by Maj Gen (Ret.) Buck Elton and LTC Mike Kelvington
September 11th, 2001 was the day our generation realized our world had forever changed. At 0846 New York Time, American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles impacted the 93rd floor of the World Trade Center North Tower at 500 miles per hour, instantly killing the 87 passengers and crew and hundreds of people working on the upper floors. We all watched one of our nation’s iconic buildings burn and wondered how a commercial airliner could accidentally fly into this enormous landmark on a clear, blue-sky morning. Millions of Americans were virtually paralyzed 17 minutes later as it became shockingly obvious we were under attack when we watched the second aircraft, United Airlines Flight 175, collide into the upper South Tower. We were attacked again 34 minutes later when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the western side of the Pentagon, killing the 59 passengers and 125 military and civilian personnel working near the Fifth Corridor. Reports of more hijacked airliners headed for the nation’s capital forced the hasty evacuation of the White House and Capitol buildings.
Most of us clearly recall the events on that morning, the airliners crashing into the massive buildings, the hellish fireballs and flying debris, the exposed and crumbled walls of the Pentagon, the clouds of concrete dust exploding down the streets of New York, and the dreadful images and sounds of hundreds of our fellow citizens making the impossible choice to escape the suffocating smoke and unbearable flames by jumping and falling to their death. 2,977 men and women, including 343 firefighters, and 72 policemen, EMTs, and security guards were murdered by 19 Islamic extremists. For our younger generations, this has now become an essential history lesson all must understand to process our 21st-century world. On this 20th anniversary, we honor and remember the innocent people who were murdered without understanding the sheer hatred, determination, and ruthlessness of the evil men responsible for planning and executing this attack. We also remember the heroes of that day, both uniformed and civilian, who rushed into the fire, chaos, and uncertainty, saving lives while risking and many times sacrificing their own.
We remember Todd Beamer, who immortalized the fighting spirit of United 93 passengers refusing to be victims, by saying “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.” Armed only with the knowledge of the hijacker’s true intent, these heroes engaged the enemy to forcibly take back control of the aircraft and stop this attack on innocent people. The hijackers chose a cowardly end, deliberately crashing the plane into a Pennsylvania field. These were the first Americans engaged in hand-to-hand combat against this enemy. We remember Navy SEAL Commander Craig Powell, who fearlessly rescued people from the devastated Pentagon by literally holding up the burning ceiling with his six-foot five-inch towering frame. We remember the 24-year-old equities trader Welles Crowther who repeatedly carried people down the smoke-filled stairwell in the WTC South Tower until he was eventually crushed by the collapsing structure. And we remember our military and interagency heroes who later responded to this attack by fearlessly taking the fight to the enemy in their Afghanistan safe haven. We must remember and honor the sacrifice of those killed: the innocent victims, the first responders, and our combat forces. We owe them our memories and reflection.
We must also understand our enemy and the intentions of those who want to destroy us. In 1996, al-Qaeda declared jihad against Americans, and in 1998 they issued a fatwa for all Muslims to kill Americans and their allies, civilians, and military. Al-Qaeda attacked the world trade center in 1993, our Embassies in Africa in 1998, our Naval ship in 1999, and finally the symbols of our financial and military strength on Sep 11, 2001. We did not understand al-Qaeda and we did not prepare to defend ourselves against their attacks. Even after 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda continued to conduct horrific terrorist attacks in London, Madrid, Indonesia, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Pakistan, as well as two attempted attacks on airliners bound for the United States from Europe.
For the past 20 years, we disrupted and almost destroyed al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations by killing tens of thousands in their networks. Terrorist leaders including Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Anwar al-Awlaki, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State were killed after massive efforts to find, fix and finish them. We built international coalitions, targeted facilitators and enablers, seized finances, limited travel, denied safe havens, intercepted and disrupted communications and complicated logistics. We countered the extremist ideology in the war of ideas, promoted tolerance, the rule of law, equality amongst women, and encouraged political and economic openness in Muslim nations. We put our lives on the line to build, finance, and enlighten Islamic governments and to protect and educate their citizens to counter this threat.
Since 9/11, more than 6,800 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and government civilians were killed and almost 53,000 wounded while defending our nation in Iraq and Afghanistan to protect our nation, shield their citizens, and help build modern, just, and representative governments. Dozens of coalition allies contributed combat and support forces to the Global War on Terror and lost almost 1,500 of them. We also lost tens of thousands of host nation partner security forces serving shoulder to shoulder with our teams, fighting a common enemy.
Despite our sacrifices and our efforts, this hateful extremist ideology that motivated al-Qaeda to attack us in 2001 still exists today. Evil men are plotting murderous attacks now, in 2021, from under-governed nations, on the internet, and around the world. They inspire followers by beheading journalists and Christian children. They fill mass graves by executing non-believers. They force compliance and instill fear by raping women and selling families as slaves. And they are planning devastating attacks with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons against major western population centers.
In 2005, we learned of al-Qaeda’s twenty-year, seven-phase strategy planned from 2000 to 2020. They completed the first four phases on their planned timeline. The first, “Awakening”, the desire to provoke the U.S. into declaring war on the Islamic world and awakening Muslims was completed shortly after the 9/11 attacks. The second phase, “Opening Eyes” developed the base into a networked organization. The third phase, “Arising and Standing Up”, provoked western attacks in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. The fourth phase, to Collapse Hated Arab Governments, saw success in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, and Egypt. Recently, they watched their close ally, the Taliban, topple the government of Afghanistan. Many experts say ISIS came close to accomplishing the fifth phase, establishing the Islamic State, about seven years ago in 2014.
Jihadists then believed the final two phases, Total Confrontation or all-out war between the Islamic Army and the unbelievers and Definitive Victory were attainable by 2020. Thanks to our combined efforts with allies in the region, we destroyed the physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria, delaying the Total Confrontation phase. Al-Qaeda has been degraded, and ISIS destroyed, but successes against these terrorist organizations are temporary if we lack proper consolidation of these gains tied to a holistic strategy. With the recent departure of western military forces and diplomats from Afghanistan, the rapid collapse of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and the establishment of the Taliban-controlled “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” al-Qaeda will most likely advance its strategy into the fifth phase again. We should be concerned about jihadists and extremists moving to Afghanistan from Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, and Northern Africa to join the Islamic Army and attempting to achieve Definitive Victory, just as they described in their strategy.
This enduring conflict between those who value freedom, tolerance, and liberty and those who desire oppression, compliance, and destruction will not be over anytime soon. This fight has come full circle in Afghanistan, with the likelihood of it becoming a safe haven for terrorists who wish to attack the west again. The Taliban and al-Qaeda ties have always been strong, and the Taliban will most likely not comply with the terms of the agreement to bring peace to Afghanistan. In exchange for agreeing to remove all foreign forces from Afghanistan, our negotiators wanted the Taliban to agree to prevent al-Qaeda and others from attacking the United States and its allies from Afghanistan soil.
The Taliban refused to specifically name al-Qaeda but agreed to prevent the use of the soil of Afghanistan by any group or individual against the security of the United States and its allies. However, their actions recently indicate they have no intention of holding up to their end of the bargain. Osama bin Laden’s former, head of security, Amin al Haq, triumphantly returned home to eastern Afghanistan in mid to late August. Just this week, the Taliban also named Siraj Haqqani to be their new Minister of the Interior, a terrorist on the FBI’s most wanted list that arguably has more American blood on his hands than almost anyone else alive on the planet. We may be hopeful, but hope isn’t a strategy, and we must be prepared for their failure to comply with the terms of our agreement.
Over the past 20 years, we have built a strong, internationally integrated, technologically advanced, and extremely effective counterterrorism capability. But our enemies have also improved their networks and capabilities. Our complete loss of robust intelligence infrastructure in Afghanistan, which gave us deep insights into al-Qaeda and ISIS-K, will put us at a disadvantage. Al-Qaeda and affiliate use of encrypted applications and secure communications methods have drastically improved. The Taliban now control the entire opium and meth drug trade within the country, rather than relying on smuggling, extortion, and taxes. They have a massive stock of conventional weapons abandoned by Afghan National Defense Security Forces. The U.S. Treasury, for now, has blocked the Taliban from accessing billions of dollars held by the Afghanistan central bank but located in U.S. institutions. Ironically, the authority to freeze these reserves in 2021 was authorized by executive order shortly after the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban is better resourced, more organized, more motivated, and more dangerous than they have ever been. Al-Qaeda and other belligerents will undoubtedly attempt to exploit this opportunity.
This enduring and existential conflict will require our nation and our allies to be resolute by remembering how we were attacked, why we were attacked, and how we responded to the attacks. Although National Defense Strategy directs shifting resources and focus from counterterrorism to near-peer threats and strategic competition, our enemy’s resolve has remained steadfast. We may have lost interest in counterterrorism, politically exhausted by the high cost of blood and treasure, but al-Qaeda and other like-minded networks who attacked us on 9/11 and over the past two decades have lost neither the will nor the focus. They are more emboldened, and they will attack again.
The brave men and women of our military, our intelligence agencies, and our diplomats will continue to serve on the front lines of this conflict. They will continue to sacrifice by deploying far from loved ones, by precisely and reliably executing their missions, and by directly targeting and killing those who threaten our families. Our nation needs us to continue this fight to dismantle and ultimately destroy al-Qaeda and their affiliates, and any other belligerent who tries to threaten our freedom in the future.
Periodically, we all should take the time to remember why we serve, why we sacrifice, and why we fight. This twentieth anniversary of 9/11 gives us the opportunity to remember those who were killed, to honor our heroes who responded and sacrificed, to understand who attacked us and why, to study and improve weaknesses in our defenses, and to fully commit to defending our nation against those who wish us harm. Take the time to remember, honor, and understand so it doesn’t happen again.
About the Authors:
Maj Gen Buck Elton retired in October 2020 after 31 years of service. He flew MC-130H, MC-130E and MQ-1s in AFSOC, commanded the 7th SOS at RAF Mildenhall, UK, the 1st SOG at Hurlburt Field, the 27th SOW at Cannon AFB, and the Special Operations Joint Task Force in Afghanistan. He also served as the Deputy Commanding General of the Joint Special Operations Command, the Deputy Director for Special Operations and Counterterrorism on the Joint Staff, and the J3 of the U.S. Special Operations Command. He currently works as a Strategic Consultant for Avantus Federal. Buck and his wife, Karen, live in Medford, Oregon.
LTC Mike Kelvington is an Infantry officer in the U.S. Army with experience in special operations, counterterrorism, and counterinsurgency operations over fourteen deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, including with the 75th Ranger Regiment. He’s been awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Valor and two Purple Hearts for wounds sustained in combat. He is currently the Professor of Military Science for The Ohio State University Army ROTC as well as a Non-Resident Fellow of the Modern War Institute. Mike and his wife, Meg, now live in Columbus, Ohio with their 4 children.
The opinions expressed above are their own and do not represent the official position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.