Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Group -
Blackest September: the 2001 Terrorist Attacks on the United
14 September 2001 (updated 28 September)
It is not yet possible to fully assess the mechanics, let alone
the significance, of the terror attacks on the United States on 11
September 2001. This brief is simply an attempt to provide clients
with some minimal commentary and access to useful Web-based
resources on terrorism.
Four US commercial domestic flights were hijacked. Two of these
targeted and struck the World Trade Centre in New York, with about
fifteen minutes between the strikes; another struck the Pentagon in
Washington. The other aircraft crashed, possibly on its way to the
US Capitol or White House. It appears that aboard this last
aircraft the terrorists were somehow thwarted because some
passengers, informed by mobile telephone of the likely intent of
the hijackers, struggled with the terrorists in order to prevent
further and more devastating carnage, even in the realisation that
this struggle would be likely to bring down the aircraft.
A chronology of the day's events can be found here
A chronology of
global terrorist activity can be found here; for each listed year
go to Appendix A.
Tony Blair (UK)
Yasser Arafat (Palestinian authority)
Taliban (de facto Afghan Government)
For specific information on the Australian Government's
responses visit the Attorney-General of Australia
National Security Internet Site. Information regarding security
activities will be posted on this site.
The US Government has set up a Web page
which provides access to many aspects of the American reaction -
including casualty lists, benefits and assistance and warnings of
frauds and scams.
state or extremist organisation?
Following perhaps the worst terrorist act in history, the world
and especially the American people will search for answers. Much of
what happens in the next few days and weeks will depend on the
identity of the perpetrators. Organisations or states which have
some history of anti-western terrorism were obviously high on
suspect lists, though internal American dissidents could not
automatically be excluded either.
In his speech
of 20 September, President Bush identified the Al-Qaeda group of
bin Laden as the culprits. Rumours continue of the involvement of
others, specifically individuals connected to Iraqi security
agencies. Faced by the need to manage popular opinion in Islamic
states supporting the US, President Bush has promised to provide
the evidence indicating bin Laden's culpability. As yet (28
September), however, no specific evidence is publicly available to
support claims against any group or state, but circumstantial
evidence mounts regarding Osama bin Laden's involvement.
Laden's Al-Qaeda group
Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda group have been identified by
US officials as the most likely suspect in the attacks. Since
fighting the Soviets in the 1980s, bin
Laden has become the United States' most violent enemy, his
group responsible for a car bomb attack on American military
barracks in Saudi Arabia. In 1998, suicide car bombers from his
group blew up the US Embassies in Nairobi (Kenya) and Dar es Salaam
(Tanzania). Although denied by the Taliban, intelligence reports
strongly suggest Osama bin Laden is resident in Afghanistan.
Despite UN Security Council sanctions passed on Afghanistan for
harbouring Osama bin Laden following the 1998 bombings, the Taliban
has refused to hand over the Islamic leader to the international
community. US Embassies were placed on alert in May when 4 members
of bin Laden’s group were found guilty of the bombings, two
of them likely to face the death penalty. More recently, bin Laden
has also been blamed for the attack on the
USS Cole docked in Aden, in which 17 American servicemen were
killed. As well as all these attacks there have also been a number
that have been attempted but foiled.
Bin Laden is considered capable of the attack due to his
supposed $A500 million fortune, and his large international network
and following. He is reported to have followers in every big city
around the world with a Muslim population. On August 11, the US
Trade Representative, Robert Zoellick discussed the presence of bin
Laden's group in Indonesia with Megawati Soekarnoputri. In 1998 bin
Laden declared a fatwa (a religious order) calling for
attacks on Americans, and recently publicly advised of an attack on
the US of an unprecedented scale. The similarities in coordination
with the 1998 embassy bombings also point to bin Laden. US
officials have since the attacks stated that the Government has
evidence that at least one of the hijackers had links to bin Laden,
and mounting evidence pointed to the Arabic identity of the groups.
However, the Taliban has denied bin Laden was involved in the
attacks, its envoy in Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, saying he lacked
the facilities for such an operation.
It is highly unlikely that the central Government of The Islamic
Republic of Iran would undertake an attack on the United States,
due both to the liberalisation of the regime under President
Khatami, and to the massive response that would come should a state
government be found to be involved. Much has been made recently of
Iran's Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and ballistic missile
capability, but there has been no suggestion Iran would seek to
attack the US. While Iran and Iranian backed groups do have a
history of terrorism, it seems that under the reformist regime of
President Khatami Iran would be very unlikely to attack the US.
President Khatami has joined with other world leaders and expressed
his deep sympathy for the American nation.
For the same reason as for Iran, it is unlikely the Iraqi regime
under Saddam Hussein would perpetrate such an attack, the
consequences would be inordinately severe. Intelligence reports
suggest Iraq has recently rebuilt its Chemical and Biological
Weapons capabilities, and has seemingly shot down two US Predator
surveillance planes patrolling the no-fly zones in the north of the
country. While the regime obviously has a number of grievances
against the US, there is little to suggest that Iraq has planned or
even considered an attack on US soil such as this. Iraq has never
mounted a successful operation outside of its region.
The timing of the attacks following the carnage of the
Palestinian Intifada and what have been perceived as pro-Israeli
responses by the US Government, have prompted speculation the
attacks were carried out by Palestinian groups. The Democratic
Front for a Liberated Palestine claimed responsibility but later
retracted this. Palestinians have carried out terrorist attacks
before, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP),
destroying Western aircraft, and the Black September group
assassinating the Jordanian Prime Minister, and killing 11 Israeli
athletes at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972. Since the attack,
Palestinians have been reported celebrating across the Middle East.
However, Yasser Arafat has condemned the recent attacks. Hamas has
denied responsibility, the PFLP and Islamic Jihad have distanced
themselves from the attacks. Probably the only related group with
the logistical capability to undertake these attacks would be
Hezbollah, but that group would not act without permission from
Iran or Syria, who would be unlikely to give it for fear of
These states are unlikely to have been involved due to fears of
retaliation and due to a recent normalisation of relations with the
West in the case of the former, and domestic instability in the
latter. Libyan leader Gaddafi condemned the attack, and a Syrian
spokesperson sent messages of condemnation and sympathy.
The World Trade Centre was bombed in 1993 by a group led by
US-based Arab figures, such as Ramzi Yousef, with links to Sheikh
Omar Abdul Rahman, a New Jersey based cleric wanted in Egypt. With
US identity papers it would be easier for such individuals to board
domestic aircraft. It is feasible of course that US based
individuals carried out the attacks under the command of external
figures such as Osama bin Laden.
Extremist US anti-Federal Government groups
In considering the likelihood that the attacks were carried out
by groups with links to the Middle East, it must be remembered that
following the Oklahoma City bombing, the same conclusions were
initially drawn. In that case it eventuated that right wing
anti-government groups carried out the bombing, specifically
Timothy McVeigh who was found guilty of the attack and subsequently
executed. McVeigh stated he carried out the attack in retaliation
for the attack on the Waco compound by Federal (Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI)) agents. It was earlier thought that the recent attack could
have been carried out by a similar group(s), though suicide attacks
have not been part of their modus operandi.
accused aid workers in Afghanistan
If it is indeed established that Osama bin Laden is responsible
for the outrages in New York and Washington, and that he is still
living in Afghanistan, thought needs to be given to the plight of
the eight foreign aid workers (including two Australians) currently
on trial in Kabul for the crimes of allegedly preaching
Christianity and attempting to convert Muslims. These people
already faced an uncertain future at the mercy of an alien and
uncertainly objective legal system, but the risk now is that they
could become pawns, or de facto hostages, in a wider problem.
Clearly, US pressure for the handover of bin Laden will become
intense if a case can be made against him for the September
attacks. In such conditions the Taliban regime may well see their
possession of the eight accused aid workers as an asset, or even
potentially as a shield from US attack. It is significant that
foreign diplomats, including Australia's, who have been in Kabul
proving such assistance to the accused as the Taliban would allow,
are now being withdrawn.
According the definition used by the Australian Defence Force
(ADF), terrorism is:
The use or threatened use of violence for political ends, or any
use or threatened use of violence for the purpose of putting the
public or any section of the public in fear.
The recent attacks certainly meet this definition.
It might be tempting to classify terrorists by what they do,
rather than why it is done. This, however, neglects the fundamental
distinction between the common criminal and the terrorist. The
former perpetrates atrocities for profit, or personal vengeance,
whereas the latter does the same thing for what he or she believes
to be a higher cause - for example, liberation from perceived
oppression, reform of an allegedly unfair political or economic
system, and so on. The distinction is important because it affects
behaviour. Criminals - unless mentally unsound - are rarely
prepared to sacrifice their lives: they are fundamentally
self-interested cowards. As such, when cornered by authority they
are more likely to give up than is a terrorist, who may be only too
happy to take a few of the 'enemy' along in a final exchange of
fire, or to die in order to achieve an important objective. The
spate of suicide bombings in Israel has recently demonstrated the
truth of this assessment.
The powerful are
The attacks on New York and Washington have shown that even the
world’s unchallenged top military power is in some ways still
very vulnerable (Richard Falkenrath,
'Problems of Preparedness: US readiness for a domestic terrorist
attack', International Security, vol. 2, no. 4, 2001).
Its enemies – whose identity is unknown at the time of
writing – have been able to strike with devastating effect at
the heart of its greatest city and at the very headquarters of the
United States Armed Forces, the Pentagon near Washington. In the
event, all the trillions of dollars that the United States spends
on defence and security availed nothing. President George W.
Bush’s missile defence system, were it in place, would
likewise have been powerless against this attack.
This attack in one sense merely reconfirms what has long been
understood about terrorism, that it is an effective strategy where
there is a massive disparity of conventional military or economic
power. States, or even non-state groups, which have no hope of
successfully engaging the US in open combat – considering for
example the disaster which befell Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1991
– can nevertheless strike effective blows by resorting to
unconventional, irregular or terrorist tactics, so-called
'asymmetric threats'(Joseph Nusbaum and Kevin O'Brien,
'Intelligence Gathering in Asymmetric Threats: part one',
Jane's Intelligence Review, vol. 12, no. 10, 2000) and
part two: vol. 12, no. 11, 2000.
An article written last year
now available on the Jane's website discusses the risks of
suicide terrorist attacks.
Responses to the attack
There has been almost universal condemnation of the attack.
Interest has shifted to what the United States might do in
From the President down, US officials have been emphasing the
need to establish clearly who is responsible for the attack, and to
pursue justice rather than revenge. Having identified the Al-Qaeda
group of bin Laden as the culprits, President Bush delivered an
to Afghanistan's Taliban regime to hand him over together with
other members of the group, and to close Al-Qaeda training camps.
The President also confirmed his determination to destroy all
terrorists possessing a global reach. Pakistan, despite its long
support of the Taliban regime has been persuaded to promise
assistance to the US: two Pakistani envoys went (friutlessly) to
Kabul to warn the Taliban to surender bin Laden, and Pakistan has
indicated that its airspace will open to the US if military action
The Soviet experience warns against attempts to invade, conquer
and occupy Afghanistan. The US has not indicated what action it
might take if the Taliban refuse to surrender bin Laden, but air
attacks and special forces insertions, perhaps with cooperation
from the Northern Alliance fighters who have been resisting the
Taliban with arms ever since it took Kabul, appear probable.
Nonetheless, it is increasingly apparent that most of the work
of destroying terrorist networks will be done by police, other law
enforcement agencies and civilian intelligence organisations. Given
the nature of the problem, such police activity will be
internationally coordinated. Securing effective cooperation with
law enforcement agencies in Islamic countries will ensure that
diplomacy will be equally important. As yet, neither the US nor
Australian governments have publicly detailled the policy issues
involved. A brief discussion of the policy considerations which
will need to be addressed can be found . here
There has been no indication as yet as to how the US might
proceed if it captures bin Laden. Noted international lawyer
Geoffrey Robertson QC proposed on the ABC's Lateline
program on 17 September that the attacks on the US be declared
crimes against humanity and that bin Laden be handed over to the
same Hague tribunal presently trying Slobodan Milosevic. Robertson
questions whether bin Laden could get a fair trial in an American,
especially a New York, court in the astmosphere now prevailing. He
also advocates UN Security Council authorisation for actions
against Afghanistan designed to secure bin Laden's handover. The
audio of this interview can be heard
here (Real Player needed).
Counter-Terrorism Archive - a summary of Worldwide terrorism
events, groups, and terrorist strategies and tactics
Measures to eliminate international terrorism - Report of the
UN Secretary-General, 3rd July 2001 (A/56/160)
Australia National Security Internet Site - Australia's
response to the US World Trade Centre Incident, Attorney General of
Department Report on Terrorism for Year 2000
Department Counterterrorism Co-ordinator
This e-brief was prepared by Gary Brown, Chris Wilson, Andrew Chin, Laura Rayner and Adrienne Blunt in the
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Group.
28 September 2001
E-Briefs are written for Members of Parliament, being located on
the Internet they can be read by members of the public, however
some linked items are available to Members of Parliament only, due
to copyright reasons.
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