The Global War on Terror

The Global War on Terror

War on Terror


On September 11, 2001 ("9/11"), the United States was struck by a terrorist attack when 19 al-Qaeda hijackers commandeered four airliners to be used in suicide attacks. They intentionally crashed two into both twin towers of the World Trade Center and a third into the Pentagon, killing 2,937 victims—206 aboard the three airliners, 2,606 who were in the World Trade Center and on the ground, and 125 who were in the Pentagon. The fourth plane was re-taken by the passengers and crew of the aircraft. While they were not able to land the plane safely, they were able to re-take control of the aircraft and crash it into an empty field in Pennsylvania; this did kill all 44 people on board, including the four terrorists, and this heroic action saved whatever target those terrorists were aiming for. All in all, a total of 2,977 people perished in the attacks.


Learning Objectives

  • Analyze the international structure that emerged in the post-Cold War era.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

al-Qaeda: a militant Sunni Islamist multi-national organization founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, and several other Arab volunteers who fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s; widely designated as a terrorist group

Taliban: a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist political movement in Afghanistan currently waging war (an insurgency, or jihad) within that country; a group that uses terrorism as a specific tactic to further their ideological and political goals

“War on Terror”: designation for the U.S. government’s operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, among other terrorist organizations, in the wake of the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks 


In response to what is now referred to as 9/11, President George W. Bush on September 20 announced a “War on Terror,” focusing on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, along with the groups and countries that assisted them, which included Afghanistan and Iraq. On October 7, 2001, the United States and NATO then invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban regime, which had provided safe haven to al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq failed to stabilize the political situation in the Middle East and contributed to ongoing civil conflicts, with counterterrorism experts arguing that they created circumstances beneficial to the escalation of radical Islamism. 

photo of smoke coming out of a tall building
9/11: The former World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan during September 11 attacks in 2001 before their collapse. 


 The U.S. government also took steps in the U.S. to prevent future attacks. The controversial USA PATRIOT Act increased the government's power to monitor communications and removed legal restrictions on information sharing between federal law enforcement and intelligence services. A cabinet-level agency called the Department of Homeland Security was created to lead and coordinate federal counter-terrorism activities. Some of these anti-terrorism efforts, particularly the U.S. government's handling of detainees at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, led to allegations against the U.S. government of human rights violations.

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