Professor Donald Elder: Events in American History—-9/11

Jan 26, 2017 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Events in American History—-9/11

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Professor Elder, I remember it as if it were yesterday.  I almost never would turn on the television in the morning, but on 9/11 something called me to the television and I was shocked, as probably most of the world was shocked. But were there things that led up to this? I recall another bombing of the World Trade Center when Bill Clinton was President.

Unfortunately, suicide bombings have killed Americans for over thirty years now. The first took place in 1983 in Beirut, Lebanon. A civil war involving rival religious and political factions had broken out in that nation in 1975, and the United Nations had called upon member nations to commit troops to an international peacekeeping force there three years later. While the violence in Lebanon subsided, it never fully went away.

In 1979, the Iranian Revolution further exacerbated tensions in that region. Israel added more fuel to this volatile mix in 1982, when it sent troops into the southern half of Lebanon. Although not directly involved in the affairs of Lebanon, many in the Middle East viewed the United States as responsible for denying Muslim interests in that country. For that reason, in April of 1983 a person drove a car loaded with explosives to the US Embassy in Beirut and blew himself up. The blast killed 17 Americans in the embassy, and wounded others. Soon after the attack, a group calling itself the Islamic Jihad Organization claimed responsibility. Six months later, another suicide bomber attacked a building housing a detachment of US Marines deployed in Lebanon as part of the peacekeeping force. This blast killed 243 Americans. Here again, Islamic Jihad said that it had carried out the attack.

Ten years later, a similar terrorist attack would take place in the United States. A Kuwaiti known by the alias Ramzi Yousef had spent time at an Islamic extremist training facility in Pakistan after graduating from the Swansea Institute in Wales with a degree in electrical engineering in 1990. Apparently, while in Pakistan he began to think about a way of demonstrating his displeasure with American foreign policy in relation to the Middle East. He eventually decided to detonate a bomb at the World Trade Center in New York City. He flew into the United States in 1992, using as a cover story the claim that he had come here to seek political asylum.

Granted a temporary visa, Yousef then set about gathering the materials he would need to build a bomb. Once he had secured all the ingredients he needed, Yousef wrote letters to the New York Times announcing that he would attack the World Trade Center. In his letters, he stated that he would take that action because he disagreed with America’s support for Israel. True to his word, on February 26, 1993, Yousef and an accomplice filled a Ryder rental truck with explosives and drove it into an underground parking lot at the world trade center. After igniting a fuse, Yousef and his accomplice fled. At 12:17 pm (Eastern Standard Time), the truck blew up with a force of 150,000 psi. That blast created a hole 100 feet in diameter in the parking structure. Six people died in the blast, and over 1,000 suffered injuries that required medical treatment.

Called into investigate the bombing, the Federal Bureau of Investigation deduced from the evidence that the bombers had used a Ryder rental truck, and eventually tracked down the person who had rented it. In quick succession, the FBI identified Yousef as the ringleader, and began a search for him. In 1995, Pakistani law enforcement officers arrested him in that country, and the US arranged for his extradition. Convicted of the attack, Yousef received a life sentence, and currently resides in a federal maximum security prison in Colorado. Although similar in intent to the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11, there is no credible evidence of a connection between Yousef’s action and the latter incident. It may have inspired the 9/11 attackers, but the two incidents shared only one thing in common in terms of organization or planning: a man named Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who financed both of the attacks on the World Trade Center.

2. It was a four pronged attack – at least as far as we know. Can you review the sequence of events that terrible day?

At 7:59 am (all times were Eastern Daylight Time), American Airlines Flight 11 took off from Boston’s Logan Airport, bound for Los Angeles. Soon after take-off, five hijackers took control of the Boeing 767. Two of them began to fly the aircraft, and changed course to take it to New York City. At 8:46 am, they crashed the plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Fifteen minutes after Flight 11 left Boston, United Airlines Flight 175 took off from that same airport. Here again, five hijackers took over the Boeing 767 and flew it to New York City. This plane crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center at 9:03 am. The third aircraft targeted by al-Qaeda, American Airlines Flight 77, departed from Washington Dulles International Airport, bound for Los Angeles. Five hijackers took over the Boeing 757, and at 9:37 crashed it into the Pentagon.

Lastly, four hijackers took control of United Flight 93, which had taken off at 8:42 from Newark International Airport. After gaining control of the aircraft, the hijackers changed course and began flying back in the direction they had come from. Judging by the course the plane flew on, it seems that it would have had the White House or the US Capitol as a target. By that time, the three other hijacked aircraft had all crashed into their intended targets, and passengers on United Flight 93 learned of this through cell phone calls they received during the flight. Realizing that the hijackers of United Flight 93 obviously had the same intention, four passengers on that flight decided to try to regain control of the aircraft.

Although we will never know for sure, it seems that the four may have come close to achieving their goal, because suddenly the hijackers flying the aircraft put the Boeing 757 into a roll and deliberately crashed it. The plane came down outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 10:03. That crash ended the attacks, but most of the deaths would occur later with the collapse of the towers at the World Trade Center.

3. It has taken years, but have historians accumulated enough facts to know who was responsible?

At first, no one knew the identity or motivation of any of those who hijacked the four airplanes on September 11, 2001. Authorities quickly proved able to identify the nineteen individuals who had carried out the plot, however. This stemmed from the fact that one of the hijackers had taken a commuter flight from New York to Boston to board American Airlines Flight 11. When he arrived at Logan Airport, American Airlines employees could not transfer all three of his pieces of luggage from the commuter airplane he had arrived on to Flight 11, and the Federal Bureau of investigation found those suitcases after he hijacked the aircraft, and found papers in one suitcase that identified him as Mohamed Atta.

Incredibly, Atta had also packed a list of the other hijackers and a copy of their plan of action. Most importantly, papers in his luggage established a connection between the hijackers and a group known as al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda had been founded in 1988 by a Saudi Arabian named Osama bin-Laden, with the goal of using extremist tactics to oppose any foreign presence in Muslim countries. This organization had planned and carried out bombings at US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, attacks that resulted in the deaths of 200 people. That had certainly put al-Qaeda “on the radar” of the American intelligence agencies, but unfortunately they failed to properly interpret clues of the 9/11 plot that had emerged by September 11, 2001.

But once the information found in Atta’s luggage tipped off intelligence agencies to the involvement of al-Qaeda in the attacks on 9/11, law enforcement officers began to intercept messages that implicated Osama bin-Laden. He initially denied any involvement, but over the next decade he gradually took more credit for the attack. Eventually, law enforcement officers also identified three other individuals—Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Abu Turab al-Urduni, and Mohammed Atef—as having had prior knowledge of every aspect of the 9/11 attacks. A number of others, including the nineteen hijackers, had at least partial knowledge of the attacks. In the ensuing years, many of those responsible have either died (most famously Osama bin Laden, who was killed by a US military operation in 2011) or been imprisoned for their complicity.

4. We all know that thousands of lives were lost, many injured, many scarred for life. We recovered, but it seems that we are forever changed by this event in terms of dealing with terror, terrorists, and fear. Could you summarize the impact of 9/11?

Because of its magnitude, this event had both short-term and long-term effects. Almost immediately, airlines changed their policy regarding hijackers. No one, for example, initially resisted the hijackers on September 11, because in the past people taking over airplanes had never harmed passengers as part of their activities. But 9/11 proved that hijackers might want to kill themselves after taking control of an airplane, and so from that day forward airlines have taken measures to make sure that hijackers can never gain access to the flight cabin. In addition, the US government created the Transportation Security Agency to screen airline passengers with greater scrutiny.

Finally, the United States decided to invade Afghanistan, since it turned out that quite a few of the hijackers had received training in camps located inside that country. But the attacks also had much more subtle, and long lasting, effects on the United States. In the past, Americans had always regarded government surveillance with great skepticism. Indeed, the Constitution contains a provision guaranteeing that American citizens could not be subject to unreasonable searches.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, however, President George W. Bush asked Congress to pass an act that gave the government much greater leeway in deciding what intelligence it could gather and the methods it could employ. While some complained, then and now, about the intrusive nature of these surveillance techniques, the so-called Patriot Act still remains in place. Moreover, 9/11 created a sense of unease that has shaped the way we perceive others. Since radicalized Muslims had carried out the attacks, many Americans began to feel that any Muslim might at some point resort to terrorism. Some Americans have gone so far as to call for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, or the banishment of Muslims living in the United States. In a similar fashion, we maintain a military presence in Afghanistan because of our fears that al-Qaeda might once again gain a foothold in that land. 9/11, then, affected the United States in virtually every aspect of American life, and in a manner that is still being felt to this day.

5. All we can do is pray for the healing of those who have lost loved ones, but what final words can be said about this horrific event that will forever mar United States history?

Many people have seen parallels between 9/11 and the Japanese attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941. After all, both involved surprise attacks on Americans, and both resulted in a fearful loss of life (3,000 in the case of 9/11, and 2,500 at Pearl Harbor). Both also brought forth an immediate military response by the United States, and created a hatred of a group of people based on their difference from most Americans that resulted in calls for exclusionary practices. What we do not know, however, is whether the analogy will hold true in the long run. Although we regarded the Japanese as an implacable foe in 1941, and four years later used atomic bombs against them, we have largely put our animosity towards the Japanese aside since then.

We regard Japan as an ally in today’s world, for example, and we went so far as to offer an apology to the Japanese-Americans that we sent to internment camps during the Second World War. The obvious question that we have today is whether a similar pattern can ever take place regarding 9/11. Will we as a people ever regard Muslims without suspicion, or will the hatred and fear that many Americans feel today towards people of that faith linger far longer than the antipathy that we felt towards the Japanese? The answer to this question will go a long way towards determining whether the quest for security in an uncertain world continues along the lines that it has taken since the tragic events that took place on that day in September in 2001 that had started so peacefully.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.