We all remember where we were on Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaeda launched its horrific attacks on the United States. In the decade since, no number of commissions, books, films and reports has been able to end the misconceptions about what 9/11 meant, America’s response to it and the nature of the ongoing threat. As the anniversary nears, let’s tackle some of the most persistent myths.
1.Sept. 11 was unimaginable.
In 2002, the White House described 9/11 as “a new type of attack that had not been foreseen.” An understandable response to being caught off guard, perhaps — but the fact is that the possibility of hijacked airliners crashing into buildings was neither unimaginable nor unimagined. The idea dates at least to 1972, when hijackers, during a protracted domestic incident, shot the co-pilot of a Southern Airways flight and threatened to crash the plane into the nuclear facility at Oak Ridge, Tenn.
After the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center, a “red team” of consultants (myself included) hired by the center to explore future threats to the site identified a plane crashing into one of the towers as a possible scenario. In 1994, hijackers of an Air France jet reportedly considered crashing the aircraft into the Eiffel Tower. And a terrorist plot discovered in 1995 involving Ramzi Yousef, one of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-described architect of 9/11, contemplated crashing an explosives-laden plane into the headquarters of the CIA.
Nonetheless, the 9/11 attacks transformed our perceptions of plausibility. Terrorist scenarios deemed far-fetched on Sept. 10, 2001, became operative presumptions one day later; even a 1 percent chance of something happening was sufficient cause to treat the possibility seriously. This skepticism-free environment multiplied public fears and security spending. Meanwhile, terrorists carried out more predictable low-tech attacks on commuter trains and subways.
2.The attacks were a strategic success for al-Qaeda.
An audacious and unprecedented strike, 9/11 certainly was a tactical success. But it also was a strategic miscalculation.
In Osama bin Laden’s eyes, the United States was a hollow power. Despite the nation’s apparent military strength, in his view Americans had no stomach for losses, and a devastating terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland would drive the Americans out of the Middle East. In his 1996 fatwa declaring war on America, bin Laden pointed out that the United States withdrew its forces from Lebanon after the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. And in 1993, after 18 U.S. soldiers were killed on a single day in Mogadishu in an attack for which al-Qaeda claimed some credit, the United States hastily got out of Somalia.
Many of al-Qaeda’s commanders disagreed, predicting that an enraged United States would focus its fury on the terrorist group and its allies, but bin Laden pushed ahead. When the United States did just what the others had feared, bin Laden switched gears, asserting that he had intended all along to provoke the United States into waging a war that would galvanize all of Islam against it. That didn’t happen, either.