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Decennium 9/11: Learning the lessons

By Andrew Staniforth

For many years terrorist groups pursuing their political, religious and ideological beliefs have attacked our free and democratic way of life.  Yet the largest loss of British citizens during a single terrorist attack did not occur in Britain but in the United States on 11 September 2001.  Amongst the 2,973 people murdered that day, 67 were British.  Although terrorism has been endemic to human history for centuries, there was something particularly horrific about the suddenness and sheer magnitude of the events of what became known across the world by its eponymous date: 9/11. For Americans, no act of terrorism compares to the attacks and from that moment the history of the United States has been divided into ‘Before 9/11’ and ‘After 9/11’.  In lower Manhattan, on a field in Pennsylvania, and along the banks of the Potomac, the United States suffered its largest loss of life from an enemy attack on its own soil.  Within just 102 minutes, four commercial jets would be simultaneously hijacked and used as weapons of mass destruction to kill ordinary citizens as part of a coordinated attack that would shape the first decade of a new century.

A new era

It would be a grave error to regard 9/11 as merely another episode in the long history of terrorism.    The nature of the tactics used and the devastation caused during the attacks literally and metaphorically, marked the dawning of a new era.  As news channels beamed live images around the world of aircraft crashing into the World Trade Centre’s ‘twin towers’, viewers could hardly comprehend the events that they were witnessing.  Part of the stunning horror of the attacks in New York was the very spectacle of immense physical structures, invested with the spirit of the age suddenly not being there.  In some ways the twin towers’ absence from the famous Manhattan skyline has become an eerie and enduring anti-monument to terrorism. It is rare that we in the post-World War II West have had to confront so starkly the extent of mass destruction but all who witnessed the unfolding events of that day saw the pernicious impact of terrorism striking at the very heart of the world’s one true super power.

Condemned as crimes against humanity by world leaders, governments called for action as they soon realised that if the contemporary international terrorist could attack the homeland of the United States, they could strike anywhere and at anytime. Amplifying the sense of global vulnerability felt that day was the lack of a visible and identifiable enemy.  These attacks were not state sponsored, nor were they part  of a conventional or recognisable war. The global intelligence community, stunned by the attacks themselves, had to come to terms with the emerging fact that it had been wrong-footed by a small band of terrorists dispatched by Al-Qaeda, an organisation based in one of the poorest, most remote and least industrialised countries on Earth.

Beyond the thousands of people that were murdered during the 9/11 attacks many more were seriously injured, both physically and psychologically.  Members of  Manhattan’s many communities joined forces with the emergency services and other professional organisations calling upon all their natural instincts, training, professionalism and resourcefulness to save the lives of others and mitigate the consequences of attacks in a way more reminiscent of wartime Europe than prosperous, powerful and impregnable North America. The series of coordinated suicide bombings created a new genre of conflict and people caught up in the horror of its consequences had to face a reality known only by war-ravaged ‘lesser’ nations for the very first time.

Changing landscape

In the United States and throughout the Western world national security used to be considered by studying foreign frontiers, weighing opposing groups or states and by measuring industrial and military might.  To be considered a significant risk there had to be an ‘enemy’ and that enemy had to muster and finance large armies.  Threats emerged slowly, often visibly, as weapons were forged, armies conscripted and units trained and moved into place.  Because larger states were more powerful, they also had more to lose. They could be deterred.  Following 9/11 it appeared that threats could emerge quickly and from organisations like Al-Qaeda who headquartered in a country thousands of miles away, in an area so poor that electricity and telephones were scarce, but who could, nonetheless, wield weapons of mass destruction in the largest cities of the best defended countries.

For this reason alone the methodology practiced by Al-Qaeda was both new and shocking; 9/11 represented such a change in the threat and risk to many countries. It also appeared that this new relationship knew no boundaries and one of the first real challenges for the United States Administration was to try and understand this phenomenon.  Learning the lessons of 9/11 means understanding the nature and rhetoric of global terrorism; who the terrorists are and what motivates them.  These were all issues discussed in offices and bars, on commuter trains and coffee queues; TV and radio shows in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.  Ten years, on the discussions are continuing.

Contemporary terrorism

The 9/11 suicide pilots and hijackers provided a profile of the post-modern terrorist.   They were mobile, being supported by a network of operatives who were able to move from country to country to disseminate propaganda and recruit personnel to their cause.  They showed how they could seek sanctuary and safe haven, yet could raise and transfer funds as well as procure weapons and other equipment.  In addition, they displayed an ability to communicate and conduct meetings while in the process of identifying targets, mounting hostile reconnaissance and finalising attack planning.  They have access to the world’s media and their announcements made in the name of Bin Laden can attract as much air time as those issued from the White House.

Much of the infrastructure of modern terrorism is increasing non-physical; the internet, new global communications and advancements in technology being harnessed by terrorists provide a new layer of sophistication to the contemporary terrorist that the 9/11 cell embodied.  State sponsorship of terrorism operations is also becoming increasingly difficult to identify and prove, while the boundaries with serious organised crime are evaporating.

The Al-Qaeda transnational terrorist network has demonstrated with chilling effect its  expertise at recruiting in one location, training in a second, attack planning in a third and delivering mass murder in a fourth. The uncomfortable truth seems to be that a single nation at the turn of the century could not , in reality, comprehend the size and scale of the threat, nor could they meet the challenges of multiple determined terrorists bent on killing themselves and others.  Yet during the planning and preparation of the Planes Operation there were numerous opportunities for the United States to identify the plot against them, and it would require the formation of a new commission to expose deficiencies in their homeland security structures.  The many initial questions thrown up by the Planes Operation where passed to a special board of inquiry, the 9/11 Commission, whose conclusions are vital to understanding the challenges and subsequent changes made to the UK counter-terrorism and security apparatus.

The Commission

During November 2002 the United States Congress and President Bush established the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.  Known as the 9/11 Commission, this independent, bipartisan panel was directed to examine the facts and circumstances surrounding the 11 September attacks. Its aim was to identify lessons learned and provide recommendations to safeguard against future acts of terrorism.  In pursuing their mandate the 9/11 Commission reviewed more than 2.5 million pages of documents, interviewed more than 1,200 individuals in ten countries and conducted hearings over 19 days taking public testimony from 160 witnesses.  The 9/11 Commission report was critical of the United States Government in a number of key areas.  It questioned how 19 suicide terrorists could be imported into America without examination. How were they able to live undetected within local communities for several months whilst seeking English language classes and flight instruction?  Why were they not identified by United States agencies working overseas in the first instance?  Most importantly however, the 9/11 Commission focused upon how the United States, having learned from its experiences, could develop their response to tackle this new threat and protect its citizens in the future.


The 9/11 Commission believed that the attacks revealed four kinds of failures: imagination, policy, capabilities and management.  It revealed that terrorists exploited deep institutional failings within the United States government.   The principal question was whether extra vigilance might have turned up an opportunity to disrupt the plot so the 9/11 Commission explored the United States aviation sector as a key component in the success of the terrorists attack plan lay in their ability to overpower and take control of aircraft. This had provided an opportunity for the suicide pilots to fly towards identified targets. Some of the flying skills had been acquired in flight training establishments within the United States general aviation sector.  The United States has the largest flight training industry in the world.  Students are attracted by the countries climate, its location but fundamentally the competitive rates charged by their flight instructors.  As a result, large numbers of prospective flying students arrive in the United States from all corners of the world.  Seeking flight training was therefore not unusual and the 9/11 suicide pilots blended into the large diverse and transient flight training population.  They were well placed to conduct their activities beneath the radar of the United States intelligence community

Commission conclusions

It is difficult to comprehend the United States authority’s failure to recognise the signs that a major terrorist plot was taking place within their communities. The sheer size and scale of the United States security machine did not correctly analyse, assess and prioritise intelligence on a national level.  A large number of agencies that held critical data did not share its information. These organisations were working in isolation each with there own ‘need to know’ principles and limited ‘need to share’ protocols.  A full national picture of the emerging threat was not put together.  Like a giant jigsaw puzzle many of the smaller pieces were missing that would have provided United States authorities with a greater opportunity to identify and disrupt the plot. Despite collating intelligence to develop a picture of unfolding events the United States authorities were behind the activities of the terrorist cell and as the Al-Qaeda ‘Planes Operation’ drew into its final phases in September 2001, time simply ran out. The 9/11 Commission concluded that the United States.

‘domestic agencies were not mobilised in response to the threat.  They did not have direction, and they did not have a plan to institute.  The borders were not hardened.  Transportation systems were not fortified.  Electronic surveillance was not targeted against a domestic threat.  State and local law enforcement were not marshalled to augment the Federal Bureau of Investigations efforts.  The public was not warned.’

Learning the lessons

In the 10 years that followed the 9/11 attacks we would come to learn a great deal about them and the people who perpetrated them.  We would also learn a great deal about the ideology and methodology behind the 102 minutes of terror that would frame the threat and shape the response to terrorism across the world. The impact of 9/11 on counter-terrorism cannot be understated, taking every  opportunity to pause and take stock of the lessons we must learn from this event and to consider what they taught us – and how much we have yet to learn, is vital for the future success of counter-terrorism practice. More recently we have seen Al-Qaeda activity in the attempted airline suicide bomb attack over Detroit, a failed bombing in Times Square in New York, and closer to home, commando style armed assaults in European cities and the mailing of Improvised Explosive Devices  (IEDs) hidden in print cartridges remotely despatched on commercial and cargo flights.  Whatever the answers to the indiscriminate and  unpredictable nature of Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism,  9/11 introduced a new form of relationship between national governments and those who threaten them, a relationship that would evoke a new type of counter-terrorism response and a new era of collaboration that continues to this day.

Andrew Staniforth is from the North East Counter-Terrorism Unit, West Yorkshire Police. He is an experienced counter-terrorism investigator who is responsible for designing and delivering training to counter-terrorism officers at one of the four specialist Counter-Terrorism Units in the UK. He has been commended for his work on counter-terrorism training by West Yorkshire Police and has also been involved in developing national exercises to examine the preparedness of both covert and overt police counter-terrorism assets. He is one of the authors of Blackstone’s Counter-Terrorism Handbook.

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Recent Comments

  1. Jerry

    Great article. I’d only add that, even though we’re rebuilding on “ground zero” so apparently we didn’t let the terrorists “win”, with all the changes in security restrictions, a major focus shifting to new technologies to combat terrorism, and heightened suspicions where none existed before, the terrorists did win, didn’t they?

  2. James

    It’s a good article to reflect on a decade since the incident happened. However, I feel it is going to be a never ending battle, with no clear “win” in the end.

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