TIME Military

Top General Tweaks Obama’s Iraq War Plan

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs suggests U.S. ground troops might be need in combat

The nation’s top military officer fired tracer rounds at President Obama’s vow not to send U.S. troops back into ground combat in Iraq Tuesday during his testimony on Capitol Hill. In fact, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did it three times in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

And while he caveated what he told the panel about the escalating fight with the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, his message was clear: if the U.S.-led effort to defeat ISIS and oust it from its self-proclaimed Islamic State straddling the Syrian-Iraq border falls short, Dempsey will go back to the Oval Office and ask Obama for a green light to send at least a limited number of American ground-combat forces to help get the job done.

What was striking was how he delivered the message. Pentagon officials are forever saying they won’t speak in “hypotheticals”—things that might happen in the future—yet Dempsey dropped an atomic what-if into his opening statement. “If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraq troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets,” he said, “I’ll recommend that to the President.”

Minutes later, Senator Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the committee, asked Dempsey if having Syrian and Iraqi forces fighting ISIS on the ground was the best approach, “to avoid a Western ground force in a Arab or Muslim country?” Dempsey said Levin’s assessment was true, then added: “But if it fails to be true, and if there are threats to the United States, then I of course would go back to the President and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.” Both Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the panel that ISIS already represents a threat to the U.S.

Then Senator Jack Reed, D-R.I., followed up by asking Dempsey what might warrant U.S. troops getting involved in ground combat on Iraqi soil. The general responded by citing the key mission facing the Iraqi security forces: retaking Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from the ISIS. “If the Iraqi security forces and the [Kurdish] Pesh [merga fighters] were at some point ready to retake Mosul—a mission that I would find to be extraordinarily complex—it could very well be part of that particular mission to provide close combat advising or accompanying for that mission,” he said. In other words, he’s likely to make such a request.

Dempsey’s acknowledgement that a limited number of U.S. ground troops might be necessary to achieve mission success—he said he wasn’t talking about “armored divisions with flags unfurled” headed into Iraq—triggered questions for White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, who made clear the President was sticking to his guns. “The President does not believe that it would be in the best interest of our national security to deploy American ground troops in a combat role in Iraq and Syria,” Earnest said after Dempsey testified. “That policy has not changed.”

By dinnertime, Dempsey’s spokesman had issued a statement trying to clean up the mess. “While we have advisers on the ground in Iraq today, the chairman doesn’t believe there is a military requirement for our advisers to accompany Iraqi forces into combat,” Air Force Colonel Ed Thomas said. “The context of this discussion was focused on how our forces advise the Iraqis and was not a discussion of employing U.S. ground combat units in Iraq.”

The Presidential pledge has riled serving and former military officers, who believe little is to be gained by unilaterally removing military options from the table. “I think the President made a big mistake in publicly saying he would not put boots on the ground,” says Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine general who led U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000. “Why tell the other guy what you won’t do?”

Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.V., doesn’t think Zinni’s question is relevant. He told Dempsey and Hagel about what he’s hearing from West Virginians. They want to know, he said, how a renewed U.S. war effort in the region—after spending 13 years, $1.6 trillion and 6,600 U.S. troops’ lives in Afghanistan and Iraq—would make things better.

“We took out Saddam. We thought that would change. Iraq’s in worse shape,” Manchin said. “We take out Gadhafi. We thought that would change. It got so bad in Libya, we’ve had to pull out our own embassy and our people in our embassy… it makes no sense to me, and I can’t sell it…no one believes the outcome will be any different.”

TIME

What Are Those 1,600 (So Far) U.S. Military Advisers Doing In Iraq (So Far)

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U.S. military advisers are on the ground in Iraq to advise Kurdish Peshmerga fighters like these, taking on ISIS on Monday, but not to do any actual fighting themselves. JM Lopez—AFP/Getty Images

Pentagon insists they're assessing, advising and assisting—but not attacking

President Obama ordered U.S. military reinforcements to Iraq last week. The additional 475 troops will push the total helping the Iraqis battle jihadist militants to about 1,600. That’s 1% of the 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq in 2008, at the peak of the U.S. deployment for the 2003-2011 war.

So it’s a relatively tiny force. But just what are these troops doing? More importantly, what are they not doing?

The Pentagon insists that they’re not going to engage in ground combat against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They’ve spent much of the last three months—the first 300 advisers began arriving in Iraq in late June—assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga forces in the semi-autonomous north of the country. ISIS militants steamrolled over Iraqi forces earlier this year, culminating in their seizure of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

The U.S. advisers also are coordinating surveillance flights over ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, and coordinating the growing U.S. military footprint inside Iraq.

As the assessment phase ends, about a dozen teams of 12 U.S. military personnel each are embedding with the headquarters of brigade-sized and larger Iraqi units—outfits with thousands of troops. Their goal is to advise and assist the Iraqis on how to best battle ISIS. Assigning them to higher headquarters units is designed to keep the Americans away from the front lines and out of harm’s way.

“What we’re starting to see now, thanks in part to the assistance not only that the United States has given, but other countries, we’re starting to see the Iraqi security forces meld and form into much more capable fighting force than they were,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Friday.

But as the number of troops increases, their roles will expand, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, told reporters in July. “We will match the resources we apply with the authorities and responsibilities that go with them based on the mission we undertake,” he said, “and that is to be determined.”

The Obama Administration has taken pains to explain that “no boots on the ground” inside Iraq actually means “no boots on the ground engaged in combat” inside the country. The line begins to blur when it comes to missions like calling in U.S. airstrikes. Many such attacks are best directed by someone on the ground near the target, ideally by a fellow American fluent in language, lingo and lethality. But it’s not as important as it used to be.

David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who ran the air war over Afghanistan in its early days, says the aircraft now flying over Iraq and Syria are far more advanced than earlier models. “If you’re trying to halt the movement of ISIS forces, you don’t need somebody on the ground to tell you where they are,” he says. “Any combat aircraft can now observe the battlespace and can find, fix and engage in real time. Aircraft today—even though they go by the same names as in 1991’s Gulf War—are many times more capable because of advances in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, communications capability, and the ability to network and share information.”

But U.S. special operators are valuable in this kind of fight. Ford Sypher deployed three times to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan as a team leader with the Army’s storied 75th Ranger Regiment between 2006 and 2010. He thinks he saw U.S. troops in action on the ground in northern Iraqi town of Zumar earlier this month:

Multiple armored Toyotas swept down the mountain, passing within feet of us. The Toyotas were packed with what appeared to be bearded Western Special Operations Forces. I watched the trucks pass and saw for myself the crews inside them. They didn’t wear any identifying insignia but they were visibly Western and appeared to match all the visual characteristics of American special operations soldiers. Contacts in the Kurdish intelligence service and Peshmerga leadership confirmed what we saw. `Yes,’ one commander replied to our questions. `German and American forces are on the ground here. They are helping to support us in the attack.’

…Sypher wrote in a Daily Beast dispatch. But the Pentagon told Sypher that “there are no U.S. troops on the ground in or around Zumar.” The Pentagon, and the Obama Administration, would be lying to the nation if those were U.S. troops Sypher witnessed. That’s seems a political gamble not worth taking.

Far more likely that the “visibly Western” fighters he saw were either CIA (including loaners from Defense Intelligence Agency, who technically become CIA operatives for the assignment) or contractors (employed under a contract like this one, but not made public)—who used to be members of the U.S. military.

TIME France

Anti-ISIS Coalition Meets in Paris to Formulate Battle Plan

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Iraq President Fouad Massoum, center, followed by Iraq Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, left, arrive with Iraqi officials at Orly airport south of Paris, on Sept. 14, 2014 . Francois Mori—AP

Delegates from more than 20 countries have descended on the French capital to discuss how best to tackle the Islamist terrorist group

Representatives from across the Middle East and Western nations are convening Monday in Paris, where an emerging coalition will begin formulating a strategy to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Before flying to France on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry canvassed American allies in the Middle East, aiming to rustle up support for military operations targeting the extremist Islamist group that continues to hold sway over large areas of eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq.

“I can tell you right here and now that we have countries in this region, countries outside of this region, in addition to the United States, all of whom are prepared to engage in military assistance, in actual strikes, if that is what it requires,” Kerry told CBS’s Face the Nation from Cairo on Sunday.

Kerry’s interview appeared to be part of an all-out media blitz by the Obama Administration following the U.S. President’s pledge last Wednesday to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.

However, after issuing plenty of tough talk earlier this week, the White House has continued to remain adamant that no major deployment of U.S. combat troops will be used against the radical Sunni militants on the ground.

Instead, the Administration hopes to recruit and bolster Sunni proxy forces in the Middle East, including opposition groups currently fighting inside Syria.

“Ultimately, to destroy [ISIS], we do need to have a force, an anvil against which they will be pushed, ideally Sunni forces,” White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said during an interview on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. This was the thinking, he said, behind the “proposal that the President has sent to Congress to authorize us to train and equip the Syrian opposition that’s on the ground fighting [ISIS] today.”

During an address on Sunday, President Barack Obama called for “a targeted, relentless counterterrorism campaign against [ISIS] that combines American airpower, contributions from allies and partners, and more support to forces that are fighting these terrorists on the ground.”

However, the President’s critics in Congress blasted the White House for failing to mobilize the necessary force to confront ISIS.

“You cannot create an army to destroy [ISIS] without an American component,” said Senator Lindsey Graham during an interview on Fox News. “This is war.”

Meanwhile, ISIS posted another video over the weekend showing the third brutal execution of a Western hostage, British aid worker David Haines.

Following the release of the video, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the murder of Haines — calling ISIS the “embodiment of evil.” Cameron went on to vow to “hunt down those responsible and bring them to justice, no matter how long it takes.”

TIME Military

Putting the ISIS Threat in Perspective

A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa
An ISIS militant in Raqqa, Syria Reuters

This is not a well-armed fighting force, but a ragtag collection of militants using secondhand weapons

If you’re having a tough time figuring out how much of a threat the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) poses to the U.S., you’re hardly alone.

“They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Aug. 21. “They are tremendously well-funded. Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything.”

Secretary of State John Kerry doesn’t seem to share the Pentagon chief’s foreboding, given how ISIS fighters scattered “the minute we hit them” as they tried to take the Kurdish city of Erbil in northern Iraq. “These guys are not 10 ft. tall. They’re not as disciplined as everybody thinks,” Kerry said on Sept. 5. “They’re not as organized as everybody thinks.”

So who’s right?

To be sure, nothing grabs attention like the barbaric series of videotaped ISIS beheadings of Westerners, which continued this weekend with the release of footage of the murder of British aid worker David Haines. Such horrors generate a visceral bloodlust, and they have achieved their goal: President Obama declared last week that the U.S. military and its allies are determined to destroy ISIS.

“We have countries in this [Middle East] region, countries outside of this region, in addition to the United States, all of whom are prepared to engage in military assistance, in actual strikes, if that is what is required,” Kerry said Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation.

There’s a parallel to al-Qaeda here. Both Sunni groups leapt to prominence only after attacking the West with its own weapons. Al-Qaeda did it with airliners; ISIS has done it with the intrepid journalists and aid workers they captured and then murdered. Their chosen tools highlight how impotent they actually are.

That became even clearer last week when the Pentagon released its first comprehensive accounting of the ISIS targets it has hit in its month-long series of more than 150 air strikes.

The single largest category — 88 of 212 individual targets, or 42% — is “armed vehicles.” Not “armored vehicles,” like a tank or personnel carrier, but civilian pickups with machine guns mounted in the rear. A pair of tanks and assorted other armor accounts for a scant 7% of the targets.

Roughly 10% are antiaircraft artillery and locations described as “IED Emplacements, Mortar Positions, [and] Machine Gun Locations.” The “facilities” on Central Command’s hit list include “Fighting Positions, Checkpoints [and] Observation Posts.”

This is not an arsenal, but a ragtag collection, including gear the U.S. supplied to the Iraqi army, which ISIS seized after driving Iraqi forces from Mosul (the U.S. has attacked 37 ISIS Humvees built in Mishawaka, Ind.).

Of course, foes don’t need huge and costly weapons to be effective. The 9/11 hijackers murdered over 3,000 armed with nothing more than $2 box cutters. But they did that by exploiting yawning vulnerabilities in commercial-aviation security. The terrorists’ caginess must be trumped by wily thinking by the U.S. and its allies, a strategy in which air strikes can only play a supporting role.

Paltry gear shouldn’t been viewed as evidence of ISIS’ inherent weakness. It is waging war on a far broader battlefield than that being attacked by U.S. warplanes. That means it cannot be defeated by military means alone. Until the underlying causes for ISIS’s rise — the anti-Sunni governments in Iraq and Syria chief among them — are dealt with, ISIS will pose a real threat to the civilized world.

But it’s also important to realize that ISIS has succeeded only where it has been unopposed. Its proclaimed state is in the middle of one of the world’s most-heavily-armed regions, and it has shown little ability or desire to challenge a motivated military force.

They say nature abhors a vacuum. So do terrorists, judging by the CIA’s assessment Thursday that ISIS has grown from 10,000 to as many as 31,500 fighters over the summer, owing in no small part to its military success. They’re eager to plant their black flags in ungoverned terrain. That the West permitted such a fertile field in which ISIS could take root — in fact, all but plowed and sowed it — is the real harvest of the Iraq War.

TIME White House

White House Emphasizes ‘Degrade’ Over ‘Destroy’ on ISIS

Barack Obama Address to the Nation
President Barack Obama speaks to the nation on his plan to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS Saul Loeb—CNP/AdMedia/Corbis

The White House has offered differing visions for when the U.S. can declare "mission accomplished" with ISIS

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough described narrow Administration’s goals for combatting the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) on Sunday, defining “success” as eliminating the threat, not the organization.

“Success looks like an [ISIS] that no longer threatens our friends in the region, no longer threatens the United States,” McDonough said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “An [ISIS] that can’t accumulate followers, or threaten Muslims in Syria, Iran, Iraq, or otherwise. And that’s exactly what success looks like.”

The comments came days after President Barack Obama set a tall order for the U.S. in his address to the nation on Wednesday, pledging to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the militant group. But in public statements and closed-door comments, his Administration is putting more emphasis on the first verb.

For Obama, the risk is a familiar one: overpromising and underdelivering. In 2012, Obama set a “red line” in Syria, suggesting he’d use air strikes in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, a standard he repeatedly shifted throughout 2013.

For months this summer, the Obama Administration had set its goal on containing the threat of ISIS, but a combination of factors, including public outcry and congressional uproar over the brutal killing of two American journalists, has led the White House to escalate its rhetoric. But the harsher tone hasn’t meant a change in the underlying aims.

Obama first embraced the “degrade and destroy” formulation in a convoluted press conference in Estonia a day after ISIS released a video of the beheading of journalist Steven Sotloff. But the operative lines were his admission that the group could never truly be eradicated. “As we’ve seen with al-Qaeda, there are always going to be remnants that can cause havoc of any of these networks, in part because of the nature of terrorist activities,” Obama said. “You get a few individuals, and they may be able to carry out a terrorist act.”

TIME intelligence

CIA Says ISIS Ranks May Have Tripled

ISIS Mosul Iraq Islamic State
Demonstrators chant pro-Islamic State group slogans as they carry the group's flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq on June 16, 2014. AP

Foreign fighters, including Americans, appear to be pouring into Syria to support the terrorist group

The number of combatants fighting under the banner of the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) could be three times larger than intelligence officials previously believed, according to a new estimate from the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA estimates that ISIS, the Islamist terrorist group that has declared a caliphate in the large swath of Iraq and Syria which it now controls, “can muster between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters across Iraq and Syria, based on a new review of all-source intelligence reports from May to August, an increase from our previous assessment of at least 10,000 fighters,” a CIA spokesperson said. That estimate accounts only for individuals fighting with ISIS itself, not with any affiliated group.

The new estimate reflects a sharp uptick in recruitment over the summer “following battlefield successes and the declaration of a caliphate,” the CIA spokesperson said.

The CIA believes more than 15,000 foreign fighters from 80 countries—at least 2,000 of whom are Westerners—have traveled to Syria to join ISIS ranks. A dozen or more could be Americans, the CIA believes.

A U.S. intelligence official cautioned that the CIA’s estimate is not a precise figure and reflects a broad approximation based on limited intelligence. “The gap between the low and high points indicates there is uncertainty about the exact number of fighters in (ISIS),” a US intelligence official said. “Given the changing dynamics of the battlefield, new recruits, and other factors, it is difficult to assess the precise number of individuals in a terrorist group that is evolving and practices good operational security.”

TIME Barack Obama

Obama’s Anti-ISIS War in Syria May Be Illegal

U.S. President Obama speaks on the phone with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on the phone with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, before giving a speech to the nation regarding the fight against ISIS, from the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington on Sept. 10, 2014. Kevin Lamarque—Reuters

Obama is relying on questionable legal authority in his pursuit of terrorists, but that never stopped George W. Bush.

If truth is the first casualty of war, law is apparently the last, at least for President Barack Obama.

Obama came to office declaring his determination to reimpose legal limits on the American effort to defeat al Qaeda. He swore to close Guantanamo Bay, abolish torture, tighten rules for the treatment of terrorist prisoners and rein in the broad executive power President George W. Bush had claimed in the global hunt for terrorists.

But after five-and-a-half years of near-constant terrorist brush fires in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, and a Congress that remains largely unwilling to update key counterterrorism legislation, Obama appears finally to have surrendered to a very loose legal definition of where and when he can use military force against terrorists.

In his prime time speech Wednesday evening, Obama told Americans he was expanding attacks against the group calling itself the “Islamic State”, also known as ISIS or ISIL, by targeting its fighters not just in Iraq but also in Syria. “I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq,” Obama said, “This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

Strategically, that makes sense. Speaking to reporters before Obama’s speech, a senior administration official explained, “ISIL is moving with impunity back and forth from Syria to Iraq, and vice versa, each time and from each place gaining arms, gaining manpower, gaining fuel, literally and figuratively, for their fight.”

Legally, however, Obama’s authority to attack ISIS in Syria is on shaky ground. Under the Constitution, Congress decides if and when the U.S. goes to war. In 2002, it authorized President George W. Bush to attack Iraq. That authorization, broadly interpreted, can be read to include the threat ISIS now poses there. But it doesn’t apply to Syria, at least not easily. And the Obama Administration announced this summer that it was no longer using the 2002 authorization to justify its actions.

Instead, Obama claims he has authority to bomb ISIS in Syria under the Sept. 14, 2001 authorization from Congress following the 9/11 attacks. In the call with reporters, Obama’s senior administration official said, “We believe that he can rely on the 2001 AUMF [Authorization for Use of Military Force] as statutory authority for the military airstrike operations he is directing against ISIL.”

That joint resolution gave the president the power to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

A variety of legal scholars on the left and the right, including Obama himself, have argued that authorization is too broad and needs to be rewritten so it doesn’t give eternal war-fighting power to all future presidents. And as Jack Goldsmith writes for TIME today, it’s a stretch for Obama to claim it applies to ISIS, given that ISIS and al Qaeda split earlier this year.

According to a 2012 speech by Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of Homeland Security who previously served as Obama’s top lawyer at the Department of Defense, there are two characteristics that a group must have to be considered an “associated force” with al Qaeda under the 2001 authorization. First they must be “an organized, armed group that has entered the fight alongside al Qaeda,” and second, the group “is a co-belligerent with al Qaeda in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” The White House has yet to release to Congress or the public any detailed analysis of their determination that the Islamic state meets these standards.

If Obama is breaking the law, don’t expect much to come of it in the short term. The consequences of Obama’s legal interpretation, beyond his own discomfort, are not likely very great. The Bush administration showed the bar for legally constraining presidential counterterrorist actions is high, and even when it is surmounted there are little or no penalties. Politically, the president has nothing to fear: no matter how angry they are about the new effort against ISIS, the left wing of Obama’s party isn’t going to impeach him, and the right won’t either, at least not for going after Islamic extremists.

In the long term, perhaps Obama’s legal legerdemain will boost those who want to come up with new, clearer legal frameworks for international counterterrorism operations. But for now Obama, like Bush before him, seems determined to act without them.

TIME remembrance

13 Essential Stories About Sept. 11

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The Sept. 24, 2001, cover of TIME TIME

A sampling of the stories that shaped how we understand what happened 13 years ago

An anniversary likes a round number, but Sept. 11, 2014, won’t give us that. It’s the same awkwardness that Jeffrey Kluger described in the pages of TIME’s Sept. 17, 2007, issue: “A sixth anniversary is an awkward thing, without the raw feeling of a first or the numerical tidiness of a fifth or 10th,” he wrote. “The families of the 2,973 people murdered that day need no calendrical gimmick to feel their loss, but a nation of 300 million — rightly or wrongly — is another matter.”

So, for the 13th anniversary, here are 13 essential stories on Sept. 11 from TIME’s archives.

If You Want to Humble an Empire. Sept. 14, 2001.

TIME’s editors had just a few days to pull together the entirety of the Sept. 14, 2001, issue. Much of that work fell to Nancy Gibbs, then a senior editor and now the magazine’s editor, who wrote a story that filled nearly every page. The piece is a recounting of what happened that morning, not only to the President and the hijackers, but also to those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time and those who went there later, to help.

The full text of this article is now available free of charge in TIME’s archives. Click here to read it.

Mourning in America. Sept. 24, 2001.

By Sept. 24, 2001, there had been some time — not much, but some — to understand the scale of the day. The “One Nation, Indivisible” issue of TIME brims with the images that are most often remembered when thinking back to that day 13 years ago: President Bush, the missing posters, the flags. But there are also the moment-of memories that, for most of us, have likely faded to gray. The 1-800 numbers to call for information about helping; the 1-800 numbers to call if you were the one who needed the help. Once again, Nancy Gibbs wrote the issue’s cover story, a look at the national mood as the new reality set in:

In a week when everything seemed to happen for the first time ever, the candle became a weapon of war. Our enemies had turned the most familiar objects against us, turned shaving kits into holsters and airplanes into missiles and soccer coaches and newlyweds into involuntary suicide bombers. So while it was up to the President and his generals to plot the response, for the rest of us who are not soldiers and have no cruise missiles, we had candles, and we lit them on Friday night in an act of mourning, and an act of war.That is because we are fighting not one enemy but two: one unseen, the other inside. Terror on this scale is meant to wreck the way we live our lives–make us flinch when a siren sounds, jump when a door slams and think twice before deciding whether we really have to take a plane. If we falter, they win, even if they never plant another bomb. So after the early helplessness—What can I do? I’ve already given blood—people started to realize that what they could do was exactly, as precisely as possible, whatever they would have done if all this hadn’t happened.

We’re Under Attack. Dec. 31, 2001.

As part of the 2001 Person of the Year issue honoring New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, TIME put together an extensive oral history of Sept. 11:

GIULIANI: I go up to [Fire Chief Peter]Ganci and I say, “What should I communicate to people?” He says, “Tell them to get in the stairways. Tell them our guys are on the way up.” And then he looks at me and says, “I think we can save everybody below the fire.” What he is telling me is, they’re gone. Everybody above the fire is gone. He says people are not panicking. They’re moving fast. I grab his hand, shake it and say, “Good luck. God bless you.”

A Miracle’s Cost. Sept. 9, 2002.

On the first anniversary of the attacks, TIME looked at the lives of 11 people who had been deeply affected by 9/11. Though others are more famous, from the President to the head of the Victim Compensation Fund, Genelle Guzman-McMillan’s story is equally worth remembering. John Cloud profiled the last person to be found alive in the rubble of the Twin Towers, a Port Authority employee, and finds that survival is far from simple:

“For Judy,” says Gail [LaFortune], using her cousin’s middle name, as do those who grew up with Genelle in Trinidad, “there’s a sense of…of misplaced things, of misplaced parts of her life.” If that’s true, how does Genelle Guzman-McMillan find herself again? It turns out there is no shortage of people who want to help create a carefree, well-centered version of Genelle—and an inspirational Sept. 11 tale for the rest of us: Victim miraculously lives, turns to God, finds true love (in July, she and longtime boyfriend Roger McMillan had a free “dream wedding” arranged by Bride’s magazine and CBS’s The Early Show, an event both then covered as news). But her story isn’t so simple. People say Sept. 11 was a crucible for our nation, which may or may not be true, but it was doubtlessly a crucible for the person you see in the pictures on this page. The question is, Who emerged from that crucible? Why did the last survivor survive?

The World According to Michael. July 12, 2004.

As the post-Sept. 11 mood of national unity began to show cracks in the years after the attacks, perhaps no one better exemplified that change than divisive documentarian Michael Moore, whose film Fahrenheit 9/11 remains the top-grossing documentary in movie history. Richard Corliss profiled the filmmaker for a cover story shortly after it hit that milestone:

“Was it all just a dream?” Michael Moore poses that question at the start of Fahrenheit 9/11, his docu-tragicomedy about the Bush Administration’s actions before and after Sept. 11, 2001. Moore’s tone isn’t wistful; it’s angry. He’s steamed about the Florida vote wrangle of 2000, the Supreme Court decision to declare George W. Bush President of the United States, the policies of Bush’s advisers and especially what he sees as the deflection of a quick, vigorous search-and-destroy mission against Osama bin Laden into an open-ended war on terrorism—”You can’t declare war on a noun,” Moore said last week—that spawned a dubious and costly invasion of Iraq.

Halting the Next 9/11, Aug. 2, 2004

Romesh Ratnesar parsed the 567-page 9/11 commission report and found it meticulous — but questioned whether the knowledge it contains can possibly make a difference:

In the long run, making America and its allies safe again will require far broader changes than even the 9/11 panel was empowered to propose. In the meantime, the U.S. has little choice but to brace itself for the possibility of another strike. “We do not believe,” the commissioners write in the report’s conclusion, “that it is possible to defeat all terrorist attacks against Americans, every time and everywhere.” In that sense, the 9/11 commission’s legacy may ultimately be determined by how long the U.S. can deter the inevitable.

The Class of 9/11. May 30, 2005.

Kristen Beyer came to West Point because she was recruited for swimming, but mere weeks had passed before it became clear that the service she had signed up to give after graduation would not be in a peacetime army. Nancy Gibbs and Nathan Thornburgh profiled Beyer and two of her classmates on the eve of their graduations:

Cadet after cadet spoke up. Terrorists attacked us, they said. If you were on the fence even in the slightest, if you weren’t 100% sure you wanted to be in this fight, you shouldn’t be here at all. Beyer didn’t know those cadets or whether they knew her or whether they saw her as a laid-back swimmer type without a soldier’s steel. Still, their comments cut straight through her and destroyed the frail truce she had made with West Point. “I just shut up,” she says. “But I was so angry. ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ I asked myself. The attitude was, If you didn’t grow up just dying to be in the military, you’re worthless.”

It was the beginning of Beyer’s darkest time at West Point. “Every day I just hated myself for staying. I hated everybody else.” Everyone except her teammates and Huntington, whom she had talked into staying with her. “We got much closer. I could use her as a shoulder to cry on, and she could use me the same way,” Beyer says. Ultimately, she decided that the Army wasn’t going to change. She had to.

The Day That Changed… Very Little. Aug. 7, 2006

Much of the media narrative after 9/11 was about how pop culture was going to become more sincere and more serious. Then a few more years went by, and James Poniewozik wrote about how those predictions turned out to be false:

Still, saying that 9/11 has entered pop culture is not the same thing as saying that 9/11 has changed pop culture. The disaster movie, the docudrama, the inspirational war story–those are not exactly innovations. There were predictions just after the attacks that pop culture would become more patriotic or more nostalgic or more introspective. Instead, it has just become more of what it was before–violent, irreverent, licentious and so on. 24 is a great show, but you can trace its ice-blooded do-what-you-gotta-do-ism back to Dirty Harry, not Donald Rumsfeld. It’s hard to see how any post-9/11 movie has hit on the nobility, banality and absurdity of war in a way Saving Private Ryan didn’t. On Three Moons Over Milford, a new comedy-drama on ABC Family, ordinary people change their lives after the moon breaks into three pieces, threatening Earth. But it’s a series on a modestly rated cable channel. Five years after 9/11, rethinking your priorities in the face of mortality is now niche programming.

Why the 9/11 Conspiracies Won’t Go Away. Sept. 11, 2006.

On the fifth anniversary, Lev Grossman investigated why so many people want to believe that the rest of us are missing something about what happened on Sept. 11:

There are psychological explanations for why conspiracy theories are so seductive. Academics who study them argue that they meet a basic human need: to have the magnitude of any given effect be balanced by the magnitude of the cause behind it. A world in which tiny causes can have huge consequences feels scary and unreliable. Therefore a grand disaster like Sept. 11 needs a grand conspiracy behind it. “We tend to associate major events–a President or princess dying–with major causes,” says Patrick Leman, a lecturer in psychology at Royal Holloway University of London, who has conducted studies on conspiracy belief. “If we think big events like a President being assassinated can happen at the hands of a minor individual, that points to the unpredictability and randomness of life and unsettles us.” In that sense, the idea that there is a malevolent controlling force orchestrating global events is, in a perverse way, comforting.

Death Comes for the Terrorist. May 20, 2011

David Von Drehle reported on the killing of Osama bin Laden, from President Bush’s 2001 uttering of the words “dead or alive” to President Obama’s finding himself in the Situation Room:

Osama bin Laden, elusive emir of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, the man who said yes to the 9/11 attacks, the taunting voice and daunting catalyst of thousands of political murders on four continents, was dead. The U.S. had finally found the long-sought needle in a huge and dangerous haystack. Through 15 of the most divisive years of modern American politics, the hunt for bin Laden was one of the few steadily shared endeavors. President Bill Clinton sent a shower of Tomahawk missiles down on bin Laden’s suspected hiding place in 1998 after al-Qaeda bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa. President George W. Bush dispatched troops to Afghanistan in 2001 after al-Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon. Each time, bin Laden escaped, evaporating into the lawless Afghan borderlands where no spy, drone or satellite could find him. Meanwhile, the slender Saudi changed our lives in ways large and small, touched off a moral reckoning over the use of torture and introduced us to the 3-oz. (90 ml) toothpaste tube.

Portraits of Resilience. Sept. 19, 2011

Ten years after 9/11, TIME featured interviews with 40 people who led, who helped, who survived. The website that accompanied the print project won an Emmy award in 2013; it can be found online at http://content.time.com/time/beyond911

The One World Trade Center panorama. March 6, 2014.

As One World Trade Center neared completion, Josh Sanburn wrote about the new building, a dozen years in the making :

But the long wait was also the result of a nearly impossible mandate: One World Trade Center needed to be a public response to 9/11 while providing valuable commercial real estate for its private owners, to be open to its neighbors yet safe for its occupants. It needed to acknowledge the tragedy from which it was born while serving as a triumphant affirmation of the nation’s resilience in the face of it.

“It was meant to be all things to all people,” says Christopher Ward, who helped manage the rebuilding as executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. “It was going to answer every question that it raised. Was it an answer to the terrorists? Was the market back? Was New York going to be strong? That’s what was really holding up progress.”

Remains of the Day. May 26, 2014

When the 9/11 museum opened this spring, Richard Lacayo looked at the way it preserves the past and serves the future:

The completion of the museum is an important moment in the imperfect reclamation of Ground Zero, a place where years ago grief swept the table and which is slowly coming back to life. You could say that every visitor will now be a kind of recovery worker, returning the site to normality simply by being there, helping in a small way to take back that haunted space.

For more, visit TIME’s September 11 topic page.

TIME Military

The Obstacles in Obama’s New ISIS Plan

President pledges a "steady, relentless effort" to destroy ISIS, but questions remain

The first U.S. war against Iraq began in 1991 with 37 days of nonstop bombing. The second Iraq war unleashed 2,500 air missions in the first 24 hours in 2003. The third Iraq war—declared by President Barack Obama in an address to the nation Wednesday night, where he expanded it to include Syria—is trading “shock and awe” for what Obama says will be a “comprehensive and sustained” military campaign.

Those first two wars were against Saddam Hussein and his forces. This third conflict is against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, a group of perhaps 10,000 dedicated Islamist terrorists who have proclaimed an Islamic state the size of Britain that straddles large chunks of both Iraq and Syria.

Will a small-bore and prolonged mission—perhaps three years, according to some Pentagon officials—get the job done?

Initial reaction from military experts was mixed. Tom Donnelly, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, termed the President’s words “very thin gruel.” Donnelly focused on what he saw as the mismatch between rhetoric and reality.

“It was not a go-to-war speech, and it’s anomalous, to put it euphemistically, to describe ISIS as evil—which he did in all but name—and a grave threat to Americans and their interests—which he did explicitly—but to recommend a drawn-out campaign of pinprick airstrikes and a ground effort that will be paced by a very divided Iraq and a Syrian opposition,” Donnelly said.

David Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general, expressed more optimism. “President Obama’s announcement signifies what looks to the next phase of the `long war’ that began 13 years ago,” said Barno, now with the Center for a New American Security. ISIS “will have no safe havens in the region from U.S. attack.”

But an Air Force air-power expert said he didn’t hear enough nuts-and-bolts from Obama to be able to judge the expanded campaign’s chances of success. “The devil is in the details,” said David Deptula, a retired lieutenant general who commanded the air war over Afghanistan in its early days. “Airpower needs to be applied like a thunderstorm—not a drizzle—24/7 constant over-watch, with force used against every move of [ISIS] forces and personnel.”

Waging war against a non-state actor—even if it has declared the creation of what it calls the Islamic State—requires a different strategy than the earlier wars. Obama detailed a multi-pronged offensive against ISIS that will boost by 50% the nearly 1,100 U.S. troops defending U.S. interests in Iraq (475 more are now headed to Iraq, the Pentagon said after Obama’s speech).

The plan could double or triple the average of five daily airstrikes the U.S. has launched against ISIS targets in Iraq over the past month from Air Force and Navy warplanes, as well as unmanned drones. Obama also announced plans to train and equip the more-moderate rebels inside Syria who have been battling both ISIS and the government of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

As of Wednesday, the U.S. had conducted 154 attacks on ISIS targets over the past month, destroying or damaging 162 vehicles, including a pair of tanks. While that number may seem modest, the truth is that ISIS doesn’t have a large army. And what it does have has been able to flee into Syria “with impunity,” a senior Administration official conceded.

No longer, Obama said: “I will not hesitate to take action against [ISIS] in Syria, as well as Iraq.” A serious air campaign will eliminate the Syrian sanctuary and make it difficult for ISIS forces to move or mass without risking death from the skies.

Obama is betting that the American public will support a long-range strategy that grinds down ISIS a single bomb or missile at a time, so long as it risks few U.S. lives and shows signs of progress. “Our ultimate goal is to destroy the organization,” a top Obama national security aide said. “It’s a long-term proposition.”

Senior Administration officials took pains to explain to reporters just before Obama’s speech how different his war is from the earlier pair in Iraq and Afghanistan. They likened it to the below-the-radar anti-terror campaigns the U.S. has been conducting in Somalia and Yemen with scant public attention.

They suggested strikes against targets in Syria might not happen until solid intelligence can pinpoint ISIS targets worth hitting. “The U.S. military is ready to conduct direct action against [ISIS] targets in Syria,” a senior Pentagon official said after the speech. “Decisions about when to conduct these actions will be made at a prudent time as we continue to prosecute our comprehensive strategy against these [ISIS] terrorists.”

Vexing challenges remain. Building the moderate Syrian rebels into a fighting force capable of prevailing over ISIS will be tough, given the beating they have endured over the last three years of the Syrian civil war. Administration officials declined to say what nations, if any, would join U.S. warplanes in striking ISIS targets, suggesting allies share the leeriness of a growing number of Americans over Obama’s go-slow approach to ISIS.

Until Tuesday, the air attacks had been limited to attacking ISIS targets inside Iraq that threatened U.S. interests or risked humanitarian catastrophe. But such niceties have now been scrapped. “We are lifting the restrictions,” a senior Administration official said shortly before the President addressed the nation, “on our air campaign.”

TIME Crime

Colorado Teenager Pleads Guilty of Conspiracy to Support ISIS

The 19-year-old woman pledged to marry an ISIS fighter in Syria and provide tactical support to its millitants

A 19-year-old Colorado woman pleaded guilty on Wednesday of conspiring to support Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) fighters, the U.S. Department of Justice said.

Shannon Conley of Arvada, Colo., confessed to making online contact with a self-confessed member of ISIS. According to the plea agreement, Conley pledged, over a series of conversations, to marry a fighter in Syria, to provide tactical support to the organization and to engage in combat herself if necessary.

Conley joined the U.S. Army Explorers to gain training in armed combat, according to the Department of Justice, and even ignored warnings from federal agents to steer clear of a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. Conley was arrested at Denver International Airport on April 8 as she was attempting to board a flight to Turkey.

She faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a possible fine of up to $250,000. Conley will stand for sentencing on Jan. 23.

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