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9/11 Attacks as a Turning Point of Contemporary History

Contemporary history develops at a rapid pace, as globalization has the entire planet deeply interconnected. Political and economic processes, which happen in one area, may affect the rest of the world to a considerable degree, and the density of important events is also on the increase. Nevertheless, it is possible to discern particular turning points in contemporary history, which change the global landscape forever. Terrorist attacks on the United States of America, which occurred on September 11, 2001, became a major shock for the nation, as well as for the rest of the world. It revealed existing flaws in the country’s line of defense and showed that terrorism had become the largest threat of the 21st century. This unprecedented attack on one of the leading developed countries urged major players of the political arena to reorganize the global security framework. The purpose of this paper is to examine the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. in terms of their background, timeline, and aftermath.

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Background of the Event

As the world entered the 21st century, there were several challenges faced by developed countries in the global political landscape. According to Bergen (2013), the United States of America has become a target for terrorist organizations for the Middle East, as the latter wanted to declare war on the Western world. While the attacks themselves became a complete surprise for the American government, further investigations revealed that there had been much planning prior to the event. Specialized committees managed to determine all links of the terrorist group involved in the attacks, which is why it is presently possible to provide the background of what happened on September 11, 2001.

The Organizers

The idea of the attack came from the Middle East, and the idea was to demonstrate the inability of developed countries to defend themselves. Al-Qaeda was the leading force of Islamic terrorism at the time, led by Osama bin Laden (Bergen, 2013). Bin Laden and his associates had operated in a variety of locations prior to 2001, including Afghanistan and Lebanon. However, they desired to challenge the United States openly in its territory. Bin Laden’s associates later confirmed that Al-Qaeda’s leader supposed that the power of the U.S. was highly overrated and thought of the country as a paper tiger (Bergen, 2013). His ideas were fueled by the perceived failures of the American army in Vietnam and Somalia.

Evidently, Osama bin Laden had enlisted several associates who helped him prepare and execute the attack. Bergen (2013) says that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, also known as KSM in the media, played the pivotal role of the operation planner. KSM was born in Kuwait and became engaged in Islamic terrorism from a young age. His activities took him to Afghanistan in 1979, where he waged a sacred war again the Soviet Union along with Osama bin Laden (Bergen, 2013). His initial plan was designed in the 1990s and comprised bombings of dozens of American airplanes in Asia and the Middle East. However, KSM was unable to act on this idea, as he realized he needed Al-Qaeda to execute a successful attack against the United States. Mohammed presented his idea to bin Laden in 1996, and the planning began (Bergen, 2013). KSM was responsible for the creative side of this operation, and it was his idea to hijack several planes on American soil and crash them into major buildings. Simultaneously, bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda provided financial support, as well as resources and training needed to implement Mohammed’s plan.

The 9/11 operation became a product of the collaborative effort of Islamic terrorist organizations, but Al-Qaeda became its leading force. This attack served to show the global reach of Osama bin Laden’s organization, as well as its willingness to fight developed nations openly and globally. The list of locations at which the planning took place is broad and includes Malaysia, Germany, and Dubai. Each element of the chain played an important role in the global picture, as Al-Qaeda forces in one place processed financial transfers, while the associates elsewhere organized training for future suicide pilots. Bergen (2013) discerns the Hamburg cell, which is the group of primary pilots and planners of future attacks. While most of the hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, they managed to travel across the globe for the purpose of the attack organization. Their unrestrained movements in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and the United States underline the profound issues, which existed in the global security infrastructure at the time. In other words, the most lethal attack against a Western democracy was planned in its territory, but the lack of effective counter-terrorism measures allowed it to happen.

Accordingly, the agents of Al-Qaeda managed to infiltrate the United States and establish themselves on the country’s territory. Mohammed Atta was the leader of this group, initially formed as the Hamburg cell and later sent to American towns (Bergen, 2013). Their experience in the West provided them with the necessary knowledge of the system while strengthening their hatred toward perceived enemies. Bergen (2013) writes that Mohammed Atta and his associates became more zealous during their time in Hamburg, as they encountered instances of racism, intolerance and felt alienated in Europe. Accordingly, while the Middle East was the training site for future Al-Qaeda terrorists, they acquired extremely radical views when facing the reality of the Western world. As the plan progressed, members of the Cell isolated themselves from the outside world and reinforced their commitment to the attack plan.

Al-Qaeda’s idea was to have the agents arrive in the United States in advance so that they do not cause any suspicion. Mohammed Atta and the rest of the Cell traveled independently or in small groups while remaining in touch with one another and their foreign supervisors, using a special cipher (Bergen, 2013). Pastorello and Testa (2017) state the U.S. national security framework demonstrated several deficiencies in relation to this stage of Al-Qaeda’s operation. First, the CIA allegedly prepared a list of potential terrorists following Al-Qaeda’s meeting in Malaysia in the year 2000, when the possibility of attacks was discussed at length. Nevertheless, the agency’s disjointed internal structure did not enable a proper exchange of information (Pastorello & Testa, 2017). Simultaneously, a Florida flight school official reported a man with zero aviation background who only cared about taking off and landing the plane. While the authorities did not consider these concerns, the man in question was Zacharias Moussaoui, one of the future suicide pilots. Accordingly, the September 11 attacks became the ultimate test for the national security architecture in terms of preparedness and interagency communication.

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Timeline of the Event

The flaws in national and global security described above prevented the United States from identifying the threat and eliminating it in due time. By the summer of the year 2001, the hijackers had finished their preparations (Bergen, 2013). Mohammed Atta, who remained in direct content with one of Al-Qaeda’s supervisors overseas, used a riddle to inform the organization on the date of the attacks. In turn, the supervisor went to Pakistan and transmitted this information to Osama bin Laden (Bergen, 2013). The terrorists had obtained their licenses by that time, and the organizers had finalized the targets of the attack, including the flights they were to hijack. Throughout this period, the intelligence of the West did not manage to collect enough data. They were aware that there was a certain plan in motion, but the details of it remained unknown (Pastorello & Testa, 2017). Accordingly, this combination of national security framework flaws and elaborate terrorist planning resulted in deadly events, which occurred on September 11, 2001.

The World Trade Center

While the attack was planned to become large in terms of its scale and scope, New York City became the epicenter of it. The day, which has changed the course of contemporary history and transformed the framework of global security, began with four planes being hijacked. The Al-Qaeda terrorists targeted three airports on the East Coast of the United States: Boston, Dulles, and Newark (Bergen, 2013). A group of agents boarded each of the four planes early in the morning and incapacitated the crews. Having received commercial pilot training, Al-Qaeda members managed to take complete control of the planes. Each aircraft was large and heavy, having been completely refueled prior to the departure. Once the planes deviated from their normal routes and stopped responding to the Air Traffic Controllers, suspicions arose regarding possible hijackings.

New York City was the first location to be struck by Al-Qaeda on September 11. By 8.46 in the morning, American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing-767, entered the airspace above Manhattan and struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC) (Bergen, 2013). The collision was sudden, and panic ensued around the city, as no one, including emergency services, understood what was happening. In fact, Bergen (2013) reports that many of the observers underestimated the magnitude of the event, as they thought a light aircraft had crashed into the building by accident, causing insignificant damage. Nevertheless, all doubts of the public disappeared in fifteen minutes, as United Airlines flight 175 appeared in the sky above New York City. By that time, mass media had begun to broadcast the fire in the WTC, catching on camera the moment when the second Boeing-767 crashed into the South Tower. Following the collisions, both buildings caught fire and caused shock among the public.

Once the second plane hit the WTC, it was clear that the nation was under an unprecedented attack. All emergency services rushed toward the towers, attempting to evacuate thousands of people from the WTC. However, planes hit the structures near the tops sections, and the fire was spreading rapidly, leaving the workers and guests trapped. In order to escape a painful death, some of them threw themselves off the highest floors of the towers. Manhattan remained paralyzed, and even the emergency services did not know what to do in such a situation. By 9.59 in the morning, the South Tower of the WTC collapsed in front of thousands of people, burying under the debris of those who were still inside (Bergen, 2013). Less than thirty minutes later, the second building was destroyed, as well. Clouds of smoke and dust filled the streets of New York City as the panic continued. Multiple smaller structures surrounding the towers were also damaged, and some of them subsequently collapsed. The entire city was shocked by the dreadful event, meaning that the terrorists accomplished this part of the mission.

The Pentagon and the Fourth Plane

Nevertheless, Manhattan was not the only target for Al-Qaeda, as there was a total of four aircraft hijacked on September 11. American Airlines Flight 77 had departed from the Dulles Airport near Washington D.C. and headed for Los Angeles when the terrorists incapacitated its crew and took control of the plane (Bergen, 2013). The third attack demonstrated the terrorists’ intention to oppose the United States by attacking important landmarks and governmental buildings. At 9.37 in the morning, American Airlines Flight 77 attacked the command center of the American military forces and crashed into the southwest side of the Pentagon. Following this crash, a fire started in the building, which was soon extinguished by the Pentagon’s workers. The fact that all planes carried complete loads of fuel was crucial, as it led to severe consequences in New York City.

Once the third collision occurred, there remained little or no doubt regarding the terrorists’ intentions. The government realized that the entire nation was under attack, the scope of which remained unknown, and each aircraft could be a potential threat. Shortly after the Pentagon attack, the Federal Aviation Authority of the United States commenced a ground stop across the nation. In other words, all commercial aircraft were ordered to remain on the ground until further notice. This way, it was possible to detect other hijacked planes, of which there remained one. United Airlines Flight 93 departed from Newark, New Jersey, and the terrorists captured it, similar to the others. However, one of the passengers managed to contact people on the ground, who informed him of the attacks on New York and Washington. By 10:03 in the morning, the passengers of the fourth flight managed to resist the terrorists and, due to this fight, the airplane hit the ground in the Pennsylvania countryside. The exact target of United Airlines Flight 93 remains unknown, but its trajectory suggests that it was located in Washington, D.C. Therefore, it is possible that the passengers’ resistance prevented an attack on the Capitol or the White House.

The aftermath of the Event

Evidently, an attack of such a magnitude caused shock across the whole world, as all nations united in considering the new challenges related to terrorism. The threat of Al-Qaeda and similar organizations became obvious once a major attack was executed against one of the world’s leaders. At the same time, while the global political landscape underwent major transformations in the fallout of the attack, it also affected the lives of many people worldwide. Those who died in the WTC had families and friends who continue to mourn them after two decades. In addition, those who were in the middle of the events suffered from dire psychological consequences, along with possible physical injuries. A study by Lowell et al. (2018) revealed a “substantial burden of 9/11-related PTSD among those highly exposed to the attack, associated with a range of sociodemographic and background factors” (p. 537). Therefore, the attacks had a profound impact on the whole world on both global and personal levels.

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Indeed, the aftermath of the September 11 attacks is usually discussed within the framework of the global security infrastructure. As discussed earlier, the intelligence services of the West did not manage to identify a terrorist operation, which was unfolding on their territory (Pastorello & Testa, 2017). While secret services were aware of a potential attack, their further actions lacked consistency and cooperation. As a result, terrorists managed to arrive and settle in the United States before launching a successful attack. The event in New York Washington, D.C., forced the world’s leaders to reconsider the approach to security (Pastorello & Testa, 2017). Countries realized their vulnerability to deadly acts of terrorism within the existing framework, which is why considerable changes were implemented. Most safety measures, which are currently observed by the citizens in airports, train stations, and various public spaces, stem from the 9/11-inspired doctrines. In fact, these transformations had an impact on global security, as developed countries without internal conflicts saw a significant decrease in the risk of terrorist attacks since 2001 (Smith & Zeigler, 2017). Accordingly, it is possible to say that the world managed to draw the correct conclusions from the deadly attacks on the United States.

Summary and Conclusion

In conclusion, the attacks on New York City and Washington D.C., which took place on September 11, 2001, became one of the pivotal points of contemporary history. Al-Qaeda terrorists, led by Osama bin Laden, wanted to oppose the civilized world, and they managed to cause thousands of deaths in the United States. The attack was entailed by poor coordination between the world’s leading intelligence agencies. In the fallout of the events, the global security framework was reconsidered, as international terrorism was proclaimed the most significant threat of the century. Overall, the aftermath of the September 11 attacks continues to echo across the whole world, having had a profound impact on global processes.


Bergen, P. L. (2011). September 11 attacks. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web.

Lowell, A., Suarez-Jimenez, B., Helpman, L., Zhu, X., Durosky, A., Hilburn, A., Schneier, F., Gross, R., & Neria, Y. (2018). 9/11-related PTSD among highly exposed populations: a systematic review 15 years after the attack. Psychological Medicine, 48(4), 537–553. Web.

Pastorello, M., & Testa, M. (2017). Intelligence failures: Between theories and case studies. Sicurezza, Terrorismo e Società, 5, 49–67. Web.

Smith, M, & Zeigler, S. M. (2017). Terrorism before and after 9/11 – a more dangerous world? Research & Politics, 4(4). Web.

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