The terror we witnessed: 20 years of beating back plots against America

9/11: 20 years later

NEW YORK — When President George W. Bush surveyed two million tons of rubble that used to be the twin towers, on Sept.14, 2001, he made a short, iconic speech that hinted at what was to come.

“I can hear you!” he yelled through a bullhorn to a cheering group of first responders and construction workers. “And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”

He was true to his word.

On Oct. 7, 2001, the United States–working with Allied Forces–starting bombing Taliban targets in the mountains of Afghanistan. 

The ruling Taliban government was blamed for protecting al-Qaeda leaders like Osama bin Laden, who had inspired the 9/11 terror attacks. In a matter of weeks, the Taliban regime was toppled.

But it was just the beginning of a 20-year war that would move into Iraq and leave more than 2,500 U.S. military personnel dead, with thousands more scarred by PTSD or maimed by IEDs, or improvised explosive devices.

About 47,000 Afghan civilians died, along with 51,000 opposition fighters and 66,000 members of the Afghani police and military.

Early on, we learned that 15 of the 19 hijackers who had turned four jets into flying bombs and left nearly 3,000 dead on 9/11 were Saudi nationals who had received financial assistance from agents of the Saudi government. 

Families of 9/11 victims are still seeking the declassification of important documents related to the terror attacks, two decades later.

In those first months post-9/11, the United States Congress passed the Patriot Act, which expanded the surveillance powers of the National Intelligence Agency.  

While rock royalty like Paul McCartney, The Who, and Billy Joel tried to soothe a wounded city at The Concert for New York at Madison Square Garden, it wasn’t long before terrorists were trying to target Americans again.

On Dec. 22, 2001,  the wanna-be shoe bomber, Richard Reid, was wrestled by passengers and flight attendants aboard a jet that had flown from the United Kingdom to the United States. Reid was trying to detonate his black sneakers, which had been transformed into makeshift explosives. He was arrested at Logan International Airport in Boston.

In February 2002, journalist Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal was kidnapped in Pakistan and later beheaded. It was another sign of the brutality al-Qaeda fighters were capable of.

On May 30th, 2002, the last beam standing was moved out of the Trade Center site on a flatbed truck, wrapped in black cloth with an American flag draped on the vehicle.

“I will never set foot back here again,” said one, emotional World Trade Center worker who had survived the horror. “This is my last time.”

Pres. Bush returned to ground zero on the first anniversary of the attacks, on Sept. 11, 2002, with a moving ceremony that featured thousands of family members marching solemnly into the pit, considered sacred ground.  

Joined by first lady Laura Bush, the president greeted many retired FDNY firefighters who had spent months searching the debris, hoping to find their lost sons who had followed them into the fire department.

Many of the remains were never recovered.

On  March 1, 2003, the alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was captured in Pakistan, a mug shot showing him with disheveled hair and a white t-shirt.  

Later in March 2003, the United States launched the war against Iraq, after President Bush had sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations to argue Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was hiding Weapons of Mass Destruction. 

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters the goal was “to end the regime of Saddam Hussein with force.” Hussein lost his power, and was hanged several years later, but the WMD argument didn’t bear out.

And the reputation of the United States took a hit, when disturbing photos emerged from the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib, showing American soldiers abusing prisoners of war.

On March 11, 2004, 911 days after 9/11, al-Qaeda terrorists struck again, bombing four passenger trains in Madrid, Spain, killing nearly 200 commuters and employees.

In July the same year, the 9/11 Commission report was published in the United States, with Chairman Tom Kean remarking “The U.S. government was simply not active enough in combating the terror threat.”

July 7, 2005 brought another brutal al-Qaeda attack, with suicide bombers blowing themselves up on three trains in London’s “Underground”–while another blew up a bus.  

In July 2006, before the fifth anniversary of 9/11, PIX11 visited Kinsale in County Cork, Ireland, where a New York-based nurse had planted 343 trees in honor of the fire department personnel lost in the twin towers collapse.

Shortly before the sixth anniversary of the attacks, a massive fire broke out at the Deutsche Bank close to ground zero. Many feared it was an act of terror, and two FDNY firefighters lost their lives. But it turned out the deadly fire was caused by careless construction workers who were smoking at the site and tossing cigarettes.

Former President Barack Obama inherited the War on Terror with his historic election to the White House in 2008 and reluctantly added more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to maintain order.  

In November 2009,  U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan committed the deadliest act of terrorism ever on a domestic military base, when he executed 13 soldiers at Fort Hood. Hasan was influenced by the online speeches of bin Laden loyalist Anwar al-Awlaki, who was American-born. Pres. Obama spoke at a memorial for the soldiers, who had helmets affixed on top of their military guns, propped in their Army boots.

“No faith justifies these murderous, craven acts,” he said.

The same year, the FBI and NYPD in New York arrested three men who had met at Flushing High School, accusing them of plotting to blow up city subways. One of them, Najibullah Zazi, had been photographed buying bomb supplies at a beauty store in Colorado. He ended up turning to a government witness.

In 2010, a close call came when bomb materials packed into an SUV in Times Square failed to detonate.

The crowd panicked when police moved them away from the corner of 45th Street.  

The failed bomber was removed from a plane at John F. Kennedy Airport a day and a half later.

Faisal Shahzad had attended college in Connecticut and received his U.S. citizenship.

Authorities found boxes of bomb-making materials at the apartment he rented in Bridgeport, Conn. They also discovered a video he’d made in Pakistan before the attempted bombing.

One year later, on May 1, 2011, a stunning announcement from President Obama late on a Sunday night.

“The United States has conducted an operation  that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al- Qaeda,” the President said in a televised address. Bin Laden was killed by Navy Seal Team Six.

Hundreds of people waving American flags and playing bagpipes held impromptu celebrations by Ground Zero, where the Freedom Tower was still being built, and also at the White House.

Later that year, a U.S. drone killed Anwar al-Awlaki, who was traveling in a convoy in Yemen.  

His communications director, Long Island-raised Samir Kahn, was also killed.

The beautiful Sept.11th Memorial, complete with waterfalls streaming into the twin towers’ footprints, was completed the same year.  

In 2012, stories about NYPD surveillance of Muslim student associations and businesses intensified, with NYPD police radios turning up at an apartment complex near Rutgers University in New Jersey. The undercover investigation from out of state angered then-Gov. Chris Christie.

“You’re going to come into New Jersey to pursue a case,” Christie thundered into a microphone, “Make one phone call. To the Joint Terrorism Task Force.”

Then-NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly responded, “We’re going to do what we have to do to protect this city.”

On April 13, 2013, the nation was rocked by two terror bombings near the finish line at the Boston Marathon. The attack by the Tsarnaev brothers, who had Chechen roots, left three people dead, including an 8-year-old boy, and maimed dozens of others.

By 2014, President Obama needed to address a growing threat from another terror group called ISIS, which was utilizing active shooters in its campaigns against the west.

In January 2015, ISIS shooters targeted the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, killing a dozen journalists and artists there before moving on to a kosher market and killing four people there.  

A police officer was also murdered during a weekend of mayhem.

ISIS carried out a more deadly attack in November the same year, setting off a bomb near a big soccer match in Paris, before executing 130 people listening to an American, heavy metal band at the Bataclan ballroom.  

NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Counterterrorism John Miller, who had flown to Paris after Charlie Hebdo, observed, “What we’ve learned is most of the shooting and killing happens in the first six minutes” of an attack.

Less than a month after the Bataclan attack, a husband and wife team in San Bernardino, California killed 14 people at a holiday party in the county’s Department of Health offices…all in the name of ISIS.

The year 2016 proved to be another deadly year for terrorists motivated by ISIS principles.

Suicide bombers killed scores of people at Brussels Airport, while the brother of one airport bomber blew himself up at a train station nearby.

In June 2016, Omar Mateen executed 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando.

After initial speculation that Mateen was struggling with his sexual identity, his wife later testified Mateen was simply looking for a spot where he could kill a lot of people in a short period of time.

And in September that same year, a New Jersey man detonated a pressure-cooker bomb in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, hurting 30 people. Ahmed Rahimi was later caught by police in Linden, New Jersey and was wounded in a shootout.

Deadly terrorism eventually returned to New York City on Halloween Day, 2017, when Saifullo Saipov, who was from Uzbekistan, rented a Home Depot truck in Jersey City and used it to mow down eight people on West Street in Manhattan, right in the shadow of the newly-built One World Trade Center, also known as the Freedom Tower.

PIX11 News was the first news organization to report it was an act of terror–and a note had been found in the truck.

Six friends from Argentina, riding on bicycles, and two pedestrians were killed.

A month later, another man detonated a faulty suicide bomb in the busy subway tunnel under the Port Authority Bus Terminal but failed to kill anyone.

Donald Trump inherited the War on Terror in January 2017.  

By early 2020, before a global pandemic decimated the world economy, Trump was working out a deal with the Taliban to remove U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May 2021.

The deadline was extended by the fourth, United States President to take over as Commander in Chief during America’s longest war, Joe Biden.

Setting an Aug. 31 deadline, Biden was determined to get United States troops out of Afghanistan, while also assisting thousands of Afghans who had helped U.S. forces.

The Taliban stormed back into power with a vengeance, taking control of most Afghani cities by mid-August.  

As thousands of desperate people swarmed around the Kabul Airport, some even hanging on to military cargo jets as they took off, ISIS terrorists set off bombs near an airport gate and hotel on Aug. 26, 2021. Thirteen U.S. service members were killed, along with nearly 200 Afghans.

“We will not be deterred by terrorists,” President Biden said.

Yet the sobering truth is the Taliban is back in power, 20 years after the United States sent its best fire power to obliterate terrorists hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan. 

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