Sept. 11, 2001, was one of the grimmest days in United States history. That morning, 19 hijackers boarded planes on the East coast with flight destinations in California, crashing the planes into buildings in New York City and Washington, D.C., and a field in Shanksville, Penn. The attackers planned and prepared for months, with some of them taking commercial piloting lessons ahead of the attack, and most boarding the planes with box cutters and pepper spray hidden in their personal items. 2,977 people were killed, a city was left in devastation for months, and our country was forever changed. On the 20th anniversary—and with the recent end of U.S. occupation in Afghanistan—the indelible impact of that day is still felt throughout the world.
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First Attack: The World Trade Center in NYC
Departing from Boston Logan International Airport, hijackers on American and United Airlines flights took control of two planes and began piloting them toward the World Trade Center towers in the heart of Manhattan’s financial district. American Airlines flight 11 struck the north tower around 8:45 a.m., and the second plane, United Airlines flight 175, collided with the neighboring south tower of the World Trade Center around 9 a.m. As people ran away from the engulfed towers, New York City firefighters and police officers rushed to the scene in droves to evacuate people from the towers and nearby buildings. Some of them climbed more than one thousand stairs in the nearly 2,000-foot buildings, going floor by floor through heavy smoke and debris to rescue as many people as possible. Eventually, the towers’ infrastructure could no longer withstand the heat of the planes’ leaking jet fuel, and both towers collapsed into a heap of rubble within two hours of the initial hit.
Second Attack: The Pentagon
Meanwhile, with gruesome reports coming out of New York City, hijackers on American Airlines flight 77 successfully commandeered the plane that departed from the Washington Dulles International Airport and flew it into the west side of the Pentagon building near Washington, D.C. The U.S. Pentagon houses the U.S. Department of Defense and the official departments of the U.S. Armed Forces, so the building was filled with 22,000 government and military personnel at the time of attack. People evacuated as the plane’s jet fuel caused a massive fire that led to partial collapse of the building.
Third Attack: United Flight 93
With New York City and Washington, D.C. in states of chaos, the tragedy grew worse when reports of another downed flight emerged from Shanksville, Penn. This plane did not hit any buildings, but instead crashed into a field, killing the hijackers, the crew, and all 40 passengers onboard. In the days after the attacks, pieces of the morning’s events came together and indicated that the plane’s passengers attacked the hijackers and crashed the plane before it reached the hijackers’ intended target, which was never confirmed. United Airlines flight 93 had been delayed leaving from Newark, N.J., so passengers received news about the morning’s events in New York and D.C before departure. Once it was clear that Flight 93 was also being hijacked and redirected toward another major location in the U.S., passengers called their loved ones to inform them of the situation, share the planned counterattack, and say their final goodbyes before the inevitable.
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Tracing the Attacks Back to the Middle East
As U.S. citizens reeled from such major loss of life, the U.S. government was tasked with finding out who was responsible for the attacks. From the evidence collected in the days after, it was imminently clear to U.S. officials that the extremist group al-Qaeda was behind the attacks. It wasn’t until 2004 that Osama bin Laden, leader of al-Qaeda, took official responsibility.
The primary leaders of the attacks were Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, known as KSM. While bin Laden led al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, he connected with Kuwait-born KSM, and KSM informed bin Laden of a detailed plan to train pilots and have them crash airplanes into U.S. buildings. Both KSM and bin Laden had negative perceptions of the U.S. and Western culture, and they believed that an attack was necessary to weaken the U.S.’s position as a world leader. al-Qaeda provided the funding for the attack, and the military backing came from the Taliban, an Afghan extremist group with close ties to al-Qaeda. Most of the plane hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.
Restoring Safety and Strengthening Community After the Attacks
The 9/11 attacks shook the United States to its core. 2,977 people died, including passengers, pilots and crews of all four flights. More than 400 firefighters and emergency personnel died while trying to save others from the World Trade Center towers. Within 20 years, 10,000 people were diagnosed with 9/11-related cancer caused by inhaling the smoke and debris from the buildings’ collapse.
In addition to the lives lost and destruction of significant American buildings, much of everyday life changed after the 9/11 attacks. More comprehensive measures were implemented in airports and within the U.S. government to prevent future attacks, and the U.S. became involved in its longest, most costly war.
Improved Domestic Security Through Legislative Acts
Almost immediately after the attacks, U.S. Congress and President George W. Bush moved quickly to pass a series of bills that scaled up security measures and improved future detection of terrorist activity.
- October 2001: Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, which strengthened the ability to detect and prevent terrorist attacks. It facilitated more seamless interaction between federal agencies and provided for significant technology improvements. The bill also created greater penalties for those convicted of terror crimes.
- November 2001: The Aviation and Transportation Security Act created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), established the airport screening measures we’re accustomed to today, and implemented the air marshal system. TSA Pre-Check and the Global Entry systems were created for those who provide specific information about themselves to bypass some of the TSA security measures.
- November 2002: The Homeland Security Act created the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which defends the U.S. against terrorist attacks and responds to major domestic emergencies.
Fighting the U.S.’s Longest War
For a president just shy of his eighth month in office, entering the country’s longest and most expensive war likely wasn’t on the agenda. In an instant, President Bush was faced with decisions that would shape the landscape of foreign policy and domestic security for decades to come. The U.S. officially declared war against Afghanistan on Sept. 12, 2001, and the first U.S. air strikes against al-Qaeda and the Taliban were launched on Oct. 7, 2001. The U.S. joined the Northern Alliance, a coalition of Islamic countries that were fighting the Taliban before the U.S. war in Afghanistan began. Military forces from the U.K., France, Turkey, Germany, Italy, Poland, and the Netherlands sent troops in support of U.S. and Northern Alliance efforts, and the Taliban and al-Qaeda were toppled within two months.
After the Taliban was defeated, the Northern Alliance disbanded, and the U.S. military set its sights on Iraq. Officials received intelligence that the country was building and storing “weapons of mass destruction,” so U.S. military forces repositioned themselves and began their campaign against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Referring to the conflict as the “War on Terror,” President Bush and government officials explained that the threat in Iraq was significant, despite there never being confirmed evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011 during a raid of his compound in Pakistan. Saddam Hussein was executed in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2006 after being convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured and detained at the controversial Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba, where he is currently on trial for his involvement in the 9/11 attacks.
Ending the U.S.’s Longest War
Although al-Qaeda was defeated in 2001 and Saddam Hussein was captured in 2003, U.S. presence in the Middle East, primarily Afghanistan, continued for nearly two more decades. Before the War in Afghanistan began, the Afghan government battled with the Taliban for political control. When al-Qaeda and the Taliban fell after 9/11, U.S. military forces remained in Afghanistan to “reconstruct” the Afghan government, creating an Afghan/U.S. alliance aimed at rebuilding and defending Afghanistan against another Taliban overthrow. Temporary U.S. assistance turned into a 20-year occupation in Afghanistan and a 10-year withdrawal process.
Former President Barack Obama first announced withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2010, with a return of full Afghan political control by 2014. The War in Afghanistan officially ended in 2014, and many troops did leave, but President Obama allowed 10,800 troops to stay in the country to avoid unrest. In 2020, former President Donald Trump announced a final U.S. troop withdrawal by May 1, 2021, after conducting negotiations with the Taliban. As part of the agreement, U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan as long as the Taliban ended its relationship with al-Qaeda and did not attack Americans. President Biden aimed to honor the May 1 deadline, but was unable to do so, again, out of concern for severe unrest.
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Recent Turmoil in Afghanistan
The Taliban observes extreme Islamic Shariah law that restricts many freedoms for women and girls and directly rejects democratic principles. Shariah law is based on the teachings of the Quran, and it is widely practiced across Muslim countries with multiple interpretations and variations. The Taliban, while they haven’t released specifics about their interpretation, typically practices a strict and violent form that involves severe punishment for those who break Shariah law. Under previous Taliban rule, practice of Shariah law was particularly limiting for women as they were required to wear burqas, could not work, and could not walk or travel without male companions. Now, the Taliban asserts that women’s rights will be preserved “within the framework of Islamic law.”
During U.S. occupation, the Afghan people experienced elements of democracy that do not exist under Taliban rule, and many would rather leave the country instead of living under the practice of strict Shariah law. To allow the Afghan government additional time to prepare for U.S. withdrawal, President Biden pushed the withdrawal deadline from May 1 to August 31. In the months leading up to the August 31 deadline, the Taliban began capturing cities in Afghanistan, quickly gathering strength and control of the area. Days before the August 31 deadline, mayhem erupted in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul as Americans and Afghans scrambled to evacuate the city before U.S. occupation ended. The Taliban organized several suicide bombings in and around the airport to prevent people from leaving, one of which left 13 U.S. service members dead.
U.S. evacuations from Afghanistan officially ended on the afternoon of Aug. 30, 2021, leaving many questions unanswered about the country’s political landscape. In the weeks since U.S. withdrawal, Afghans are still trying to flee the country. While much of the violence has stopped, bombings from the last few months have left portions of the country uninhabitable, and people are fearful to leave their homes. President Biden has stuck by his decision to withdraw troops, despite considerable backlash, as he believes that there is no “clear purpose” for the U.S. to remain in Afghanistan. More than 200 Americans are still in Afghanistan for various reasons. Most people are dual citizens who were unable to contact the U.S. Embassy before the Aug. 31 deadline, or they intended to stay in Afghanistan but would now like to return to the U.S. After the last U.S. flight left Afghanistan, the Taliban closed the Kabul airport to civilians, restricting anyone else from leaving the country. The airport has reopened in recent days, and international passengers, including Americans, have traveled to Qatar, where they will temporarily stay at an evacuee compound.
Bringing in a New Regime
As the U.S. continues its efforts to safely evacuate citizens from Afghanistan, the Taliban is building its political structure over the objections of Afghan leaders. Last week, the Taliban announced an interim government of all-male positions, including the primary leader and nine additional appointments. Among those appointed is the acting interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is on the U.S. terrorism list for organizing some of the deadliest attacks during the Afghanistan War. Haqqani leads the Haqqani network, a faction of the Taliban that is a recognized foreign terrorist organization.
Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban organization, the National Resistance Front (NRF), has advised world governments not to recognize the Taliban’s newly announced regime. The NRF says that the all-male cabinet is illegal and in direct opposition to the needs of the Afghan people. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to host a virtual meeting with leaders of 20 Western countries to enumerate a list of conditions in working with the Taliban regime.
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Reflections 20 Years in the Making
Sept. 11, 2001, will forever be etched into the fabric of American society and world history. For families who lost loved ones, the voids will likely never be filled and the pain likely still endures. Much has changed in the 20 years since the 9/11 attacks: security measures in the U.S. have increased, technology has evolved, there have been three different presidents, and generally, public focus has shifted away from foreign threats and turned to domestic terror and public safety. What remains from the 9/11 attacks, though, is the honor we hold for each person who was lost. What remains is the pride we have for the firefighters and first responders who thought about others first and themselves second. What remains is the strength of a country that is imperfect but rallies together during the most dire times.
As we forge ahead with minimal presence in Afghanistan for the first time in 20 years, we continue to hope for peace and diplomacy in Afghanistan and across the world.
To learn more about the 9/11 attacks and those we lost on that day, visit the 9/11 Memorial & Museum website and the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial website.