Attacks of September 11, 2001

Attacks of September 11, 2001

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TheSeptember 11, 2001, the United States has been struck by a terrorist attack, before the eyes of the whole world. The consequences were immediate with, as early as October 2001, the attack on Afghanistan by the United States and its allies, under a UN mandate. Ten years later, the troops are still there, but the mastermind of the attacks, Osama bin Laden, has been killed by US special forces. It is necessary to know Al Qaida before going back over the facts and detailing the more important consequences. We can then ask ourselves what is the status of September 11, 2001 as an object of history: key date for the shift into a new world, spectacular but not decisive outcome of a longer process? ...

The birth of Al Qaida

Except for a few conspiracy theorists, the September 11, 2001 attacks were perpetrated by terrorists claiming to be Al Qaeda. It is still very difficult today to define exactly what this group or this movement is, which is in fact made up of a nebula of small groups and more or less dormant cells, claiming to be the moral and ideological magisterium of Bin Laden. and Al-Zawahiri, but being for some totally independent (and sometimes in disagreement) of these two men. Al Qaida can be quickly translated as "database".

It was born from several phenomena. Above all, of what Olivier Roy calls "the failure of political Islam", that is to say the failure of parties and ideologues who have made Islam the basis (or the heart) of their political ideology, but which ultimately never came to power, for various reasons, or when they did, failed to set up a real "new society". We can for example cite the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or the FIS in Algeria, and for those who came to power, the Iranian mullahs or the Taliban in Afghanistan. This failure has led to the radicalization of some Islamists and the emergence of what political scientists call "international jihadism," directed not only against the West and Israel, but also against "bad Muslims."

The concept of jihad is old, we are not going to develop it here. But for what interests us, it is an extension of its combatant aspect, for a holy war aimed at defending Islam. It is found in both Saladin and Abd el-Kader, and in the twentieth century it is the jihad armed in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union which is in a way the basis of what became the international jihadism leading up to September 11. It is theorized by Abdallah Azzam (1941-1989), a Palestinian Muslim Brother who, inspired among others by Sayyid Qotb, allowed the rapprochement between the radical (qotbist) part of the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabism. It is he who internationalizes the jihad Afghan. In Pakistan, he created an office to organize the struggle and there met a certain Osama bin Laden, who became the financier of his jihad. The two men fall out nevertheless in 1987, and it is the moment when Bin Laden created his famous database: Qa'idat al-ma'lumat.

The man who created Al Qaida with Bin Laden is Ayman al-Zawahiri. He is in fact the real theorist of the group. An Egyptian too marked by Qotb, as well as by the Six Day War, he is accused of having participated in the plot against Sadat, and served a few years in prison in Egypt before joining Bin Laden in Afghanistan. The turning point for the two men is the Gulf War (1990-1991). The end of the war in Afghanistan has somewhat orphaned the jihadists. Bin Laden, who does not carry Saddam Hussein in his heart, offers help from Al Qaida to liberate Kuwait. After all, the jihadists were the allies of the West in Afghanistan ... But Saudi Arabia refuses, and Bin Laden even loses his nationality! He fled to Sudan, where he found Al-Zawahiri; there, he reorganizes the jihad, for example attacking Mubarak in 1995, or two years earlier supporting the rebels in Somalia against the operation Restore Hope. In 1996, they returned to Afghanistan with the Taliban.

Al Qaida ideology

Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri regularly cite five contemporary figures as references in their various texts: Abdallah Azzam, Ahmad Yassine (the Hamas guide), Omar Abdel-Rahman (see below), and the Saudis ‘Audah and Hawali. But their references go even further, including beyond Qotb, with in particular the famous Ibn Taïmiyya, theorist of jihad against the Mongols in the 13th century.

In 1998, Al-Zawahiri and Bin Laden created "a front of the holy war against the Jews and the Crusaders", where the murder becomes a duty for every Muslim. The Egyptian details his ideology in Horsemen under the banner of the Prophet, which was released in… 2001. In this text, Al-Zawahiri points to the failure of strictly political action and claims leadership on the jihad global. If he militates for a social, educational and ideological action of the umma (a world vision, therefore, but passing all the same through the national one) entirely mobilized against the enemy (the Crusader, the Jew, the bad Muslim), he also insists on the legitimacy of the use of violence.

The occupation of the Holy Places by the Infidels is for Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri the greatest aggression, while the Saudi regime is one of injustice, which is more complicit with the Crusaders. The aim is therefore to reconquer the Arabian Peninsula, to allow the expansion of true Islam. The problem is, it's hard to know more, including a real desire to reestablish a fantasized caliphate as we often hear. Indeed, Al Qaida ideologues are much more vague in what they propose as a society once they come to power. So much so that the doctrine seems to become more and more nihilistic thereafter. We will come back to that.

The United States as a target

Why the United States, their former allies? Once again, the Gulf War of 1991 is decisive, in addition to support for Israel. For Al Qaida, the ungodly American troops occupy the holy land of Islam, that of Mecca and Medina, offered to Muslims by God. So they have to leave. The Saudi regime, despite being Wahhabi, is also the enemy because it is complicit in this occupation.

Moreover, Bin Laden cites, as we have seen, as one of his inspirers, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman. The latter, Egyptian like Al-Zawahiri, was himself imprisoned in Egypt during the 1980s for his jihadist activities, and above all for having been the spiritual guide of the Gama’A islamiyya, the group responsible for the assassination of Sadat, then other attacks, like that of Luxor in 1997. Omar Abdel-Rahman, after his years in prison, and a detour through Sudan, takes refuge… in the United States! There, after a few years of still aggressive preaching (like Abu Hamza in London before his arrest in 2004), he is accused of having ordered an attack on the World Trade Center (he will be sentenced to life imprisonment). We are in 1993.

The actions against the United States multiplied in the following years. We can cite for example the attack on the destroyer USS Cole, in the port of Aden in Yemen, on October 12, 2000. The attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 are ultimately just one more attack, but this time much more deadly and with difficult consequences. . They are in line with the logic that Al-Zawahiri develops in his texts: to do in the media, the spectacular and the deadliest possible, to punish the Infidels, but above all to mobilize the oumma ...

The attacks of September 11, 2001

The chronology and the facts are known, but it is useful to recall them. Four airliners were hijacked on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, two hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center (New York, Manhattan) at 8:46 am and 9:03 am. A third reached the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. The fourth crashed near Pittsburgh at 10:03 am. A few minutes earlier, the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed; it is followed at 10:28 am by the north tower. At the end of the afternoon, another WTC building collapsed.

The human toll shows 2,976 dead, plus the 19 terrorists identified by investigators. While Al Qaida and Osama bin Laden are quickly singled out, they do not directly take responsibility for the attacks, including in late statements in 2002, 2003 and 2004, using only hints or references. This allows (along with many other things) conspiracy theorists to step into the breach. During the capture of Bin Laden in 2011, documents were found proving that he was the mastermind of the attacks, and others to come, but this remains to be confirmed ... The investigation ultimately designated Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the main organizer of the attacks. He was captured in Pakistan in 2003.

The leaders of Al Qaida being in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban, the United States reunited its allies and, with the support of the UN, attacked the country in October 2001. By the end of the year, the Taliban regime was overthrown but then began a guerrilla war that continues today. At the same time, the Bush administration is launching the "war on terror" which, like the jihad of Al Qaeda, is meant to be global.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 opened a new period of terrorist attacks, worldwide, and not only against Western targets: from 2002, with the synagogue of Djerba (April 11, 19 dead), French engineers in Karachi (8 May, 15 dead), a nightclub in Bali (12 October, 180 dead). A recording of November 10, attributed to Bin Laden, claims these attacks, even if since doubts have appeared (for Karachi, for example).

Yet this is another event that revives, or worsens the campaign of attacks following September 11: the war in Iraq, launched in 2003 by the United States and its allies, outside the UN mandate (among others in because of the threat of a French veto). One of the many consequences of September 11.

The consequences of September 11, 2001

They are endless, and we have to make choices.

Obviously, it is first the policy of the United States that is affected. Outside, it is marked by intervention in Afghanistan and by the establishment of the war against terrorism, a priority for the armed forces, the secret services and diplomacy. The world according to George W. Bush is thus divided into two: those who are with the United States and those who are against it. The most spectacular outcome of this policy is the war in Iraq, which started in 2003 without a UN mandate this time, and without certain allies in Afghanistan, led by France. This war marks a change in the image of the United States, which is (again) passing victims ("we are all Americans", The world the day after September 11) to executioners. The Abu Ghraib scandal adds to that of Guantanamo.

The American base in Cuba was in fact used from the months following September 11 to imprison people suspected of belonging to Al Qaida and thus actively participating in the jihad international. The problem is that prisoners have no legal status, no serious means of defending themselves. Moreover, like Abu Ghraïb later, torture is practiced and even legitimized there by American officials, with Donald Rumsfeld in the lead. The latter believe that the war on terrorism requires accommodation with human rights, including those of the Americans themselves, as evidenced by Patriot act, which is voted on October 26, 2001. The repeated scandals and the detestation which the United States undergoes all over the world do not prevent George W. Bush from being re-elected in November 2004. The war on terrorism, as for it is far from being a success despite the arrest of several Al Qaida officials.

The consequences are international, and not only through American policy or that of its allies. All of the countries potentially targeted by Al Qaeda attacks are marked to varying degrees by emergency laws and growing mute concern. In a diffuse way, in Europe in particular, a mistrust and even a hatred of Islam and Muslims, amalgamated with the jihadism of Al Qaeda, rises in the minds, going so far as to paralyze the debates, like a vicious circle (the Mahomet cartoons case in 2005, for example).

The development of conspiracy theories exploded with September 11. The phenomenon is not new, but the symbolism of the facts and the gray areas of the investigation, as well as the trivialization of the Internet, help the success of those who think that September 11 is not a jihadist plot, but "other". The different theories, more or less far-fetched, incriminate an internal machination in the United States, or outright an "American-Zionist" plot, in the direct line of the theories resulting from the false The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This affects not only the most activist, anti-American or anti-Zionist circles, but a larger part of the population and certain artists, in Europe and the United States included. So much so that a 2008 international survey shows that less than one in two people believe that the attacks of September 11 are attributable to Al Qaida ...

It is therefore at all levels, in politics as in mentalities, that the attacks of September 11, 2001 have consequences in the following years, and until today, by making a symbolic date. Unconsciously or not, people, in the West as in the rest of the world, see September 11 as a breaking point. Among historians, this is debated, especially since the Arab revolutions.

Arab revolutions

The connection is far from obvious at first glance, but it does exist. Indeed, for many political scientists and historians, the Arab revolutions mark the confirmation of the failure of political Islam, and even more that of global jihadism, that is to say of the use of violence. as a weapon of political Islam. Demonstrators in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere demanded democratic advances far removed from the values ​​dictated by the jihadists and even the Islamists. And strictly political movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did not lead the revolutions; they even seemed at times overwhelmed.

However, it is still too early to make a definitive assessment of these revolutions. Indeed, the process sometimes gets stuck, the elections have not yet taken place, some movements are on hold (Yemen). Above all, the Islamist parties are entering the game again, with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Ennadha in Tunisia. While some specialists believe that they have become more democratic and that they are no longer a danger, occasional events lead to suspicion (a large demonstration in Egypt where the laity preferred to withdraw because of religious slogans, pressure on customs in Tunisia, etc.). Polls predict good scores for major Islamist parties.

The Arab revolutions therefore certainly mark the failure of the nihilism of the jihadists of Al Qaeda (and the death of Bin Laden did not help), since they did not succeed in mobilizing the masses, the umma, so that this was clearly their goal as Al-Zawahiri wrote in Horsemen under the banner of the Prophet. On the other hand, when it comes to political Islam, it is still too early to tell.

The end of Al Qaeda?

Does the death of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011 sign the end of Al Qaeda? In fact, the difficulties of the jihadist nebula are not new. The hunt and capture of several of its officials (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) has weakened it, but, worse, the authority of Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri is challenged. From the war in Iraq, tensions appeared with jihadists like Al-Zarqawi, and the activities of cells claiming to be Al Qaida are increasingly focused on regional actions (like AQIM) or downright national (in Iraq). , far from the dream of jihad world led by Al-Zawahiri. The very principle of the nebula seems to be backfiring against Al Qaeda, with increasing independence of the different groups, and interests that do not always converge. The slowness of Al Qaeda's response to the Arab revolutions (when groups like Hamas applauded them) clearly show the embarrassment, if not isolation, of those responsible.

The anniversary of September 11, with promises of vengeance for the death of Bin Laden, will undoubtedly be decisive in determining where the jihadist nebula stands. But, already, the attacks are rarer, the claims are vague and spaced out, and Al Qaida may have entered a period of slow agony ...

September 11, 2001, the object of history

After reviewing all these aspects, from the birth and ideology of Al Qaeda to the events of September 11 and their consequences, one can therefore wonder about this event as an object of history.

For Michel de Certeau, "the event is what it becomes". It would seem that this fits exactly with 9/11. As a world shock, initially causing astonishment, it is the perfect example, as François Dosse notes (Historiographies, volume II, p 755), of what makes an event. But does it mark the entry into a new era? In any case, it proves that the end of history is not for today, nor for tomorrow, contrary to what one Fukuyama had thought after the fall of the Wall in 1989.

Historians believe that September 11 is not a rupture, but just the spectacular marker of a transformation of the world that takes place in a longer process and in the context of globalization. With the fall of the Wall and the Soviet Union, the world became multipolar despite the 1990s when the United States seemed to be the only real power. All the same, it is difficult to see in the attacks of September 11 only an event, certainly a little more spectacular than the others, but not more decisive. It was very directly September 11 that helped reorient American international (and even national) politics, with cascading consequences (including the war in Iraq). It was September 11 that fundamentally changed the image of Islam and Muslims in Europe, causing (with the help of the economic crisis) a rise in populism, the harmful effects of which we are only now beginning to see.

September 11, 2001 is therefore a dated, in fact and in people's minds. However, make it the rupture which opens a new era (the XXIst century?) is perhaps, it is true, rapid. The twenty-first century will probably be as much that of globalization and its various crises as that of jihadism and the war against terrorism, the latter even being considered as collateral damage to this globalization ...


- September 11, 2001: The end of a world, by Paul Villatoux and Fabienne Mercier-Bernadet. Spirit of the Book, 2011.

- The hidden face of September 11, by Eric Laurent. pocket, 2005.

- September 11, 2001, a planetary event (Memories of objects-Stories of men), Collective, Ouest-France, 2008.

Video: 911 audio recordings offer dramatic timeline