like when we win?” and have a good answer for their citizens.

Afraid of identifying the enemy we faced, America’s politicians called our nation’s response to those attacks, “the War on Terror”—waging battle against our enemies’ tactics, rather than the enemy itself. 

American law defines terrorism as, “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” Terrorists believe that, if enough death and destruction is rained down upon a people, it will demoralize a country and cause its leaders to accept the terrorists’ demands out of fear. It is not an unreasonable expectation.

Modern terrorism has a long history. Palestinian and left-wing terrorist groups had long been hijacking planes, usually bargaining with the lives of the passengers in exchange for money or the release of prisoners.

Between 1968 and 1985, there were an astonishing 653 airplane hijackings globally, with 531 fatalities. Because the ability of small terror cells to commit large-scale violence was relatively limited, terrorists would rely on the media to amplify and bring attention to their cause. 

Al-Qaeda, however, was different.

The terrorists who hijacked the planes knew that they would die in the attack and believed themselves to be soldiers fighting in a holy war. Airplanes were used as weapons, not only to kill those on the planes, but to inflict massive casualties on people on the ground and in buildings that represented America and were recognizable around the world. 

In the two decades since 2001, there’s been a great deal of unfortunate revisionism when it comes to all this. Even those of us who are religious find it difficult to accept motivations which are not secular, so we’re always placing emphasis on explanations that sound more reasonable to us.

Even at the time, many Americans didn’t understand why al Qaeda had declared war on the United States and began murdering Americans in large numbers. “Are we responsible?” Some asked. “Could we have done something to provoke them? How do we make them stop?”

These questions are best answered by reading bin Laden’s words.

Before engaging in battle, Islamic law commands soldiers and leaders to explain to their enemies why they fight, citing sources to establish the legitimacy of the struggle according to Shariah. Suicide bombers and jihadists often record a video for this purpose.

These statements are sometimes called, ‘fatwas’—or Islamic religious legal rulings—regardless of whether or not one has the legal authority to issue a proper fatwa. Al Qaeda and every Islamist terror group believes it is their duty to this, so there are always footnotes and references to legal texts and rulings. 

It is important to understand that these statements or fatwas from Islamists don’t have to be consistent with “real” or “authentic” Islam—whatever that is. Even a mistaken idea about what Islam commands its adherents is real, in the sense that it motivates a terrorist or an enemy to act. In other words, if it is real to him or her, we must take it seriously when we try to combat it or analyze it. 


The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque [Jerusalem, Israel] and the holy mosque [Mecca, Saudi Arabia] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty Allah, “and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together,” and “fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah.” …..

We—with Allah’s help—call on every Muslim who believes in Allah and wishes to be rewarded [in the afterlife] to comply with Allah’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema [scholars], leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan’s US troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them [Muslim countries allied with the United States, like Saudi Arabia, primarily], and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.


I say to the youth of Islam who have waged jihad in Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina, with their financial, spiritual, linguistic, and scholarly resources, that the battle is not yet over. …. I say to our Muslim brothers across the world: your brothers in Saudi Arabia and Palestine are calling for your help and asking you to share with them in the jihad against the enemies of God, your enemies the Israelis and Americans. They are asking you to defy them in whatever way you possibly can, so as to expel them in defeat and humiliation from the holy places of Islam. God Almighty has said: “If they seek help from you against persecution, it is your duty to assist them.”

Cavalry of Islam, be mounted! This is a difficult time, so you yourselves must be tough. You should know that your coming-together and cooperation in order to liberate the holy places of Islam is the right step towards unification of the word of our umma under the banner of God’s unity. At this point we can only raise our palms humbly to ask God Almighty to provide good fortune and success in this matter.

These declarations of war would be followed, in the subsequent two decades, by many others from a variety of Islamist groups. In each case—like with the Bin Laden fatwas—real-world grievances would be seen through the filter of an Islamic legal lens, meaning that enemies are defined not as those who’ve committed offenses; justifications for hostilities emerge from the enemy’s category designations as non-Muslims in ancient Islamic jurisprudence.

The place to see this take shape is in the Law of Nations, written at the end of the 8th century by Hanafi jurist Muhammad al-Shaybani. For Islamists like Bin Laden and others, it serves as an authoritative legal text for Islamic foreign policy.

Twenty years on, some are ignorant of all this and conclude that Bin Laden merely had legitimate, secular grievances related to American foreign policy. Many claim—in the “blowback” theory of causation—that the United States’ “meddling” in the affairs of the Middle East created the motivations for the attacks.

There’s a certain amount of truth to this, but it’s overshadowed by the reality that a superpower is “meddling” at all times, definitionally, because it is a superpower.

One can regret or oppose any example of a superpower’s “meddling” (and yes, there are plenty to oppose, from American history) but that superpower’s presence on the world stage—getting sucked into military, economic, propagandistic, or diplomatic battlefields—is as close to an iron law of physics as foreign policy can get. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union saw both nations “meddle,” just as every large empire would since the beginning of time.

That’s not to say we should be in the business of writing blank checks. We can—and must—implore our leaders to deal more prudently with the world around us.

We can talk ourselves into explanations that have little relevance to the enemy’s motivations. When we do that, we are fooling nobody but ourselves. The truth is, Bin Laden and al Qaeda wanted to spur a massive, global war between Muslims and non-Muslims. He promised more attacks, encouraging Muslims in America and Europe to join this jihad.

At the time, our media and government hadn’t yet been so politicized. It was still possible to see and read honest reporting and analysis about Islamist groups and their motivations and goals; our government hadn’t yet transitioned into defending diversity at all costs and running interference for the reputation of Islam with the American public.

So most Americans understood the situation clearly; we were angry and wanted revenge against those who had made war on us. More than that, though, we wanted to be safe from subsequent promised attacks. And we demanded our government do what it needed to do in order to protect us.

If the United States wanted to stop future attacks, it would have to track down and find al Qaeda supporters hiding, like a needle in a haystack, in every country on earth. In the days, months and years following 9/11, the United States set about disrupting terrorist networks and sleeper-cells all around the world, using a massive array of surveillance tools and secret military operations. 

In 2011, a decade after a world-wide manhunt, Osama bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces in a raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. By then, like their leader, al Qaeda had been on the run. Its members were too busy trying to avoid capture and death at the hands of the American military and law enforcement. In the next decade, though, new Islamist groups would pick up the mantle of Islamist terrorism and against the United States and the West.

It is easy to look back on this time, with the benefit of two decades of hindsight, and make light of the threat and the danger. After so long, who can really say what we were fighting for, or if we really had to fight at all?

Looking at the events following 2001 through the prism of today’s heroes and villains flatters the ego, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us anything at all about the hard choices people had to make 20 years ago.

Many people made horrible mistakes; others were led by hubris and ideology on destructive missions that were doomed to failure. Some others who were involved in the War on Terror—like Bush himself—went on to destroy whatever legacy he’s had in the months following 9/11.

In the end, those who would give the government the benefit of the doubt about these surveillance tools and interventions were found to have misplaced their faith in the institutions and individuals that had, as their sworn mission, to keep Americans safe. As some of the civil libertarians had suggested, the temptation to abuse these expansive, new powers would prove to be too great—if not by the first generation of national security bureaucrats, then by subsequent ones.

However, because these surveillance tools would be misused, it would be foolish to think they weren’t ever necessary at all, or that they didn’t address a legitimate threat. It would be incorrect to use hindsight to dismiss the plots or attacks that did not take place thanks to US intervention. And it would be a gross error to believe that there was, in fact, no threat at all from Islamist terrorism. Even the hacks at Wikipedia know better.

Part of the tragedy of what’s transpired in America over the last 20 years—and indeed, there were many—is that there are very few easy, unqualified answers.

America fought the War on Terror with two decades of military operations and mass surveillance at home and abroad, destroying sleeper cells and disrupting terror plots. But the expansion of government power used to deal with the unprecedented threat of al Qaeda and other terror groups were, eventually, turned on other Americans.

On the Turntable

Karin Krog is an advernturous Norwegian jazz singer with a beautiful conception of melody and impeccable taste in collaborators. On this 1981 album, she’s joined by brilliant tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh and legendary bassist Red Mitchell. Marsh, a student of Lennie Tristano, had long been one of the most fascinating improvisers in jazz. Mitchell had, by then, spent a decade acclimating himself to tuning his bass in fifths, like a cello. Basses are nearly always tuned in fourths (with the notes being EADG), but Mitchell’s switch to CGDA tuning changed not only the tension and sound of his instrument but his note choices, as well. Here is a wonderful example of that.