Historical Causes of the September 11 Terrorist Attacks


According to the American Psychological Association (1994), a traumatic event can be described as a psychologically stressful event that involves perceived or actual death or serious injury, or witnessing an event that involves injury or death of another person. Responses to these events usually involve horror, hopelessness and intense fear (American Psychological Association, 1994). The September 11 attacks in 2001 encouraged the development of a new class in the trauma field, mass trauma, which entails large numbers of deaths and injuries outside the context of war. The September 11 attacks were a significant traumatic event that affected the social, physical, spiritual, psychological, and economic well-being of individuals, groups and communities throughout the country as well as the world.

Despite having far-reaching consequences, many people in the country still do not understand much about the events surrounding the attacks apart from the obvious aftermath i.e. death and destruction. In order to understand and deal better with a traumatic event, it is imperative to understand as much information as possible about the situation behind the attack. To deal with trauma, it is important to understand the causes, immediate impact and possible ramifications.

September 11, 2001 Attacks

The September 11 attacks or the 9/11 attacks were a run of four terrorist attacks carried out in the U.S in Washington, D.C., and New York on September 11, 2001 (O’Brien, 2011). On that day, 19 members of the Islamic militant group Al-Qaeda, took control of 4 commercial jets heading to Los Angeles and San Francisco shortly after takeoff from Washington, D.C., Boston, and Newark (Firmage, 2006). The four flights that were commandeered by the hijackers included: American Airlines flight 11 that departed from Logan Airport in Boston at 7:59 am heading to Los Angeles with a total of 87 people including five hijackers; United Airlines flight 175 that departed the Logan Airport at 8:14 am, with a total of 60 individuals together with 5 hijackers, heading for Los Angeles; American Airlines flight 77 that departed from Dulles International Airport in Washington at 8:20 am, with a total of 59 individuals plus five hijackers heading to San Francisco; and United Airlines Flight 93 that departed from Newark International Airport with 40 individuals plus 4 hijackers heading to San Francisco (O,Brien, 2011).

In the early morning of September 11, 2001, American Airline Flight 11 was crashed into the North Tower of the World trade center and 15 minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 was crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Thirty minutes later, five hijackers crashed the third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, into the Pentagon. Having been alerted about the situation that was going on, passengers in the fourth flight fought with the hijackers trying to gain control of the plane, crashing United Airlines Flight 93 in a region in Pennsylvania (House of Commons, 2001).

Due to intense heat, the Structural integrity of the World Trade center was compromised and a large portion of it collapsed. In total, there were 2,996 deaths from the attacks including all 19 terrorists (Clarke, 2004). There were no survivors from the four planes, accounting for 246 deaths. In New York, 2,606 people died both inside the towers and on the ground after the collapse of the towers. The attack on the Pentagon claimed 125 victims, 55 of them being military personnel.

Motives behind the September 11 Attacks

The United States has had a very rocky relationship with the Middle East, especially with the Muslim nations in this area. The motives behind the September 11 attacks were provided by several prominent members of the Al-Qaeda militant group including Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri (Hoffman, 2002). According to Al-Qaeda, the terrorist attacks were mainly due to the U.S. support of Israel, U.S. army presence in the Middle East and economic sanctions imposed on Iraq. Law enforcement agencies in the United States also argued that the attacks may be a means to provoke the U.S. into war and as retaliation on the effects of globalization i.e. spread of western ideals into Islamic territories.

After the Gulf war in 1991, the U.S. army did not pull back all of its forces but left about 5000 troops in Saudi Arabia (Clarke, 2004). The forces left behind were responsible for setting up and maintaining a no-fly zone over southern Iraq and protecting Saudi Arabia’s shipping lanes in Bahrain. Due to the presence of a strong Islamic community in the country, many Muslims were unhappy about the military presence in a country that boasts two of the holiest sites in the Islamic religion (Hoffman, 2002). Opposition of the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia was first raised by Osama Bin Laden just after the gulf war.

Bin Laden was born in 1957, a son of the richest construction baron in the country (Bergen, 2001). After his father’s death, Bin Laden inherited a huge portion of the family’s multi-billion construction dynasty. He had close ties with the Saudi Royal family and played a prominent role in recruiting fighters for the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan. While carrying out this role he came into contact with the CIA who offered military and financial assistance to organize the Soviet resistance (Bergen, 2001). In order to effectively carry out his recruitment and funding projects, Bin Laden established a serviced office that evolved into al-Qaeda in 1988. During the Gulf War, Bin Laden’s relationship with the Saudi government and the CIA began to crumble. He was strongly opposed to the deployment of the U.S. army in the country and his increasing criticism led to his expulsion from the country in 1992 (Hoffman, 2002; Bergen 2001). Through his network, Bin Laden was able to gain support for his opposition to the U.S. army presence in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In 1996, he issued a fatwa, a proclamation, calling for the expulsion of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia. He argued that the U.S. presence in the country was self-serving with the U.S. doing nothing but plundering the country’s riches, developing bases in which it can attack surrounding Islamic countries, dictating rulers and humiliating the Islamic community.

The second reason behind the attacks was the sanctions placed on Iraq. After the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990, the U.N imposed economic sanctions on Iraq (Dunbar & Reagan, 2006). After Iraqi withdrew from Kuwait and the Gulf war ended, the imposed sanctions were linked with the removal of WMDs from the country. Poor government policies combined with the sanctions regime led to widespread poverty and hyperinflation that lasted from 1992 to 2003. Over half a million children died from starvation and malnutrition. Due to this, Islamic fundamentalists released a fatwa in 1998 calling for all Muslims to pick up arms against the “crusader-Zionist alliance” and kill all Americans (Bergen, 2001). According to bin Laden, the Iraqi sanctions led to the greatest mass murder of children in human history and Americans had to answer for the evils they perpetrated.

The support of Israel by America was also cited as a reason for the attacks. The Arab-Israel conflict has lasted over a century and generally began with the establishment of the Zionist movement in 1914 (Roth, 2009). The conflict intensified in 1948 when the nation of Israel was formed and several western countries including America recognized it as a free state. America has always been a strong supporter of Israel and has provided a lot of financial and military aid to the country (Roth, 2009). This strengthened the Israeli nation enabling the country to develop a strong military force capable of fighting Muslim radicals from the surrounding Arab countries. Israel’s expansion into Palestine and the insistent refusal of Arab leaders to recognize Israel as a free state led to increased hostility between Muslim nations and both America and Israel (Bergen, 2001). According to Bin Laden’s fatwa the creation and expansion of Israel was the greatest crime ever committed in the region and thus must be erased. He added that every power that was involved in the perpetuation of this crime was liable to a grave punishment. The al-Qaeda and other militant groups in the region rallied Muslims behind the movement to destroy Israel and wipe it off the map while at the same time punishing America for its involvement in the development of the country (Roth, 2009).

Some scholars have cited that the September 11 attacks were a response to globalization. Scholars argue that the attacks were a form of retaliation due to the perceived humiliation of the Islamic world because of globalization. The spread of western culture into the conservative Islamic region in the Middle East led to ill feelings towards the United States (Zinn, 2001). Islamic fanatics believe that the West is immoral, inherently evil and obsessed with power. They believed that the ultimate goal of the U.S. was to rule Islamic nations by slowly infusing their corrupting influences thus weakening the Islamic society. According to Jenkins (2001), the Islamic world is becoming weak, and is lagging behind both the West and the fast-growing Orient region. This has led to feelings of insecurity and anger in the Islamic ruling class and rebels. The September Attacks were thus a means to weaken the United States and also act as a warning that they will not be tolerated any longer

Finally, the attacks were a means to provoke the U.S. into war. By provoking the United States, Bin Laden and his militant group hoped to incite the Muslim world to join together against a common foe. According to Bergen (2006), Bin Laden’s attacks were meant to incite the American government to increase its military presence in the Middle East sparking Islamic revolutions throughout the Arab states. He was hoping for a violent reaction by Muslims due to the increased American presence in the region and as such, institute conservative Islamic regime in the region.

The historical causes behind the September 11 attacks are closely linked with Muslim hatred towards the U.S arising from creation of Israel and the sanctions imposed on Iraq. It was however the creation of the Al-Qaeda militant group by Osama Bin Laden that provided the means and opportunity to carry out the attacks. The spreading of western culture due to globalization can be construed as a contemporary cause together with the need to unite Muslims against the United States and other Western Influences.

Interpretations of September 11 Attacks

Although several reasons were provided about the attacks and although the historical background of the attacks have been identified, understanding and interpreting the attacks have been a crucial question to most scholars. According to O’Brien (2011), the Bush administration held that the attacks were an unprovoked declaration of war against the country. Zinn (2001) reports that America was attacked because it was the brightest beacon in the fight for freedom and democracy in the world. Despite this assessment, the interpretations of the attacks have had far-reaching consequences that include the war in Afghanistan, invasion of Iraq and changes in domestic security policies. Several interpretations of the attack have been provided by different parties.

Immediately after the attacks, the most apparent interpretation was that the country’s security measures had failed miserably (Jenkins, 2001). At the time, it seemed inconceivable that a group of young men could enter different airports with metallic weapons and hijack four planes. Even before the country was fully aware of what happened, several damning facts were observed. First, the FBI had ignored several warnings from its branch offices. Secondly, the CIA and the FBI failed to collaborate while collecting important information and finally, the White House had ignored several warnings from the intelligence community concerning possible attacks (O’Brien, 2011).

Another interpretation of the attack focused on the heroism and tremendous generosity that was witnessed on that day (Clarke, 2004). New Yorkers in and around the twin towers congregated to help in the rescue efforts, firefighters’ bravery attempted to save as many people as they could and health workers all over the city quickly responded to the rescue efforts. The passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 also showed great heroism when they forced the plane to crash before it reached its intended target so as to save other people.

Not all interpretations were however positive. After the attacks, some people held that Muslims, as opposed to a small group within the Islamic community, were responsible for the attacks (Wiktorowicz, & Kaltner, 2003). This interpretation made Muslims all over the world enemies of the United States including those within the country. This resulted in massive hate violence where Muslims, Arabs, and those with Middle Eastern heritage faced physical violence and insults throughout the country (Abu-Ras & Abu-Daber, 2008).

Another interpretation was that the attacks were an act of crime and not a declaration of war (Dunbar & Reagan, 2004). By collecting evidence and information before the attacks, the government quickly identified that a small Islamic militant group, Al-Qaeda, was responsible for the attacks. Osama bin Laden and his militant group had already attacked U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (Hoffman, 2002). He had also released a fatwa in 1998 where he called for all Muslims to kill Americans indiscriminately. This interpretation was however crushed by the Bush Administration as it would have limited American reaction to the attacks by imposing several restrictions as mandated by international law agencies (O’Brien, 2011.

Despite the several interpretations offered, the attacks had far-reaching consequences. Apart from the immediate trauma experienced during that day, several outcomes resulted from the September 11 attacks. The attacks left a permanent mark in the country and triggered many changes.

Impact of the September 11 Attacks

The September 11 attacks were a catastrophic event of massive proportions. The event changed the U.S. in many different ways. The first major impact was the loss of life and massive casualties resulting from the attack. The attacks claimed the lives of 2996 people and injured countless others (O’Brien, 2011). The effects of these traumatic events were far-reaching and affected the health of many people both around the area of attack and in places far from the points of attack. The attacks led to intense feelings of vulnerability in many Americans, anger, depression, physical illness and even learning disabilities in children who had witnessed or had lost loved ones in the attacks (Abu-Ras &Abu-Daber, 2008).

Apart from health impacts, the attacks also had a very large impact on the issue of national security (House of Commons Library, 2001). Immediately after the attacks, feelings of uncertainty about the country’s national security arose. People were astonished at how easy it was for the terrorists to attack a seemingly secure country. People all over the country feared the possibility of future attacks and the inability of the government to protect them. In order to deal with this situation, the government enacted several legislations to fight against terrorism. The Department of Homeland Security was formed in order to deal with domestic terrorism (Hoffman, 2002). The government also set up the USA Patriotic Act that endowed the federal government with greater powers. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also ordered that all cockpits should be reinforced to prevent terrorists from commandeering the airplane and also assigned sky marshals on all airplanes (Firmage, 2006). Finally, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act was enacted putting airport security in the hands of the Federal Government rather than individual airports. A federal security force was created to inspect passengers and luggage and had the authority to question any “suspicious’ passengers (Jackson, 2008). Although it was a bold move, it, however, has come under criticism as it is responsible for concerns over privacy and delayed flights.

The attacks also had a significant economic impact on the country as well as the rest of the World. In the period immediately after the attack, the U.S. stock exchange lost very large amounts of money within a short time period (Jackson, 2008). Investors were scared about the security of the nation and most of them pulled out their finances from the stock market. Small businesses near the points of attacks also suffered as they were destroyed during the attacks or were at ground zero thus could not operate effectively at the time. Airports were closed after the attacks, grounding all flights thus affecting many business establishments.

As a result of the attacks, the U.S. declared war on Afghanistan and Iraq shortly after. The U.S. initiated war on Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, and together with the British army began bombing suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan (Molé, 2006). Soon after, they invaded the country with ground forces to overthrow the Taliban rule. In March 2003, the Bush administration declared war on Iraq as part of the War on Terror campaign. The War in Iraq was meant to find and remove Weapons of Mass Destruction from the country. The U.S. has lost over 10, 000 civilian and military personnel in its war on terror in several countries including Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The war on terror efforts also amounted to trillions of dollars in order to maintain the American forces overseas and protect American interests. Various politicians have claimed that the War on Terror was highly ineffective and counterproductive. America not only lost more lives in the war but also suffered great economic losses and managed to alienate more people (Molé, 2006). However, significant victories arose due to the efforts of the country to combat terrorism. Not only was Saddam Hussein removed from power and executed, but the U.S. also managed to kill Osama Bin Laden and deliver a devastating blow to the Al-Qaeda militant group (O’Brien, 2011). As much as the death of Bin Laden was an act of retribution, the country was able to weaken the militant group and ensure that America was safer from future attacks.


The United States has long stood as a beacon of hope and a defender for the democratic rights of the free world. On September 11, 2001, four airplanes were hijacked and used to attack American soil. This was the biggest event of domestic terrorism ever experienced in the country and as such had numerous ramifications on American society. Despite the varying outcomes, most Americans do not understand actually why the terrorists took such a drastic and deadly approach and why exactly the country was targeted. The September 11 attacks were mainly in retaliation to the U.S. support of Israel, its presence in Saudi Arabia and the economic sanctions placed on Iraq after the gulf war. It is also believed that the attacks were mainly justified as a means to quell the growth of Western influence and culture in the Middle East as well as provoke the country into war so that the Al-Qaeda militant group could unite all Muslims against a common enemy attacking Islamic nations.

After the attacks, several interpretations were provided as to why the attacks occurred. Some believed that Muslims all over the world were against the country. Another interpretation is that the country’s security measures were ineffective thus attracting the attacks. Apart from this, some people believed that jealousy and maliciousness led to the attacks and as such the attacks were simply an act of crime. Despite the various interpretations given, the country responded in various ways. The economy of the country suffered for a short time while there were numerous health impacts shortly after the attacks. Various legislations were passed in order to increase domestic security and shortly after, the country initiated the war on terror. Despite several setbacks, the U.S. Army was able to defeat the Taliban rule in Afghanistan as well as deal a devastating blow on Al-Qaeda by killing Osama Bin Laden. The September 11 attacks were a very traumatic event for the country but they acted as a point of reference with which America reshaped itself and understood its full potential.


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Appendix 1: Annotated Bibliography

Abu-Ras, W. & Abu-Daber, S. (2008). The Impact of the September 11, 2001, Attacks on the Well-Being of Arab Americans in New York City. Journal of Muslim Mental health, 3: 217-239

This qualitative study looks at the social perspectives of Arab Americans after the September 11 attacks. According to the study, the authors found out that the participants identified 6 main concerns after the war, including fear of hate crimes, worries over personal safety, stigmatization, isolation, uncertainty over the future loss of community. This study is particularly important in my research as it offers an insight into the response of the American society after the attack and its apparent consequences. It also offers a means to evaluate the mental health impacts that resulted from the attacks on the American society.

Firmage, J. (2006). Intersecting Facts and Theories on 9/11. Journal of 9/11 Studies, 2:19-58

This article tries to bring together the facts and conspiracy theories that emerged after the September 11 attacks. The author identifies 42 facts of significance about the war and tries to relate them to three possible theories about the nature of the attacks. After analyzing all the 42 facts about the attack against 3 possible theories, the author found out that a large number of vital facts did not conform to the official conspiracy theory about the event, and they do not conform to the causation and complicity theories. This study is important in my research as it provides an insight into the various facts that were discovered about the September 11 attacks as well as the various conspiracy theories that existed about the attacks.

House of Commons Library (2001). 11 September 2001: The Response (Research Paper 01/72). London: Research Publication Office

The article written by members of the House of Commons takes an in-depth look at the September 11 attacks and examines the reaction within the United States, and the United Kingdom. It contains background information about the Al-Qaeda network and its leader Osama Bin Laden. It also provides a detailed insight into the situation in the Middle East with special consideration on Pakistan and Afghanistan. The paper looks at the military and legal options that were available immediately after the attack. This article was written 1 month after the attack and offers a closer look at what options the United States and its allies had on countering the terrorist attack. The article is important in my research as it provides various important details regarding military response and legal response that were available at the time of the attack. The paper also provides important details about Osama Bin Laden as well as the Al-Qaeda network. Finally, the paper provides a means of understanding the Islamic nations in Middle East and their reaction to the terrorist attacks.

Jackson, O. (2008). The Impact of 9/11 terrorist Attacks on the US Economy. Foreign Direct Investments, 99(1): 22-47

This article looks at the various ways in which the U.S economy was affected by the 9/11 attacks. The paper looks at the immediate and long-term effects of the attacks and considers different aspects of the economy such as the US stock market, US economic growth, consumer confidence, investor confidence, foreign direct investments and fiscal policies, and budgetary resources. For my project, the article provides a means to better understand the various ways in which the attacks affected the U.S. economy and how this affected American society as a whole.

O’Brien, J. (2011). The Contested Meaning of 9/11. Radical History Review, 111: 5-28

This article tries to interpret and understand the September 11 attacks. It focuses on the official understanding of the attacks as well as how American citizens viewed the Attacks. It looks at how the Bush Administration framed the attacks and for what purposes they chose to seek this method of interpreting and understanding the attacks. In my study, this paper will enable me to develop the historical interpretations of the September 11 attacks. By understanding the various interpretations, it is possible to understand the reasons why America reacted the way it did as well as comprehend the positive and negative outcomes of the attacks.

Hoffman, R. (2002). Rethinking Terrorism and Counterterrorism since 9/11. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 25:303–316

This article looks at the various misconceptions the American government had on the terrorism threat and how the September 11 attacks changes this misconception. Before the attack, inland America had not been attacked since the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. America was confident that their securities measures were up to standards and that no terrorist group could be well-coordinated as to infiltrate and carry out attacks within the country. The 9/11 attacks proved that these views were very wrong and the article provides an analysis of the failures and lessons the American government could learn from the attacks. For my report, this article provides a way to understand the reason why the terrorist was successful and how the American security measures failed. It also provides a means to understand how Americans reacted to the attacks and the changes implemented to prevent future attacks.

Roth, A. (2009). Reassurance: A Strategic Basis of U.S. Support for Israel. International Studies Perspectives 10(4): 378-394

The article argues that Israel has for a long time perceived the dangers of disorder in a unique manner that leads it to use undue force on its enemies and rivals. The actions that Israel takes has for a long time inconvenienced American foreign policies in the Middle East. The article looks at how Israel’s treatment of its Islamic and Arab neighbors affected American foreign policy in the region. This article is important in my research as it provides a means to understand the historical causes of the September 11 attacks. The article opens a means to understand how American support for Israel’s expansion was used by the terrorist as a motive for the attacks.

Bergen, P. (2001). Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden New York: Free Press

This book looks at the history of Osama bin Laden as well as the militant group Al-Qaeda. It provides an understanding of how Osama bin Laden grew into power and the various relationships he had with the Saudi Arabian government as well as the C.I.A. It also provides an understanding of why he formed the Al-Qaeda militant group and what its initial purpose was as compared to its current objective. This book is important to my research as it provides a means to understand the various players behind the September 11, attacks. It provides a means to understand the motivation behind the Attacks and how the attacks were perpetrated.

Klitzman, S., & Freudenberg, D. (2003). Implications of the World Trade Center Attack for the Public Health and Health Care Infrastructures. American Journal of Public Health 93(3): 401-408

In this article, the authors assess New York City’s response to the various health dimensions of the attack during the first six months period after the attack. The paper also looks at the impact of the attack on the city’s social service and health care system. The authors find out that while the city’s response was commendable, several developments should be carried out to strengthen health infrastructure and response capabilities. The article enables us to understand how the health care department reacted to the crisis and the impact the attacks had on the health care system of New York City. This article is important in my research as it provides an in-depth look at the health ramifications of the attack above and beyond the deaths and immediate injuries. It is a means to understand both the short-term and long-term health impacts of the attack.

Wiktorowicz, Q., & Kaltner, J. (2003). Killing in the Name of Islam: al-Qaeda’s Justification for September 11. Middle East Policy, X(2): 76-92

This article looks at al-Qaeda and their justification for the September 11 attacks. The authors embark on proving that the Al-Qaeda network is a militant group that tries to misrepresent and hijack Islam to support terrorism. According to the authors, the tenets of Islam go against the self-serving actions of al-Qaeda and as such, people should understand that al-Qaeda is just a small part of misguided Muslims who in no way represent the greater Islamic community. The Authors present several instances in which Islamic leaders and even some Islamic fundamentalist groups renounced and issued sharp denunciations of the actions of al-Qaeda. The other also explains the meaning and nature of Jihad and helps the readers understand why the September 11 attacks could not constitute Jihad and thus in no way supported by Islam. This paper is very important as it helps us better understand the motives behind the al-Qaeda attacks and the relationship between Islam and the militant group. To be objective, it is important to remove all illusions and misconceptions in order to view the truth. By understanding Jihad and by looking at the motives cited by the terrorist, it is possible to better comprehend the historical causes of the attacks.

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