The Aug. 12, 2002, cover of TIME
By Lily Rothman
September 10, 2015

Last fall, 13 years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Twin Towers, we remarked on the ways anniversaries without a zero or a five get short shrift. As a small way of correcting that imbalance, we gathered 13 of TIME’s most incisive stories about the event and its aftermath.

With that spirit in mind, here’s another story—not included in last year’s round-up—that adds context to a day that continues to echo in the national memory.

On Aug. 12, 2002, TIME’s cover story by Michael Elliott took a look at the inside story of how the U.S. discussed going after al-Qaeda prior to the attack. The conclusion that “‘Washington’—that organic compound of officials and politicians, in uniform and out, with faces both familiar and unknown—failed horribly” is hard not to see, given the irresistible alternate histories that are provoked by the possibility:

Could al-Qaeda’s plot have been foiled if the U.S. had taken the fight to the terrorists in January 2001? Perhaps not. The thrust of the winter plan was to attack al-Qaeda outside the U.S. Yet by the beginning of that year, Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, two Arabs who had been leaders of a terrorist cell in Hamburg, Germany, were already living in Florida, honing their skills in flight schools. Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar had been doing the same in Southern California. The hijackers maintained tight security, generally avoided cell phones, rented apartments under false names and used cash–not wire transfers–wherever possible. If every plan to attack al-Qaeda had been executed, and every lead explored, Atta’s team might still never have been caught.

But there’s another possibility. An aggressive campaign to degrade the terrorist network worldwide–to shut down the conveyor belt of recruits coming out of the Afghan camps, to attack the financial and logistical support on which the hijackers depended–just might have rendered it incapable of carrying out the Sept. 11 attacks. Perhaps some of those who had to approve the operation might have been killed, or the money trail to Florida disrupted. We will never know, because we never tried. This is the secret history of that failure.

Read the whole cover story here: The Secret History. Aug. 12, 2002.

See the rest of the list here on 13 Essential Stories About Sept. 11


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