Today marks the 22nd anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. On that day, nearly 3,000 people were murdered by the vicious actions of a handful of Islamist terrorists working for al Qaeda.
Shortly thereafter, the United States would enter the poorly named Global War on Terrorism. It would invade Afghanistan, chase down Islamists throughout the Horn of Africa and in South Asia, and eventually invade Iraq.
All because of a few hours on one beautiful, September day.
What we know now from years of investigations is that there is, of course, more to the story behind 9/11.
For example, a group of mostly well-educated, upper-middle-class Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, and other Arabs who embraced a literalist interpretation of the Qur’an did not just wake up and decide to come to the United States and convert a handful of passenger airliners into cruise missiles.
Bin Laden’s Grand Strategy
There was a larger strategy at work. Specifically, the strategy of Osama Bin Laden. Despite all the money and resources in the world, the massive American intelligence and defense apparatuses missed that strategy — even after Bin Laden had made clear his intentions.
Shortly after aiding in the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Saudi-born Bin Laden, heir to a very wealthy family in Saudi Arabia, took much of his wealth and continued funding his jihadist movement, which became known as al Qaeda, or “The Base”.
While toiling in the foothills of Afghanistan, Bin Laden conspired to turn his ire against the sole remaining superpower, the United States.
Americans, meanwhile, were living through the “End of History”. The Soviets were vanquished, the Berlin Wall had come down, and the Cold War was over. There were no real threats to America’s expansion of global capitalism and its full-spectrum military dominance.
Bin Laden had other plans. He began attacking American assets and allies abroad, even managing to hit the World Trade Center in 1993. Still, the Americans never took al Qaeda or Bin Laden seriously. (At the CIA, Bin Laden was erroneously referred to as simply “the Financier”).
Bin Laden persisted.
By 1996, he told ABC News his plans of waging war upon the unsuspecting, arrogant Americans, and he explained why.
Contrary to what then-President George W. Bush and his fellow neoconservatives argued in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Bin Laden did not attack America because he hated the country’s freedom. No, al Qaeda hit the United States because of real strategic ambitions on their part and anger toward U.S. foreign policy in the Greater Middle East.
Indicators & Warnings Ignored
In the decade preceding 9/11, there were multiple indicators and warnings from al Qaeda (normally in the form of brutal terrorist attacks) highlighting the threat. Yet, the elephantine national security bureaucracy never acted as decisively as it could have or should have.
Sure, the CIA was monitoring al Qaeda globally.
In fact, the storied clandestine intelligence service may have had greater understanding of al Qaeda’s ultimate plot against the United States than they have admitted in public. Certainly, the FBI was tracking al Qaeda far more than was originally understood.
The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, the military’s equivalent to the CIA, through its ABLE-Danger outfit, was closely monitoring the al Qaeda threat.
Richard Clarke, who had served as the White House counterterrorism czar in the Clinton Administration and was carried over to the Bush Administration, was one of the highest-ranking U.S. government officials who was both aware of and trying to warn any policymaker who would listen about the threat.
His efforts were ignored and even impugned in the run-up to the September 11 attacks.
In August 2001, CIA analysts were so attenuated to the Bin Laden threat that they sent President Bush an infamous memo entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike Us.”
That memo was ignored.
The old excuses that the intelligence was inconclusive just don’t hold up under scrutiny. A memo like that should have at least compelled the Bush administration to take some defensive measures at American airports and other potential soft targets, both abroad as well as at home. But virtually no major action was taken by the Bush administration to even slightly address the concerns in the memo, which was sent to the White House just a few weeks before the attacks.
On the day of the attacks, then-CIA Director George Tenet was eating breakfast with some colleagues at a Georgetown café. Once the news broke, he immediately told his dining partners that it was al Qaeda who attacked.
How could so many people in the intelligence community be aware and yet be so indecisive? How could two presidents, from two different political parties, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, have gotten America’s counterterrorism strategy before 9/11 so wrong — especially when there were no other significant threats at the time?
Whatever conspiracy theories exist on the internet, the fact remains that the U.S. national security apparatus was at least partly aware of al Qaeda’s threat, as were a variety of elected officials over the course of a decade.
Yet none took the kind of action required to address the threat before it could strike the American homeland.
Politics and bureaucratic inertia certainly played a role in this.
A Refusal to Listen
More than that, though, an unwillingness to believe Bin Laden’s threats — as well as the arrogant assertion that al Qaeda was the equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan of the Middle East and, therefore, could never pose a real threat to the all-powerful United States — led to 9/11.
Because of an inability to adequately understand and respond to Bin Laden’s threat before he could strike, the U.S. was sent down a path of war that, through its own response, caused the very kind of strategic loss in the region that Bin Laden had desired.
Without 9/11, America would never have destabilized the region, as it did with the Iraq War of 2003. America then undermined its own interests by supporting Islamist rebels in places like Syria and Libya.
Over the course of the GWOT, Washington’s policymakers attempted to overthrow pro-American dictatorships in key Muslim nations, like Egypt, in favor of the very Islamist groups that America was at war with in Afghanistan and Iraq. Washington then tried to empower the wildly Islamist regime of Iran, which only further undermined America’s once-dominant position in the Greater Middle East.
Of course, things totally collapsed for the United States when it completely abandoned Afghanistan — leaving it in the hands of the very forces it had initially gone to war against in 2001, the Taliban and by extension, their al Qaeda allies.
An Unwillingness to Respond
Essentially, Bin Laden went to war with the United States because he believed the Americans were what he referred to as the “weaker horse” in the region. By showing the region’s population that America could be made to bleed, Bin Laden hoped to trigger a wider regional revolution. Hence his reason for choosing the Leninist title for his organization, “The Base”, which behaved much like Lenin’s vanguard ideological front, the Bolsheviks.
In the course of making America bleed, as Bin Laden believed he alone did to the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the jihadist anticipated that the Americans would inevitably be pushed out of the region.
While it may have taken longer than Bin Laden expected, and al Qaeda is no longer the premier Islamist terrorist organization in the region — and Bin Laden himself is dead — his dream of a pan-Islamic revival coupled with the diminishment of America’s role in the region is coming to fruition.
The ideology, irrespective of whatever technological deficiencies al Qaeda possessed, proved far more damaging to the Americans than what most U.S. leaders believed was possible.
Ignorance is the Punishment
Ignorance and arrogance on the part of U.S. leaders congealed in the years leading to 9/11 into a dangerously false sense of national security.
That, and our refusal to understand the threats gathering just over the horizon, led to the horrific 9/11 attacks and two decades of war of the Greater Middle East. The GWOT has become a strategic defeat of the United States in that geopolitically vital region.
The very same ignorance and arrogance that created the false sense of security in America in the 1990s and early 2000s as it related to al Qaeda’s threat pervades America’s national security establishment today, only now about the People’s Republic of China.
More dangerously, many of the same individuals — or their allies — who ignored the indicators and warnings of 9/11 are in charge of America’s security today.
After 9/11, we said that “We would never forget.”
Unfortunately, we’re proving that we’ll never learn.
A 19FortyFive Senior Editor, Brandon J. Weichert is a former Congressional staffer and geopolitical analyst who is a contributor at The Washington Times, as well as at the Asia Times. He is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower (Republic Book Publishers), Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life (Encounter Books), and The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy (July 23). Weichert occasionally serves as a Subject Matter Expert for various organizations, including the Department of Defense. He can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.