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?
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.
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.
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.
- Easy overland travel through national borders.
- History of violence provoking US intervention
- Strategic targets of high value
- 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
- Close proximity to United States
- Especially relaxed security environment (no domestic defense enforced for almost two centuries)
- Canadian response likely to summon US response
- 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
- 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
- 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.
The diverse security obstacles make a land-born weapon, dirty or otherwise, impractical.
We do not have the capability to launch a successful attack by sea.
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.
The finer details of the attacks, the training, logistics, and execution are less relevant to our strategic goal.
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.
- 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
- 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?