The List

The 9/11 Anniversary Reader

We sift through the glut of 10th-anniversary coverage, so you don't have to.

With the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaching, it seems like everyone's going big with reminiscences of the day and reflections on the events that followed. There are memorial editions of magazines, newspaper packages, television specials, and expert panels galore -- all remembering, debating, and ruminating on where we've come in the decade since. And, of course, we're not immune to this moment of reflection here at Foreign Policy. But to help you sift through the mea culpas, I-told-you-so's, we-should-have-knowns -- and the obligatory photo essays, memoirs, and in-depth packages -- here are some of the highlights from this week of 9/11 coverage. We'll be adding more commentary and best/worst picks throughout the week:


The most ambitious multimedia project of the anniversary is probably New York magazine's The Encyclopedia of 9/11, a collection of the events, people, and ideas associated with that day. The encyclopedia covers everything Abbottabad (the "pastoral deathplace of a terrorist mastermind") to Zazi, Najibullah ("the face of terrorism to come?"). In between, there's airport security and freedom fries, the reform of Islam and the return of Saturday Night Live, "Let's roll" and  "never forget." It's an effort to encompass both the major themes of the last ten years and the small tidbits readers may have forgotten. The package includes contributions from FP Editor in Chief Susan Glasser and Afpak Channel editor Peter Bergen.

Accompanying the encyclopedia is Frank Rich's reflections on the past decade:

Now, ten years later, it's remarkable how much our city, like the country, has moved on. Decades are not supposed to come in tidy packages mandated by the calendar's arbitrary divisions, but this decade did. For most Americans, the cloud of 9/11 has lifted. Which is not to say that a happier national landscape has been unveiled in its wake.

Back in 2006, Rich took some shots for a piece analyzing a 9/11 photo of young people chatting on the New York waterfront with the World Trade Center burning in the background, which he inferred as a sign of disaffection among young Americans. He seems a bit more cautious in his assessments this time around.


As someone who began the decade as an outspoken hawk and unapologetic booster of the Iraq war and ended it as an Obama supporter and one of the Bush administration's sharpest critics, blogger Andrew Sullivan is a logical choice to take stock of the past decade's triumphs and failures. In his Newsweek cover story, Sullivan asks, "Did Osama Win?"

We need to understand that 9/11 worked. It worked as a tactic to induce American self-destruction, even if it failed spectacularly as a strategy to advance Al Qaeda -- and its heretical message of suicidal warfare -- across the globe.

The same issue features an oral history of a more recent milestone, the killing of Osama bin Laden, from those inside the White House Situation Room, including President Barack Obama. Another feature checks in on families still grieving for victims of the attacks, and filmmaker Michael Moore reflects on a decade of causing controversy.

Newsweek has raised eyebrows recently with edgy covers featuring Michele Bachmann and Princess Diana. But, perhaps wisely, editor Tina Brown has opted for something more subdued this time.  


Having now officially stepped down as executive editor and moved to the opinion page, Bill Keller revisits one of his most controversial positions, his advocacy of U.S. intervention in Iraq. Back in 2003, Keller christened what he now calls the "I-Can't-Believe-I'm-a-Hawk club," a bevy of left-of-center commentators who, shocked by the 9/11 attacks, found themselves favoring aggressive military action to counteract global terrorism. Keller doesn't entirely renounce his former position, but certainly reconsiders the wisdom of it in hindsight:

I could not foresee that we would mishandle the war so badly, but I could see that there was no clear plan for -- and at the highest levels, a shameful smugness about -- what came after the invasion. I could not have known how bad the intelligence was, but I could see that the White House and the Pentagon were so eager to go that they were probably indifferent to any evidence that didn't fit their scenario. I could see that they had embraced Chalabi, the exile cheerleader for war, despite considerable suspicion within the State Department and elsewhere that he was a charlatan. I could have seen, had I looked hard enough, that even by the more dire appraisals of Hussein's capabilities he did not amount to what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called in a very different context "a clear and present danger." But I wanted to be on the side of doing something, and standing by was not enough.

Keller's critics don't seem convinced. The left-wing Nation calls it the latest in a long line of "mini culpas" from Keller on the Times's Iraq war coverage; the libertarian publication Reason gets a bit closer to the ad hominem, remarking that Keller's argument is admitting that "he did not feel manly enough to keep his daughter safe in a post-9/11 world."

The Times also checks in on some of the names in its celebrated "Portraits of Grief" series; book critic Michiko Kakutani looks at how 9/11 changed art and culture; and Randy Kennedy visits the construction workers rebuilding the World Trade Center


Fellow member of the "I-Can't-Believe-I'm-a-Hawk club" Paul Berman revisits the ideas that informed his now classic article and book, Terror and Liberalism, which posited that Islamism -- like communism and fascism before it -- was the latest in a series of real and vexing threats to Western liberalism. Berman, for the most part, stands by the thesis, but sees hope for liberalism in recent events in the Middle East:

The anniversary of September 11 reminds me that, before I come up with a gloomy word to conclude my sentence, it might be useful to recall the Middle Eastern landscape of ten years ago. It was not a spectacle of hope. The whole region seemed to be veering in terrorist directions, with battles almost everywhere going on between Islamists of different stripes and mukhabarat regimes, likewise of different stripes, ranging from the bad to the ghastly. And ten years later? Dismal still, in a kaleidoscopically different pattern. Anyone can think of doomsday possibilities -- an Iranian order to Hamas and Hezbollah to launch a regional war, and so on. Still, two new elements, which you could not have found ten years ago, figure nowadays on the landscape. Here and there around the region you can see democratic institutions, shaky as a leaf -- threatened by terrorists and Islamist militias in Iraq, trampled underfoot by an Islamist militia in Lebanon, still merely a project for the future in Tunisia, and feebler yet in Egypt, given that, if the Egyptian elections go ahead, they will probably bring the wrong people to power. Democratic institutions nonetheless amount to a new element. And something else: the ineradicable fact that liberals, relatively isolated and weak as they are, have made a mass appearance on the public stage, and the liberals left a good impression on the rest of society, and they even demonstrated the ability, for a moment, to shape events, and their day may not be over yet.

More than any other publication, TNR embodied post-9/11 liberal hawkishness with its support of the Iraq war. In 2004, it even devoted an entire issue to the question, "Were We Wrong?" Perhaps because it has so extensively mined this debate already, the magazine's coverage of the anniversary has been relatively muted.

Elsewhere in TNR, Eric Trager ponders the stubborn persistence of 9/11 conspiracy, Lawrence Kaplan revisits the short-lived sense of post-9/11 civil responsibility, and FP contributor Peter Bergen reflects on his 18 years of following bin Laden.


Nearly the entire Sept. 12 issue is devoted to 9/11 content. Editor in Chief David Remnick leads off with a reflective piece that, in true New Yorker fashion, compares the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack to the city's previous worst disaster, the 1904 fire and subsequent sinking of the steamship General Slocum, in which more than 1,000 died. Suffice to say, the impact of 9/11 was somewhat more profound:

But, for all the recent moments of promise, this tenth anniversary is a marker, not an end. It is a time to commemorate, consider, and reconsider. A decade later, we pay tribute to the resilience of ordinary people in the face of appalling destruction. We remember the dead and, with them, the survivors, the firemen and the police, the nurses and the doctors and the spontaneous, instinctive volunteers, the myriad acts of courage and kindness. A decade later, we also continue to reckon not only with the violence that bin Laden inflicted but with the follies, the misjudgments, and the violence that, directly or indirectly, he provoked -- the acts of government deception, illegal domestic surveillance, "extraordinary rendition," "enhanced interrogation," waterboarding.

The issue also includes pieces from regular contributors Ian Frazier and George Packer as well as a long list of guests that's heavy on novelists including Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, and Colum McCann.

Smith writes of that day, "About one thing, though, we could all agree: everything had changed. Or had it?" In reading through the best of the coverage in the American press, it's clear we're no closer to that answer 10 years later.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The List

7 Things You Didn’t Know About the War on Terror

From an attempt to negotiate with Osama bin Laden to a proposal to threaten to bomb Mecca, it's been a wild decade for the U.S. national security establishment.

Our new book, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda, is in many ways a summary of the past decade of our reporting on the military, intelligence community, and domestic law enforcement as it entered a new era of Darwinian evolution to counter violent extremism.

It also is our deep dive into a decade of American counterterrorism efforts -- from the work of commando trigger-pullers and spies on the ground up to senior political leaders who wanted to defend the nation (and get re-elected). Our efforts to report and write this book allowed us to uncover many new missions never discussed before -- and gave us an understanding of how the "war on terror" had changed over the last decade.

Our book assesses the 10 years since 9/11 as the military divides the fight: into tactical missions on the battlefields of modern terrorism; then the operational advancements that provided the means to success while not securing final victory; and at the top, the strategic level of policy debates about how the nation should combat this threat to its security.

Here are seven vignettes from Counterstrike that offer glimpses into the thinking of policymakers and commanders in early days after the Sept. 11 attacks and how that thinking evolved over the following decade into a more whole-of-government approach to combating terrorists:


1. Bush Tried to Negotiate with al Qaeda

The George W. Bush administration, like all of its predecessors, swore never to negotiate with terrorists. But it did undertake an extraordinary, and extraordinarily secret, outreach effort to open a line of communication with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda's senior leadership. It was an attempt to replicate how the United States tried to sustain a dialogue with the Soviet Union, even during the darkest days of the Cold War, when White House and Kremlin leaders described in private and in public a set of acceptable behaviors -- and described with equal clarity the swift, vicious, even nuclear punishment for gross violations.

In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush's national security staff, working through the intelligence agencies, made several attempts to get a private message to bin Laden and his inner circle. The messages were sent through business associates of the bin Laden family's vast financial empire as well as through some of the al Qaeda leader's closest relatives, a number of whom were receptive to opening a secret dialogue to restrain and contain their terrorist kinsman, whom they viewed as a blot on their name. (To be sure, other relatives were openly hostile to the American entreaties.)

According to a senior American intelligence officer with first-hand knowledge of the effort, the response from Osama bin Laden was silence. And the effort was suspended.

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2. Sometimes a Wedding Is Just a Wedding

In the early days after the Sept. 11 attacks, the CIA and FBI vied to produce the most compelling intelligence reports that tracked suspected terrorist plots. The agencies often worked at cross purposes, sometimes unwittingly. At one point in early 2002, both agencies were tracking what American analysts said were growing preparations for a major "wedding" somewhere in the Midwest. (In terrorist vernacular, the word "wedding" is often code for a major attack.) Dribs and drabs on this "wedding" planning made their way to President Bush from both agencies, independent of each other, of course. Finally, over the Easter holiday, during a video-teleconference with top aides in Washington from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Bush stopped the briefing, exasperated by the discrepancies in the rival agencies' reporting about the suspected threat.

"George, Bob, get together and sort this out," Bush told his CIA director, George J. Tenet, and FBI director, Robert S. Mueller III.

Bush's instincts were correct. When the analysts finally untangled their clues, it turned out that the ominous "wedding" really was just that: the matrimony of a young man and a young woman from two prominent Pakistani-American families. There was no threat. There was no plot.

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3. The Threat to Bomb Mecca

As fears of a second attack mounted following the 9/11 strikes, U.S. government planners frantically cast about for strategies to protect the country. Even the most far-fetched ideas had a hearing, however briefly. In one case, some government planners proposed that if al Qaeda appeared ready to attack America again, the United States should publicly threaten to bomb the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the holiest site in all of Islam, in retaliation. "Just nuts!" one Pentagon aide wrote to himself when he heard the proposal. The idea was quickly and permanently shelved.


4. The SEAL Raid in Iran That Didn't Happen

When U.S. forces routed the Taliban government in Afghanistan and forced bin Laden and his top lieutenants to flee, many senior al Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, escaped to neighboring Pakistan. But a separate group, including the al Qaeda leader's son, Saad bin Laden, fled to northern Iran, where American troops would not pursue them and the Iranians would likely not detain them. But the Shiite clerics running Iran placed the al Qaeda operatives and their family members under virtual house arrest, and they became a shield against possible attacks from the Sunni-based terrorist organization.

One plan in particular illustrated the bold thinking and wildly unrealistic aims of the military's initial approach after 9/11 to kill or capture terrorist leaders. The plan called for hunting the eight to 10 senior al Qaeda leaders and operatives who had sought refuge in Chalus, an Iranian resort town on the Caspian Sea, where they had been detained.

At the Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., military planners drew up options for Navy SEALs to sneak ashore at night using state-of-the-art mini-submarines. Once they landed, the SEALs would slip past Iranian guards to snatch the al Qaeda leaders. Another option called for Special Operations helicopters to spirit American commandos into the town and whisk them out again with their quarry. The Americans went as far as conducting two or three rehearsals at an undisclosed location along the U.S. Gulf Coast in early 2002. They conducted small-boat insertion exercises involving about 30 Special Operations personnel, most SEALs, and eventually concluded the mission was feasible if they were provided with more detailed intelligence on the locations of the al Qaeda members and the security around them.

The logistics of the mission were daunting. Chalus sits at the edge of the Elburz coastal mountain range about 70 miles north of Tehran, and the failed rescue of the American hostages in Iran in April 1980 loomed large in commanders' memories. Eventually, Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rejected the mission as too risky and too politically volatile. Many of the al Qaeda operatives are reportedly still there.

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5. Intelligence Hauls of Unusual Size

U.S. intelligence and military commandos have carried out tens of thousands of raids in the decade since 9/11. The amount of material seized from terrorist and insurgent targets has grown to a massive size. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) operates exploitation triage centers and giant warehouses for storing intelligence products -- in war zones, rear headquarters in countries like Qatar, and back in the United States. One intelligence analyst said that walking into one of the warehouses for documents and media exploitation reminded him of the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the captured Ark of the Covenant is crated up and rolled into a cavernous storage area that contains all the government's other dangerous secrets.

All told, more than two million individual documents and electronic files have been catalogued by media type: hard copy, phone number, thumb drive. Each is inspected by a linguist working with a communications analyst or computer expert. The DIA analysts are joined by specialists from other agencies, including the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Yet given the overwhelming volume, no more than about 10 percent of the captured intelligence has ever been analyzed. Intelligence officers say they simply are overwhelmed, and untold quality leads may still be buried in the piles of computers, digital files, travel documents, and pocket litter.

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6. The Digital Counterjihad

Cyberspace is the terrorists' ultimate safe haven. It's where they recruit, raise money, and even plot attacks, using coded language while playing online video war games. The U.S. government fights back. One technique is called false band replacement, whereby the intelligence agencies infiltrate militants' networks and post their own material to counter extremist efforts on those same jihadist websites. The trick is to forge the onscreen trademarks -- "web watermarks" -- of al Qaeda media sites. This makes messages posted on these sites official, and sows dissent and confusion among the militants.

This Internet spoofing can be used in support of more traditional combat missions. There is at least one case confirmed by American officials in which a jihadist website was hacked by American cyberwarriors to lure a high-value al Qaeda to a surreptitious meeting with extremist counterparts -- only to find a U.S. military team in waiting.


7. First, Kill the Mullahs

U.S. counterterrorism officials have learned fighting terrorists effectively means targeting specific nodes of that network that support and enable militants who strap on suicide vests. This strategy focuses on neutralizing enablers such as the financiers, gun-runners, and logisticians. Among these terror linchpins are religious leaders who bless attacks. Heavenly reward will not await a suicide bomber unless his death and those of his victims is deemed halal, in keeping with Islam's sacred sharia law. Each militant network has a sharia emir, usually at the level of a sheikh or mullah. In Iraq, American commanders specifically killed emirs to throw a wrench in a suicide bombing networks. "Take him out, and suicide bombings from that network are frozen until he is replaced," said one military officer with command experience in Iraq.

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