9/11

Interlude: Another 9/11 Anniversary

Almost everything that can be said about 9/11 has been said. From the Bush Administration’s politically motivated negligence before the attacks, to the mind-numbing 24/7 news footage of planes flying into buildings (one of my few vivid memories from that time), to the sudden unity of American polarity and then the just as sudden unraveling of that unity and the ensuing overtures to war in the Middle East, it was an overwhelming horror show.

I’ve already addressed how 9/11 was merely component to Al Queda’s plan for the Middle East, and how Osama Bin Laden and pals were not cartoonish villains but strategists with a canny knack for anticipating an enemy’s response and exploiting opportunities for radicalizing allies to join their overall cause.

Just recently, for the first time, I watched an old recording from Berkeley of a discussion between Errol Morris and Robert McNamara. I devoted a good chunk of a previous post to McNamara’s “11 Lessons from Vietnam,” but in Morris’s film, The Fog of War, the filmmaker extrapolated 11 more general lessons. The first one is “empathize with your enemy.”

In the Berkeley discussion, Morris recounts an interview in 2003 with FOX “news” where his interviewer insisted that The Fog of War’s lessons didn’t apply to the War on Terror. Specifically, they insisted that terrorists cannot be empathized with.

Empathy, according to Psychology Today because why not:

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.

It can be unpleasant to place yourself in the shoes of a person who has done horrible things. There seems to be a kind of irrational reluctance, as though without ever admitting it, we at any point are secretly on the precipice of moral conversion and merely tempting that by thinking like an amoral person will put us over the edge. People therefore find the idea repellent, and despite the continued proliferation of Christianity, in this case thoroughly reject the following quote:

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

To their minds, this is irreconcilable with the actions of terrorists. I, a non-Christian, disagree. No matter the label, a human being is a human being, and no matter the crimes is entitled to the same rights and justice as anyone else.

However, “empathize with your enemy,” is a rule which has far more in common with the lessons of a figure other than Jesus. That figure is decidedly less of a pacifist. The quote is commonly truncated to:

Know your enemy.

Knowledge of the enemy is a perfect summary of a strategic discrepancy between the United States and our opponents in the Middle East. This brings us back to 9/11.

The 9/11 attacks played upon our weaknesses while capitalizing on the attacker’s strengths. The fact that they constructed a plan, carried it out (imperfectly), and achieved a very specific but immensely significant outcome says a great deal not only about the cunning involved, but the depth of knowledge about America, and what buttons they needed to push in order to get their desired response.

I’m going to attempt to do what many, if not most Americans, were and are reluctant to do. I’m going to analyze the strategy of the 9/11 attacks from the point of view of those who executed it. This is going to be a long and painful exercise. It is my hope that doing so will demonstrate not only the canny abilities of our adversaries, but the profound weaknesses they exploited, weaknesses which I believe continue today and threaten the repeat of 9/11 in new ways.


I am now the planner(s) of the 9/11 attacks. My objective is to provoke the United States into overextending its military assets and entrenching them in an economically crippling guerrilla war in a hostile region. Ostensibly the reasons for this are historical and ideological, but for the purposes of the plan those things don’t matter. With this incredibly ambitious objective in mind, what are the approaches we can take?

Diplomatic:

At this time we haven’t the international influence necessary to compel the United States to engage the Middle East on this scale. Most regimes in the Middle East which might be willing to attack the United states are hostile to us (like Iraq), and their inability to carry out such attacks despite motivation indicates their insufficiency for this plan. This avenue has limited chances of success.

Economic:

Most economic assets are in heroin production, which are not sufficient leverage to coerce the United States, its allies, or its potential enemies into committing to such a risky endeavor. Additionally, our dependence on armament and other war implements puts us at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the neighbors we rely upon in terms of materiel leverage. This avenue has limited chances of success.

Military:

It does not take great international influence or advanced military hardware to attack a vulnerable target in a devastating way. Additionally, experience in Afghanistan and in previous engagements with the US demonstrates that this is not only possible, but likely to have at least a moderate chance of success of execution versus the costs and risks.

There may be other approaches, but on the ambitious scale of what our strategy hopes to achieve, they are not “global” enough, and thus too inconsequential to meet our goal. A military approach, having the highest likelihood of success, will be selected as the primary avenue of our strategy.

In order to demonstrate the scale of our objective, the attack must be internationally shocking. A partial or complete destruction of the intended target and/or significant loss of life in at least the triple digits, is likely required.

With our primary means chosen, how should a military approach be executed? A target, or targets, must first be chosen. The target must ideally have the greatest possible impact with the minimum possible material and logistic commitment.

An ally of the United States

US Allies in Africa and South America

Both regions see violence every year and are lucky if the United States so much as makes a statement about it. This has a low likelihood of achieving our aims.

US Allies in the Middle East

The easiest plan to act upon.This has the potential advantage of allowing for not only provoking the United States, but of causing direct damage to enemies of opportunity we seek to eventually depose. However, activities in the Middle East are most vulnerable to being preemptively perceived and countered due to existing regional opposition. Also, not even Soviet involvement in Afghanistan and a hostage crisis in Iran have provoked an expensive military response from the United States. Only the Gulf War successfully engaged the United States in an extensive military action, but the United States’ commitment was highly conditional and its military aims were achieved, which is not a pattern we wish to perpetuate. However, given the ease of attacking targets in this area, it remains a remote option.

US Allies in Asia

Only Japan and South Korea offer themselves as strong potential targets, and their constant sensitivity about incursions from China and North Korea respectively make them inopportune and difficult. Rather than presuming an origin in the Middle East, first, distracting assumptions may lead to more regionally local responses. This has a troubled likelihood of achieving our aims.

US Allies in Europe

There are many good targets of opportunity in Europe, where the US has a long history of committing to military action at various scales. Additionally, with Russia’s fall from power, Europe is less vigilant against possible attacks. However, since WWII its commitment has been more conditional to either the UN or NATO, and since also WWII there has so far been no precedent for an attack on one nation provoking retaliatory response against a completely different global region. An attack would need to be large in scale. However, this remains a strong option.

US Allies in North and Central America

The same case for Europe can be made for Canada, and the US’s mixed history with Mexico and Central America means they are unreliable as targets for a provocative attack. Canada remains a strong option.

The US Itself

This is of course a challenge, but it’s not particularly more challenging than Europe or Canada, and debatably less challenging than attacking US allies in Asia. The US is as vulnerable to attack as most of Europe, believing in no viable immediate threats on a national scale. Direct attacks against the United States have the potential to drag it into war (see: Pearl Harbor), but small terror attacks have been considered isolated or insignificant cases. Still, it remains a strong, and possibly the most direct and provocative, option. As with Europe and Canada, the attack would need to be particularly large in scale to evoke a response.

Rather than looking more thoroughly at the pros and cons of every option, we’re going to focus on the best options.

Europe

Pros:

  • Easy overland travel through national borders.
  • History of violence provoking US intervention
  • Strategic targets of high value

Cons:

  • No large-scale unilateral US dedication to involvement since WWII
  • Mitigated effect of indirect attack
  • Remote distance from United States and Middle East minimizes impact

Canada

Pros:

  • Close proximity to United States
  • Especially relaxed security environment (no domestic defense enforced for almost two centuries)
  • Canadian response likely to summon US response

Cons:

  • No history of committed interventionism
  • Distance and ocean make logistical enforcement more difficult
  • Lack of coherence with ideological stance against more visible countries like the US or UK

United States

Pros:

  • Direct approach with strongest likelihood of provoking response, assuming adequate scale
  • Fairly relaxed security environment (no domestic defense enforced since WWII or threatened since mid-Cold War)
  • History of being provoked by domestic attacks

Cons:

  • Robust intelligence network increasing likelihood of interception/prevention
  • Same logistical constraints as with Canada
  • Highest requirement for energy in generating the greatest possible military effect

All of the pros and cons can be weighted against one another, and the choice ultimately comes down to intuition. There is no doubt, however, that the most daring proposal with the greatest potential for results despite a moderate risk, is attacking the United States, and this is the target we ultimately choose.

Specific Static or Mobile Targets

To enhance the pervasive nature of the attack and the scale upon which it is perceived, it must strike either a crippling or a symbolic blow against the national target. A crippling blow is impossible with the military means we have, due to the decentralized nature of the US military (which we wish to preserve for the sake of engaging the Middle East) and its government (with an extensive chain of command and order of succession).

A symbolic attack will do little real physical damage to the decentralized hierarchy of the United States, but accomplish an effective provocation nonetheless. The greatest symbols of American power are its military, its economy, and its various government icons. An ideal symbol will exhibit a maximum of both vulnerability and symbolic significance.

Hitting a military base would be a powerful symbolic move. However, the inherent defensible nature of such a base makes it less vulnerable than other targets. Looking at the most significant civilian target with military importance, the obvious choice is The Pentagon.

A symbol of economic power was already chosen in 1993. The World Trade center is an architectural and commercial testament to US trading power.

Obvious symbols of government are the White House, and the buildings of the House and Senate.

For ease of coordination, all methods of attack should be as simple as possible while also being similar, if not the same.

Method of Attack

A conventional or dirty bomb of some kind is the only means by which to generate the necessary effect. However, a single attack from a car loaded with bombs was attempted before and largely failed. If the previous attack is to be improved upon, it must be increased in both scale and destructive power.

Land

The diverse security obstacles make a land-born weapon, dirty or otherwise, impractical.

Sea

We do not have the capability to launch a successful attack by sea.

Air

Obviously warplanes are not at our disposal. However, a plane hijacking is possible. Smuggling small weapons onto a plane is not difficult, but smuggling bombs likely will be. However, when loaded with fuel, a plane equipped for long flights can effectively turn into a bomb itself, as well as a delivery vehicle for the bomb.

Hijacking a plane and using it as a missile is an efficient way to produce a destructive effect that can be equally applied to all targets of opportunity.

Miscellaneous

The finer details of the attacks, the training, logistics, and execution are less relevant to our strategic goal.

Conclusion

The attacks on 9/11 took place. However, the planning could not have ended there. We must examine where we succeeded, where we failed, and where luck aided our strategy where it might not have.

Successes

  • We succeeded in destroying much of the World Trade Center
  • We succeeded in striking the Pentagon
  • We succeeded in creating an environment of fear and panic in the wake of the attacks
  • We succeeded in sowing economic discord and weakness
  • We succeeded in provoking the United States into unilateral military commitment to the Middle East

Failures

  • We underestimated the power of resistance by American Passengers on airline flights
  • We failed to exploit the vulnerability of the TSA’s regulations to smuggle weapons aboard which would have minimized the threat of resistance
  • We underestimated or failed to anticipate the unifying effect of the 9/11 attacks
  • We generated confusion by not immediately taking credit for the attacks in a visible way
  • We confused our message and failed to effectively communicate the reason for the attacks
  • We failed to cause significant real damage to the Pentagon’s staff due to poor timing
  • We failed to hit an executive or legislative government building, or any of its occupants

Successes of luck

  • US fighter craft were on routine exercises which minimized their response time
  • US intelligence services failed to anticipate our plan despite having acquired evidence for it
  • The Bush administration ignored the evidence that intelligence services did collect about the plan
  • The TSA’s security measures did not compromise any of the hijackers, despite having the ability to do so
  • Potential for the hijackers to be compromised upon entry to the United States or in the course of their activities was not capitalized upon
  • The unifying effect of the 9/11 attacks was not constructively used
  • The misinformation disseminated about us and the attacks engendered ignorance which helped perpetuate US attitudes

I’ll end this thought exercise there. I, of course, benefit from hindsight and information gleaned from other’s thorough investigations and journalism. However, this is the sort of exercise that a concerned administration then, and today, must undertake when they address any potential threat to the United States. If a member of the FBI or the NSA had written this report before 9/11, and it had been taken seriously by the Bush Administration, 9/11 would not have happened.

Before I end this, look again at the lists of the planners’ successes, failures, and instances of blind luck. Al Queda’s successes are our vulnerabilities. Its failures are our successes and victories. Al Queda’s luck is our weakness and incompetence.

How much safer are our domestic institutions from terrorism?

How much less inclined are we to seize panic and fall to economic discord?

How much less inclined are we to become bogged down in the Middle East?

Are we less vain and prone to reactionary policies?

Are our intelligence services better disposed to ending terror plots?

Are our government officials less beholden to party politics?

Are our airports more secure?

Are we more united as a country?

Do we have a better understanding of the enemies arrayed against us?

Are we more informed about our role in the world and the consequences of our actions?

It’s been fourteen years. Out of the horror and death of 9/11, what have we learned, and what do we have to show for the introspection that event encouraged?

In the Throes of Defeat

…it’s no secret to you that the thinkers and perceptive ones from among the Americans warned Bush before the war and told him: ‘All that you want for securing America and removing the weapons of mass destruction – assuming they exist – is available to you, and the nations of the world are with you in the inspections, and it is in the interest of America that it not be thrust into an unjustified war with an unknown outcome.’
But the darkness of the black gold blurred his vision and insight, and he gave priority to private interests over the public interests of America.
So the war went ahead, the death toll rose, the American economy bled, and Bush became embroiled in the swamps of Iraq that threaten his future. He fits the saying “like the naughty she-goat who used her hoof to dig up a knife from under the earth”.
So I say to you, over 15,000 of our people have been killed and tens of thousands injured, while more than a thousand of you have been killed and more than 10,000 injured. And Bush’s hands are stained with the blood of all those killed from both sides, all for the sake of oil and keeping their private companies in business.
Be aware that it is the nation who punishes the weak man when he causes the killing of one of its citizens for money, while letting the powerful one get off, when he causes the killing of more than 1000 of its sons, also for money.
And the same goes for your allies in Palestine. They terrorise[sic] the women and children, and kill and capture the men as they lie sleeping with their families on the mattresses, that you may recall that for every action, there is a reaction.
Finally, it behoves[sic] you to reflect on the last wills and testaments of the thousands who left you on [9/11] as they gestured in despair. They are important testaments, which should be studied and researched.
Among the most important of what I read in them was some prose in their gestures before the collapse, where they say: ‘How mistaken we were to have allowed the White House to implement its aggressive foreign policies against the weak without supervision.’
It is as if they were telling you, the people of America: ‘Hold to account those who have caused us to be killed, and happy is he who learns from others’ mistakes.’
And among that which I read in their gestures is a verse of poetry. ‘Injustice chases its people, and how unhealthy the bed of tyranny.’
As has been said: ‘An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.’
And know that: ‘It is better to return to the truth than persist in error.’ And that the wise man doesn’t squander his security, wealth and children for the sake of the liar in the White House.
In conclusion, I tell you in truth, that your security is not in the hands of Kerry, nor Bush, nor al-Qaida. No.
Your security is in your own hands. And every state that doesn’t play with our security has automatically guaranteed its own security.
Osama bin Laden, in a message directed to the American people (2004)

9/11 was an act of terrorism, and it was a tragedy. It was a tragedy because three thousand innocent people lost their lives in an event that was not only horrific, but preventable. As an act of terror, this devastating event was caused by a desperate group of people in typical guerrilla fashion for political reasons.

One of the greatest crimes US presidents have overseen in the wake of 9/11, aside from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the dismantling of Iraqi infrastructure and security, the use of torture, NSA surveillance, and extrajudicial executions of Americans and non-Americans alike, and the thousands of allied soldiers and innocent civilians killed in the pursuit of “freedom” and “democracy,” is the perpetuation of ignorance.

9/11 was a tragedy, but it was also an opportunity to reflect. It raised serious questions, like, “What would so violently motivate a handful of people from halfway across the world to blow themselves up in order to take 3,000 American lives?” “What have we been doing in the Middle East?” “Why have we been doing it?” “Have our actions been justified?” “Are the consequences worth the ire of a whole region of people whose daily lives are already fraught with uncertainty and violence?”

9/11 was the keystone for a transformation of America from a large, blundering young animal of a superpower into a wizened and self-aware global democracy. In seeking out the roots of 9/11, America would find a mirror and see its true face, and confronted with that, might seek to change, to become the force for good that it has for so long purported to be.

On 9/11 America was truly a great nation. It had promise and potential. It established national unity and a sense of moral vigor overnight, of a kind that dwarfs that of any other time in its entire history. America was set ablaze in a sort of heroic beacon of willpower and benevolence characterized by the monumental lamp beside its golden door. America could do anything. It had the motivation to excise its cancerous growths, purge itself of the parasites clinging to the back of democracy, and move forward into the 21st century a truly enlightened nation.

But on yet another anniversary of 9/11, that has not come to pass. America has hastened its own decline by ignoring the implications of its own history and clinging to the same reductionist and reactionary view towards the rest of the world that it held through most of the last century. This is a tragedy of another kind, for it is not an act of terror that has caused the death of thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan, American and Arab alike, but America’s own hubris.

9/11 was a booby trap; it was a cunning trap, and a murderous one, but it was only that. The enemy that administrations have characterized as bloodthirsty and savage, monstrous villains who “hate democracy” and “hate freedom,” were not stupid. 9/11 was not intended to be a crippling blow, but a trip line, a loop of thread upon which an unwise and unaware nation might stumble. And stumble we did.

From the same transcript of Bin Laden’s speech:

All that we have mentioned has made it easy for us to provoke and bait this administration. All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.
This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.
All Praise is due to Allah.

And so, thirteen years since 9/11, three years since Osama Bin Laden’s assassination, what do we have to show for ourselves?

Is America more prosperous? Is it safer? Have we defeated Al Queda? Have we brought peace to the Middle East?

Is America more democratic, more tolerant, more free?

I believe the answer to each of these questions is “no.”

The inevitable question, then, is, “So who has won the War on Terror?”

Al Queda may be diminished, but it has already spawned a new, worse threat, one that is even more violent, more extreme. The Middle East is as unstable as ever, as is the American economy, and the certainty of our national future.

For all the money spent, the freedoms revoked, the suffering engendered, the lives lost, has it been worth it?

“The reward of suffering is experience.”

Yet, experience means nothing if it is not remembered.