What happened on the morning of 11 September 2001 in New York and Washington—and above rural Pennsylvania—is well known. Nineteen men, affiliated with a Sunni Islamist group, the ‘International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Crusaders and the Jews’ (better known by its nickname, al-Qaeda), hijacked 4 commercial airliners and deliberately crashed them into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and the southwest corner of the Pentagon. The fourth airliner, which is believed to have been targeting either the Capitol Building or the White House, crashed when the passengers heroically stormed the cockpit.
But that was not the end of the mayhem. In New York a tragedy of epic proportions was unfolding. Hundreds of people were trapped on the upper floors of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. To escape the flames and acrid smoke some simply jumped. Then, in an event that stunned everyone watching live on TV, the South Tower of the World Trade Centre collapsed. Thirty-nine minutes later the North Tower followed. The lower end of Manhattan, downtown Jersey City, and parts of Brooklyn were covered in an enormous cloud of pulverised concrete that had been reduced to a fine white dust.
The attacks on the morning of 9/11 were the most deadly and costly act of terrorism to take place outside of war in recorded history.
In the days and weeks that followed there were claims that the attack marked a new and terrifying phase in world history; the dawning of an ‘New Age of Terror’. There certainly were enormous global consequences that flowed from this attack: America and its Allies invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in the name of a ‘War on Terror’; wide ranging legislation aimed at protecting western nation from the threat of terrorism have been passed; and the funding of counterterrorism activities has grown exponentially. The US Department of Homeland Security, created in response to 9/11, is today the second most expensive US Federal Department after the Department of Defence.
But did 9/11 really constitute a new type of terrorism?
The scale of the devastation may have been unprecedented, but little else about 9/11 was new. The co-ordinated hijacking of commercial aircraft by terrorists was a tactic first used by the Palestinian PFLP in 1968. The idea of using a commercial jet as a flying bomb was foreshadowed by the Algerian GIA’s unsuccessful attempt to crash an Air France plane into the Eiffel Tower in 1994. Even the willingness of the terrorists to martyr themselves goes back to at least the 11th century militant Shia Asasiyun sect. And let us not forget that 9/11 was not the first time that al-Quaeda had attempted to destroy the World Trade Centre in New York. In February 1993 al-Quaeda affiliates detonated a truck bomb in the underground car park of the north tower with the aim of toppling it into the adjoining south tower and bringing both structures down.
In almost everyway 9/11 was a classic terrorist act. It was ‘spectacular’, designed to seize attention and provoke shock, horror and fear in those targeted. (The flip side of this of course was that terrorists hoped the spectacle would inspire others who shared their broad aims to carry out similar acts.) The targets were carefully chosen for their symbolic value. (Terrorist acts are never ‘random’, even if the victims are). And finally the terrorist act itself was a manifesto, a statement of the perpetrators aims. In this case the destruction of American power and prestige.
Terror, terrorist acts and terrorism is as old as human history. Individuals, cults, religious sects, despotic rulers, revolutionaries, political organizations, colonizers, anti-colonial movements, ‘freedom fighters’ and modern nation states have for millennia used terror (violence, fear and intimidation) to advance their interests. The events of 9/11 should be viewed in this context.
Dr John Knott is a Senior Lecturer with the School of History and is teaching "Terror to Terrorism: A history" this semester.