An important anniversary is here for Americans: the 12-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks. For many Americans, that day was their first introduction to terrorism, and it ushered in a new era of foreign and national-security policy.
But like all major events of this kind, 9/11 didn’t happen in a vacuum. So on this anniversary, I would like to look at some iconic images that tell more of the story of 9/11.
The first time many of us heard of Osama bin Laden was in 2001. But he had started making a name for himself much earlier, in the 1980s. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and bin Laden was one of many Arabs drawn to the conflict. He helped to recruit, train, and finance many of the mujahideen fighting the Soviets.
Not long after the Soviets were defeated (and the Soviet Union itself collapsed), he found a new enemy.
In 1993, Al-Qaeda committed its first attack on U.S. soil: bombing the World Trade Center in New York. Attackers drove a truck bomb into an underground parking garage and detonated it. The attack killed six people and injured another 1,500.
Five years later, suicide bombers affiliated with Al-Qaeda bombed the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Two hundred twenty-four people were killed, and thousands more injured.
On September 11 of that year, Al-Qaeda carried out its biggest attack yet against the United States. The death toll was above 3,000, nearly 10 times more than any terrorist attack in history.
An interesting fact about the 9/11 attacks: Two days earlier, a commander of the Northern Alliance, the main resistance to the Taliban in Afghanistan, named Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated. Experts now believe that Al-Qaeda killed Massoud to guarantee that the Taliban would continue to provide a safe haven for bin Laden.
The rest of this history is more familiar. On October 7, 2001, the U.S. and Britain begin a bombing campaign in Afghanistan. The airstrikes are the first phase of what is officially called Operation Enduring Freedom, although it is mainly known to most of us simply as the war in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai becomes interim head of government in Afghanistan as a result of the Bonn Agreement, which also led to the establishment of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. Another interesting fact: Iran reportedly played an important role in negotiating the Bonn Agreement, due to its longstanding support for the Northern Alliance.
9/11 also served as the justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The fact that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, or any relation to the 9/11 attacks, continues to weigh heavily on every subsequent discussion of American intervention abroad. Today, the history of the Iraq invasion is perhaps the foremost consideration for those arguing against an intervention in Syria.
9/11 was also the catalyst for sweeping new national-security policies, from the PATRIOT Act to PRISM, and therefore for the controversies we see now over the role that members of the military and the national-security complex should play: obedient employees or whistleblowers. The stage for the Chelsea Manning trial and Edward Snowden’s leaks was set 12 years ago.
The same is true of the growth of other controversial tactics in the name of fighting terrorism, from drone strikes in Yemen to the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.