On this day in 2001, four coordinated attacks by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda kill 2,996 people, injure over 6,000 others, and cause at least $10 billion in infrastructure and property damage. Additional victims and first responders continue to die of 9/11-related cancer and respiratory diseases in each passing month and year following the attacks.
Four passenger airliners operated by air carriers United Airlines and American Airlines, all departing from the northeast and bound for California, were hijacked by 19 al-Qaeda terrorists in a carefully planned plot to shock the entire planet. Two of the aircraft, American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, were purposefully crashed into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan.
Within an hour and 42 minutes, both 110-story towers collapsed. Debris and the resulting fires caused a partial or complete collapse of all other buildings in the complex, including the 47-story 7 World Trade Center tower, as well as significant damage to ten other large surrounding structures.
A third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, was crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, which led to a partial collapse of the building’s west side. The fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, was initially flown toward Washington, D.C., but crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after its passengers thwarted the hijackers. 9/11 is the single deadliest incident for firefighters and law enforcement officers in the history of the United States, with 343 and 72 killed, respectively.
The U.S. responded by launching the War on Terror and invaded Afghanistan to depose the Taliban, which had failed to comply with demands to extradite mastermind Osama bin Laden and expel al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. Many countries strengthened their anti-terrorism legislation, expanded the powers of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to prevent terrorist attacks, and joined the U.S. in a “coalition of the willing.”
Although al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden initially denied any involvement, in 2004 he claimed responsibility for the attacks. Al-Qaeda and bin Laden cited U.S. support of Israel, the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, and sanctions against Iraq as motives. After evading capture for almost a decade, Osama bin Laden was located and killed in Pakistan by SEAL Team Six of the U.S. Navy in May 2011.
In addition to actions in Afghanistan, a second invasion of Iraq was carried out as part of a declared war against international terrorism and its sponsors under the administration of President George W. Bush. At 2:40 p.m. on the afternoon of September 11, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was issuing rapid orders to his aides to locate evidence of Iraqi involvement. According to notes taken by senior policy official Stephen Cambone, Rumsfeld asked for, “Best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit S.H. (Saddam Hussein) at same time. Not only UBL (Osama bin Laden).” Cambone’s notes quoted Rumsfeld as saying, “Need to move swiftly – Near term target needs – go massive – sweep it all up.”
After nearly two decades deployed, credible estimates of Iraq War casualties range from 151,000 violent deaths as of June 2006, per the Iraq Family Health Survey, to 461,000 total deaths as of June 2011, per PLOS Medicine. As of June 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Defense casualty website, there were 4,424 total personnel deaths and 31,952 wounded in action as a result of the Iraq War.
Meanwhile further east, over 111,000 Afghans, including civilians, soldiers and militants, are estimated to have been killed in the War in Afghanistan. The Cost of War project estimated that the number who have died through indirect causes related to the war may be as high 360,000 additional people based on a ratio of indirect to direct deaths in contemporary conflicts. As of July 2018, there have been 2,372 U.S. military deaths in the War in Afghanistan; 1,856 of these the result of hostile action. 20,320 American service members have also been wounded in action during the war and there have been 1,720 U.S. civilian contractor fatalities.
The constant struggle for security and stability continues unabated, and the debts owed to those who keep us safe can never be fully paid.