Blackest September: the 2001 Terrorist Attacks on the United States

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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Group - Blackest September: the 2001 Terrorist Attacks on the United States

14 September 2001 (updated 28 September)


What happened
Rogue state or extremist organisation?
- Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda group
- Iran
- Iraq
- Palestinian groups
- Libya and Syria
- Domestic American groups
The accused aid workers in Afghanistan
The powerful are vulnerable
Terrorism: Links to useful material


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.

What happened

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.


United Nations

George W. Bush

John Howard

Kim Beazley

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.

Rogue 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.

Osama bin 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.

Palestinian groups

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 retaliation.

Libya and Syria

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.

Domestic American groups

Expatriate Arabs

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.

The 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 vulnerable

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 response.

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 ultimatum 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 is needed.

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).

Terrorism: Links to useful material

Conventions against Terrorism

Counter Terrorism Links

ERRI 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)

Attorney-General of Australia National Security Internet Site - Australia's response to the US World Trade Centre Incident, Attorney General of Australia

US State Department Report on Terrorism for Year 2000

US State 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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