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Divided Nation: 1992–2016

War on Terror

Terrorist Acts Prior to 9/11

The American prosperity of the mid-to-late 1990s was marred by several terrorist attacks at home and abroad that targeted civilians and military personnel and were a prelude to September 11, 2001.
Up until the late 20th century, terrorist attacks on American soil or against American citizens were not unheard of, but they were rare. The 1990s saw an increase in terrorism, or the unlawful use of violence and intimidation in pursuit of political gains. While the threat of terrorism came largely from external forces, two notable instances showed the threat could also be homegrown.

Terrorist Acts Prior to 9/11

Event Date Location Casualties Perpetrators Reason
Truck bomb beneath the World Trade Center February 26, 1993 New York City, NY 1,000+ injuries, 6 deaths 6 Muslim extremists The perpetrators wanted to punish the United States for its Middle East policies, including support of Israel.
Oklahoma City bombing April 19, 1995 Oklahoma City, OK 500+ injured, 168 deaths (including 19 children) Ex-U.S. Army soldiers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols McVeigh said it was to "avenge" the 70+ deaths that resulted from the raid of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993. He and Nichols both identified with the extremist arm of the Patriot movement.
Khobar Towers bombing June 25, 1996 Dhahran, Saudi Arabia 500+ injured, 19 deaths 14 members of Hezbollah, a Saudi terrorist group The bombing targeted a U.S. Air Force housing complex where 2,000 military personnel lived. The attack was an effort to push American forces out of Saudi Arabia.
Atlanta Olympic Games bombing July 27, 1996 Atlanta, GA 111 injuries, 2 deaths American Eric Rudolph In a 2005 confession Rudolph said his goal was to shame the United States for legalizing abortion. He was attempting to knock out Atlanta's power grid and shut down the Olympic Games.
U.S. embassies in East Africa August 7, 1998 Nairobi, Kenya; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania 4,500 injured, 224 deaths, including 12 Americans Muslim militants associated with Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda and led by international Islamic terrorist Osama bin Laden Truck bombs were detonated simultaneously in the two embassy locations. The bombings coincided with and protested the eighth anniversary of the deployment of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Storm (1991).
USS Cole attack October 12, 2000 A naval destroyer off the coast of Yemen 39 injuries, 17 deaths Muslim militants associated with Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda and led by Osama bin Laden Two suicide bombers in a small, bomb-laden boat detonated their explosives and ripped a hole in the side of a navy destroyer. No explicit reason for the bombing was ever given.

September 11, 2001

On September 11, 2001, four coordinated al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania changed life in America forever.

The deadliest terror attacks on American soil took place on September 11, 2001. That morning, 19 men associated with al-Qaeda, an extremist Islamic terrorist group headed by Osama bin Laden, hijacked four commercial airplanes. Two planes were purposefully slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Another one crashed into the Pentagon outside Washington, DC. The fourth crashed on a field in Pennsylvania. This fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, was originally headed for Washington, DC. It was diverted when passengers and crew members fought back against the hijackers.

The death toll was staggering. In New York City, 2,753 people died, including the airline passengers, people working in the World Trade Center's upper levels, and police officers and firefighters who responded to the emergency. Another 184 people were killed in Washington, DC, as were all 44 people aboard Flight 93.

The coordinated attacks on American government and commerce were plotted by Osama bin Laden, the Islamic terrorist also behind the embassy attacks in 1998 and the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. Bin Laden had embraced the radical doctrine of pan-Islamism, which sought to unify all Muslims under one Islamic state and combat all foreign influence. Bin Laden despised the presence of Westerners in the Middle East and resented the Saudi Arabian leadership's acceptance of that presence. He also viewed the United States as a weak "paper tiger" based on the government's quick removal of armed forces following a 1983 bombing of marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, and the deaths of 18 and wounding of 73 servicemembers in Somalia in 1993. He believed crippling the United States would result in regime changes across the Middle East.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 events, millions of Americans were struggling to come to grips with the new reality of large-scale terrorism at home. Hundreds of thousands of people had witnessed the attacks firsthand in New York City and Washington, DC, and millions more saw them play out on live television around the world. Fearing more terrorist attacks could follow, security measures in public buildings and spaces were tightened. With the exception of the president's airplane, Air Force One, all air travel was grounded for two days while the Federal Aviation Administration scrambled to put new security measures in place. Life in the United States would never be the same.
Hundreds of New York City first responders raced to the World Trade Center buildings to save workers trapped inside. Over 400 police officers and firefighters were killed when the twin towers collapsed.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-02152

Biological Terror Threats

A rash of illnesses and five deaths caused by anthrax pushed an already tense nation into a feverish panic in the weeks following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Less than a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans dealt with terrorism in another form. On October 4, 2001, Robert Stevens, a photo editor for the tabloid magazine The National Enquirer was hospitalized for an extremely rare infectious disease called anthrax. A deadly bacterium, anthrax is spread through eating, drinking, or inhaling air infected with anthrax spores. Stevens died one day after hospitalization.

Health and government officials initially thought Stevens's illness was an isolated case. It was not. Further investigation turned up a letter sent to Stevens's work address at news outlet American Media and laced with a fine brown powder—anthrax. Similar letters appeared in mail sent to NBC, CBS, ABC, and The New York Post, all sent from a mailbox in Trenton, New Jersey, on September 18. Weeks later another round of letters was sent, this time to Senators Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle. Their offices tested positive for anthrax, as did the offices of America Media and the Senate mailroom. As a precaution, several media outlets temporarily closed their mailrooms.

Americans were already tense from the terrorist attacks on the twin towers, and the anthrax scare sent many into a full panic. While the letters to Leahy and Daschle were the last contaminated with anthrax, copycat letters laced with harmless powders began to show up randomly in the mail. Recipients understandably panicked. People grew fearful of opening their letters. Mail processing and delivery by the U.S. Postal Service slowed or, in some cases, stopped altogether for a time.

Most of the 22 people infected with anthrax were postal employees who had handled contaminated mail while it was in transit. Other victims included a seven-month-old baby who visited NBC's offices, a medical professional, and a 94-year-old woman. The baby survived, but the medical professional, the elderly woman, and three additional people died.

Investigators have never conclusively determined who was responsible for the post-9/11 anthrax scare. Initial suspects included Osama bin Laden and the Iraqi government, but the culprit may have been much closer to home. After a seven-year investigation, the FBI pinpointed a primary suspect: Dr. Bruce Ivins, a biodefense researcher who worked with anthrax. Using state-of-the-art DNA technology, the FBI had isolated the unique batch of anthrax used in the attacks and identified it as having been created and maintained solely by Dr. Ivins. The suspect committed suicide before the Justice Department could file any charges. The government archive of anthrax samples the researcher used had also been destroyed, which meant investigators were unable to conclusively prove a connection between the anthrax the researcher had access to and the anthrax sent in the mail.
An envelope containing anthrax spores was sent to U.S. Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota. His office tested positive for anthrax days after the envelope was opened.
Credit: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

Government Response to 9/11 Attacks

On October 7, 2001, in response to the events of September 11, U.S. armed forces invaded Afghanistan, home to the al-Qaeda–harboring Taliban.

Soon after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the U.S. government concluded with certainty that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were behind the events. While bin Laden's whereabouts were not precisely known, he was assumed to be in Afghanistan. At the time, Afghanistan was controlled by the Taliban. This ultraconservative Islamic faction had come to power following the collapse of the communist government and withdrawal of Soviet troops in the 1990s. The Taliban's strict adherence to Islamic laws and its radical interpretation of Islamic religious tenets aligned with al-Qaeda's ideology. Furthermore, the Taliban represented a Middle Eastern nation that would accept Islamic militants within its borders. Afghanistan was known to have provided a safe haven to al-Qaeda, and bin Laden had a close working relationship with the Taliban's overall commander, Mullah Omar.

The United States requested that bin Laden, having been accused of a crime on American soil, be turned over to the U.S. government. The Taliban refused to extradite bin Laden. The United States next turned to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance created by the Allied powers after World War II. Enlisting the aid of Great Britain, the United States began a military campaign in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. The mission was to destroy bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization and remove the Taliban from power, thus demolishing al-Qaeda's safe haven for operations in Afghanistan. By December, thousands of militants had been killed or captured, key cities had fallen, and Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders had fled the country. Bin Laden remained at large.

USA PATRIOT Act and Homeland Security

Two major steps taken to combat radical Islamic terrorism were the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act and the 2002 creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

Combating radical Islamic terrorism became the U.S. government's top priority. In October 2001 president George W. Bush signed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (USA PATRIOT Act).

The USA PATRIOT Act greatly expanded the powers of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies like the CIA and FBI, particularly in regard to covert surveillance of telephone and online communication. Among other things, law enforcement officials could now legally monitor private e-mails, Internet correspondences, and web browsing without probable cause, meaning hard facts that showed a link to criminal activity. Critics believed parts of the PATRIOT Act violated the Constitution and overstepped the bounds of government surveillance. Nevertheless, nearly 70 percent of Americans feared another 9/11-style attack if no preventive steps were taken. The act was replaced in 2015 by the USA Freedom Act, which limited the government's authority to collect information about individuals' phone and Internet usage.

The events of September 11 also led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in November 2002. The primary responsibilities of this government agency were protecting the United States from terrorist attacks and preparing for national emergencies such as natural disasters. The department oversees U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Secret Service, and the Coast Guard. Integrating these previously separate departments and agencies into one unified department streamlined, strengthened, and rendered more efficient homeland security management and operations.

Second Persian Gulf War

On March 20, 2003, the United States led a coalition of allied forces into war with Iraq with the goal of disarming Iraq of its presumed chemical weapons and overthrowing its government.

Neither Iraq nor its president, Saddam Hussein, had direct connection to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Yet, since the first Persian Gulf War (1990–91), the United Nations had been demanding that Iraq declare and give up concealed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) capable of causing widespread casualties as well as the missiles to deliver them. While over the next several years, appointed inspectors uncovered and destroyed massive amounts of these chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons, world leaders, including President Clinton, were certain that Saddam had the capability to rebuild his arsenal. The events of 9/11 awakened George W. Bush and his advisors to the potential threat Iraq posed to the newly vulnerable United States. Based on intelligence reports, they maintained Iraq not only had WMDs, but remained capable of manufacturing them.

Since 1998 Iraq had refused to let UN inspectors into the country to check for prohibited weapons and technology. In the wake of September 11, the UN demanded inspectors be let back in. Iraq complied, and inspectors reported no weapons other than 12 chemical warheads, of which 11 were empty. However, the inspectors did discover Iraq had violated UN prohibitions against developing a missile program. Amid conflicting reports and what proved to be flawed intelligence, Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair determine that the Iraqi government was hiding the forbidden weaponry.

Despite the dissent of some world leaders, President Bush was able to form a large coalition of allied forces and launched Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 20, 2003, to push Saddam and the ruling Baath Party out of power. Combat between the allies and militia groups loyal to Saddam continued until May 1. Allied forces captured fleeing Iraqi leaders, including Saddam, who was seized on December 13 and executed three years later.

Aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom

After the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, public support for a U.S. presence in Iraq dwindled.

The swift fall of the Baathist regime left Iraq in turmoil. Violence broke out across the country as different parties jockeyed for control. Allied servicemen and women remained in Iraq to try to restore peace and rebuild the country. That turned out to be a costly venture, both in dollars and in human lives. Approximately 580 allied soldiers had died during combat between March and May 2003. During 2004, when the main combat missions were over, that number reached 906. The numbers were highest—nearly 1,000—during a final troop surge in 2007 before withdrawal from Iraq began.

Many Americans who had initially supported Operation Iraqi Freedom changed their position as the death toll increased. Many were disillusioned when evidence of WMDs on Iraqi soil did not materialize. Critics pushed the narrative that the Second Persian Gulf War was based on lies, or at least half-truths. Politicians in Congress who had initially supported the war began to distance themselves from it. Yet, despite the chaos produced by the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime, the hope remained that Iraq might transition from a dictatorship to a new, more accountable form of government. As a result, the United States did not fully pull out of the region until December 2011.

Once troops were withdrawn, a new terrorist threat emerged to fill the void. It originated within the Sunni Islamist population still loyal to Saddam Hussein and angry over the fall of the Baath government in 2003. Al-Qaeda had taken advantage of the situation by establishing a presence in Iraq, the AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq), to fight back the allied forces. Over the next decade, AQI morphed into what is now known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.