TIME remembrance

13 Essential Stories About Sept. 11

20010924 TIME
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.

TIME United Nations

Reports: U.N. Seeks to Tackle Tide of Foreigners Joining Militant Groups

Resident of Tabqa city touring the streets on a motorcycle waves Islamist flag in celebration after Islamic State militants took over Tabqa air base, in nearby Raqqa city
A resident of Tabqa city touring the streets on a motorcycle celebrates after Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria militants took over Tabqa air base, in the nearby Syrian city of Raqqa on Aug. 24, 2014 Reuters

Draft resolution seen by Reuters sets out tough new rules for extremists wanting to cross borders to join jihadist groups

The U.N. Security Council plans to press countries to update their laws to make traveling abroad to join a terrorist group a serious criminal offense, in the hope of stemming the flow of fresh foreign recruits into the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, reported Reuters.

According to Reuters, the U.S. circulated a draft resolution Monday night on how to “prevent and suppress the recruiting, organizing, transporting or equipping” of foreign fighters. The 15-member Security Council is expected to unanimously adopt the resolution at a meeting on Sept. 24, at which time it would be binding on all 193 bloc members states.

The draft calls on states to declare as illegal, as well as punishable under tough penalties, for citizens to by any means engage in the “perpetration, planning, or preparation of, or participation in, terrorist acts, or the providing or receiving of terrorist training,” Reuters said.

It also compels states “to require that airlines under their jurisdiction provide advance passenger information to the appropriate national authorities” on people under U.N. sanctions. States would also be required to bar anyone suspected of affiliation with a terrorist group — or of prospective affiliation with one — from entering their borders, said the news agency.

[Reuters]

TIME Chile

Suspected Anarchist Bombing Wounds at Least 10 People in Santiago

A police officer talks on his cell phone at the area where a bomb exploded in Santiago
A police officer talks on his cell phone at the area where a bomb exploded in Santiago, Chile, on Sept. 8, 2014 Ivan Alvarado—Reuters

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but it parallels similar small-scale bombings levied on the city by anarchist groups

An explosion outside an underground train station in the Chilean capital of Santiago on Monday afternoon is a suspected “terrorist” act, say government officials.

At least 10 people were wounded in the lunchtime blast that shook a small shopping mall and food court inside Escuela Militar metro station in the affluent Las Condes neighborhood, Reuters reports. None of the injuries were fatal.

“This is an act that has all the hallmarks of a terrorist deed,” Álvaro Elizalde, the government’s chief spokesman, told reporters outside La Moneda presidential palace. “There is no doubt.”

The blast was the worst yet of at least 29 small-scale bombings and attempted bombings this year in normally peaceful Santiago. Anarchist groups have claimed responsibility for planting many of the devices, not all of which have detonated, and have called for the release of two associates who are imprisoned in Spain.

“This is a cowardly act because it has as its objective to hurt people, create fear and even kill innocent people,” said President Michelle Bachelet. “This is horrible, tremendously reprehensible, but Chile is and remains a safe country.”

No one has yet claimed responsibility for this latest bombing, but security footage shows two suspects putting an explosive device in a metal container, likely a trash can, Interior Minister Mahmud Aleuy told Reuters.

The attack also comes three days before the 41st anniversary of the 1973 coup that ousted socialist President Salvador Allende and began the 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Chilean politics are usually tense around the anniversary, and protests can teeter on violence. Chile returned to democracy in 1990.

Rescue crews search the area surrounding Escuela Militar metro station in Santiago where a bomb exploded on Sept. 8, 2014.

TIME Military

U.S. Strikes in Iraq Against Jihadists, Moving West Toward Syria

A Kurdish peshmerga fighter takes up position at the front line against the Islamic State, in Khazir
A Kurdish fighter primed for action against ISIS in the northern Iraq town of Khazir on Sunday. Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters

It looks increasingly like the U.S. will start attacking targets there

The U.S. military took a unilateral giant step toward bombing targets inside Syria over the weekend as it swung its crosshairs west and began bombing Islamic militants in the western Iraq province that borders Bashar al-Assad’s war-ravaged country.

President Obama said Sunday he will detail his plans for destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in a speech to the nation Wednesday. “The next phase is now to start going on some offense,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “And ultimately we’re going to defeat them.”

He made clear—twice—that international borders won’t hamper U.S. efforts. “We will hunt down [ISIS] members and assets wherever they are,” he said. “I will reserve the right to always protect the American people and go after folks who are trying to hurt us wherever they are.”

Wherever. That means only one thing: Syria is the next stop on the road to defeating the Islamic jihadists.

“You don’t want to give them sanctuary at all,” says Anthony Zinni, former chief of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the region. “You can’t have a Pakistan,” where U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan have been frustrated by enemy forces who could scoot across borders to escape U.S. attacks. “They’ll simply regroup inside Syria and then re-attack—that’s stupid” if allowed to happen, the retired Marine general says.

The nation’s top military officer has already said rooting out ISIS’s Syrian haven is required for success. “Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria?” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Aug. 21. “The answer is ‘no’.”

The challenge of any U.S. military action in Syria is to hurt ISIS without helping the government of dictator Assad, whose civil war against several rebel groups, including ISIS, has killed nearly 200,000 people over three years. “We are supporting the Syrian moderate opposition,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Sunday in Tbilisi, Georgia.

The strikes launched Saturday and Sunday marked the first acknowledged time in a month-long U.S. bombing campaign of nearly 150 strikes against ISIS that U.S. munitions hit targets in western Iraq’s Anbar province. Prior American attacks had been limited to northern Iraq.

Like earlier strikes, the Pentagon justified the weekend’s action as part of Obama’s two-pronged ISIS effort to protect U.S. interests in Iraq and prevent humanitarian disasters against the Iraqi people. Earlier strikes were needed to defend the Mosul dam from an ISIS takeover, the Pentagon said, due to fear that the militants might sabotage it and send a 60-foot cascade of water down the Tigris River, threatening residents of Mosul.

The U.S. military used a similar justification for the weekend’s strikes on ISIS units near Anwar’s Haditha dam on the Euphrates River. “The potential loss of control of the dam or a catastrophic failure of the dam—and the flooding that might result—would have threatened U.S. personnel and facilities in and around Baghdad, as well as thousands of Iraqi citizens,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.

The attacks in Anbar—even if from the sky— mark a watershed return for the U.S. to the Sunni-dominated province where American forces fought several of the Iraq war’s most deadly battles before leaving the country nearly three years ago. It’s a tacit acknowledgement that the U.S. withdrawal—aided and abetted by a recalcitrant Iraqi government—was premature.

The Anbar action comes nine months after ISIS forces took control of Fallujah, one of its main cities and the site of some of the 2003-2011 war’s bloodiest battles between U.S. forces and Iraqi insurgents. Some U.S. military officers believe Washington should have begun stepped-up military action back then.

Military experts are divided on how well the Obama Administration has handled the ISIS threat. Lawrence Korb, a former assistant defense secretary in the Reagan Administration, praises the President’s methodical approach. “You make it clear we’re going to get these guys,” says Korb, now with the Center for American Progress think tank, “just like we got [Osama] bin Laden.”

Others suggest partisanship at home has hobbled the U.S. effort to deal with ISIS. “Our nation is suffering this current distraction because of our inability to reach a consensus on how to deal with the crisis in Syria over a year ago,” says Jerry Hendrix, a naval flight officer who went on to serve as the Navy’s top historian before retiring from the service as a captain two months ago. Hendrix, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, blames “the hyper-partisan atmosphere and the continuous election campaign we find ourselves in” for the delay.

For his part, Zinni finds what he sees as Obama’s foot-dragging distressing. “The President’s job is not to put his finger up and test the political winds,” he says. “It’s to make a decision based on threats to our people and interests, and then explain to the American people why he’s doing it.”

Obama gets his chance Wednesday, the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

TIME Somalia

Somalia Braces for Retaliation After Al-Shabab Leader’s Death

United States Somalia
Hundreds of newly trained al-Shabab fighters perform military exercises in the Lafofe area south of Mogadishu, Somalia, Feb. 17, 2011. Farah Abdi Warsameh—AP

African Union peacekeepers were attacked in southwestern Somalia Saturday

Updated 2:22 p.m. ET

Officials in Somalia have placed the country on high alert in anticipation of retaliatory attacks after the U.S. confirmed Friday it killed the leader of al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group operating in the country.

The Pentagon said Friday that intelligence had confirmed Shabab leader Ahmed Godane was killed in a Monday strike against the militant Islamist group. On Saturday, the day after the announcement, a convoy of African Union peacekeeping troops repelled an attack by the militant group in the south of the country.

Officials anticipate that Godane’s death may spark a new round of attacks from the group. Al-Shabab initially denied via Twitter that Goodane had been killed, but it confirmed his death Saturday and announced that Sheikh Ahmad Umar, also called Abu Ubaidah, as its next leader, Al Jazeera reports.

Under Goodane’s leaderhip, al-Shabab became a formal ally of al-Qaeda and carried out major terrorist attacks, including a round of suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda, in 2010 that killed more than 70 and the attack on a Nairobi mall last year that left 67 people dead.

[CNN]

TIME Terrorism

Why Westerners Are Fighting for ISIS

A growing number of Westerners are joining the Islamist militant group— but why?

The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is gaining notoriety for its barbaric methods, after videos showing beheadings and mass killings surfaced online.

Meanwhile, the group has been attracting an increasing number of foreign fighters from the West, analysts say. But why are so many foreigners joining ISIS’s fighting ranks? Among a range of explanations, one of them is that, compared with other jihadist groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS is extremely welcoming to foreigners, says Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma.

“The biggest reason for that is that ISIS philosophically has welcomed all Muslims as equals, as it’s building an Islamic state which does not have particular Syrian angle,” Landis says. “Also, ISIS’s leadership is made of people with very prominent roles that are foreigners so you’re not going to be discriminated against philosophically if you’re foreign.”

Social media also plays a significant role.

While in the past jihadist groups operated in secretive online forums, ISIS spreads its message — both in English and Arabic — on Twitter and Facebook, which are inherently open to the public. With its sleekly produced propaganda videos, ISIS reaches young, restless Muslims or other devotees around the world with a cause that they see is worth fight for, experts say.

“For many people who are lacking a strong sense of identity and purpose, their violent radical global narrative provides easy answers and solutions: it can be very powerful message for people who are looking for answers,” says Matthew Levitt, the director of counterterrorism and intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Their online material shows capturing territory, establishing states, beheading enemies: they show that they are the sexiest jihadi group on the block.”

The U.S. State Department estimates that about 12,000 foreigners have traveled to Syria from at least 50 different countries to fight with a number of different groups, including ISIS. Marie Harf, a deputy spokeswoman for the State Department, told CNN that officials estimate the number of Americans fighting with Syrian-based groups ranges from several dozen to 100.

For more on ISIS’ recruiting techniques, watch the video above with TIME editor Matt McAllester.

TIME foreign affairs

ISIS Wants Me Dead: Why You May Be Next

A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Syria waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa, Syria on June 29, 2014.
A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Syria waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa, Syria on June 29, 2014. Reuters

My transformation from fundamentalist Muslim to double agent inside al Qaeda

One afternoon late last summer I had a tip-off. There was a video on YouTube, uploaded from Syria, and I was in it. A few minutes later, I watched a handful of jihadists open fire with AK-47s on posters of six prominent Danes. One was of NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen; I was another. A caption appeared: “Enemies of Islam.”

As I studied the video, I recognized one of the gunmen. He called himself Abu Khattab. He had joined a radical Islamist group in Syria, but I knew him from the streets of Copenhagen. He was one of dozens of young Danish Muslims who had gone to fight in Syria, and who had joined the al Qaeda affiliate al Nusra or the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), now in control of huge areas of both Syria and Iraq.

Another clip posted by the same group featured Shiraz Tariq, a Pakistani extremist with whom I had gone paintballing a decade previously in the Danish city of Odense. In those days we had similar views. We believed in jihad against the West; we were Salafis who dreamt of turning places like Yemen and Somalia into Islamic states. We revered Osama bin Laden and sought to justify 9/11.

My fundamentalist interpretation of Islam—the intolerance it bred, the contempt for anyone who did not share what I believed to be the orthodox Islamic point of view—collapsed late in 2006. I simply could not justify the targeting of civilians and was troubled by what I saw as contradictions in Islam that no silver-tongued cleric could explain. My crisis of faith led me to work for no fewer than four Western intelligence agencies—against the very people with whom I had prayed and discussed the Koran.

But Abu Khattab, Shiraz Tariq and many others I had met during my radical years traveled in the other direction, moving from radical thought to violent action. I had known shoe-bomber Richard Reid and the “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui. I had become a friend of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric whose lectures and writing had galvanized a new generation of would-be jihadists and who was eventually killed by a U.S. drone.

The path to militancy among most of my friends—whether born Muslims or converts to Islam—was often similar: discrimination, a sense of rejection and then vulnerability to a simple and seductive message that offered discipline, comradeship and purpose. There were plenty of clerics capable of delivering that message. There was also rage about the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and Russia’s brutal campaign against the Chechens.

I converted to Islam after reading a book about the Prophet Mohammed in a public library in Denmark. As a wayward 21-year old with several spells in jail behind me, the religion provided structure and purpose. The Prophet prescribed for every eventuality; the idea of free will didn’t seem to matter any more.

Now the Internet is often the recruiting sergeant, with jihadi chat-rooms and slick online magazines and videos in several languages posted on extremist websites. ISIS has mastered the art of propaganda like no other group with its online English-language magazine Dabiq, almost daily videos of its fighters in action and its social programs.

In declaring a Caliphate in much of Syria and Iraq and showing just how merciless it will be to apostates, whether an American journalist, Syrian soldiers or fleeing Yazidis, ISIS is luring would-be jihadists the world over. They are mainly young men who celebrate the grotesque punishments meted out to enemies, are unmoved by the savage treatment of women and enticed by a warped vision of the Promised Land.

They are told it is their duty to fight the unbelievers. “And fight them until there is no more Fitnah [worshipping others besides Allah] and the religion will all be for Allah Alone [in the whole of the world],” in the words of the Koran. I remember Anwar al-Awlaki repeating that verse to a study group we had in Yemen in 2006, to justify jihad in pursuit of the Caliphate.

Of the thousands of foreign fighters who have flocked to Syria and Iraq, a few come home, shattered by the brutality. Others become suicide bombers or are killed on the battlefield. One Dane I had befriended in Yemen was killed fighting in Syria last year. A British-Pakistani I knew from the UK became Britain’s first suicide bomber in Syria.

Many more are learning skills they may one day use to terrorize Europe and even the U.S. Two-hundred and fifty have returned to the UK alone, prompting British authorities last week to ratchet up the terrorist threat level. There is immediate danger from lone wolves angered by U.S. strikes against ISIS. When terrorists act alone, it’s extremely difficult to stop them. As a double agent on the inside, I stopped two such plots being hatched in the UK after the lone-terrorist in each case confided their plans to me. But you can’t get lucky every time.

I have seen some of these men embrace martyrdom; many others have been consumed by the belief that there is only one true path and any dissenting view must be exterminated.

I know this mindset. After the Syria video was posted, Abu Khattab explained why I deserved death. “His task was to kill our beloved Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki,” he said. Then I received a message from another Danish militant I knew who had been jailed for his part in a terror plot but had been freed and was living in Copenhagen.

“How’s the family? Everyone hates you. Everyone wants you dead,” it said.

Morten Storm is a former double agent inside al Qaeda employed by the CIA, MI6, MI5 and Danish intelligence. His memoir, Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA, co-authored with Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister and published in September, tells the story of how he led the CIA to American al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

TIME foreign affairs

The Myth of the Invisible Jetsetting Jihadi

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Having a passport doesn't make terrorists invincible in the West

If you believe the cable-news-o-sphere regarding American extremists fighting with the Islamic State, you might think a plane ticket is all that separates these “homegrown” fighters from executing a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. That some Americans – and Europeans – are flocking to Iraq and Syria to join forces with jihadist groups is certainly concerning. But making the jump from travel ease to terrorism overlooks a major American strength that’s proven to thwart attacks: local communities and domestic law enforcement.

It’s a bipartisan mistake to ignore this powerful dynamic, but the most recent example is John McCain and Lindsey Graham’s op-ed in the New York Times. “ISIS is now one of the largest, richest terrorist organizations in history,” they write. “It occupies a growing safe haven the size of Indiana spanning two countries in the heart of the Middle East, and its ranks are filled with thousands of radicals holding Western passports, including some Americans. They require nothing more than a plane ticket to travel to United States cities.” Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and Senate Intelligence Committee Chair gave McCain and Graham’s analysis a boost telling NBC, “This [the Islamic State] is a vicious, vicious movement. And it has to be confronted. I think Senator McCain and Senator Graham really laid the basis in Saturday’s New York Times in an op-ed for confrontation. And I happen to agree with what they said.”

The insinuation in McCain and Graham’s op-ed, of course, is that once one of these extremists enters an American city, they’ll have a quick and easy path to executing a terrorist attack. That’s inaccurate. Once in an American city, an extremist must still acquire weapons. And if he plans to conduct a large-scale strategic attack (rather than a lone wolf-type shooting), he must also connect with others, engage in planning and surveillance activity, and finally prepare and carry out the attack. All of these steps are constrained by the willingness and ability of local Muslim and non-Muslim communities to report extremist and suspicious activity, as well as by the domestic efforts of law enforcement.

Indeed, according to data collected by New America, about one-third of “homegrown” Jihadists who have been charged or killed since the 9/11 attacks have been implicated by a tip from local community members or family members, almost nine percent have been implicated by strangers alerting authorities to suspicious activity, and almost half have been monitored by an informant.

On the other hand, cases where “only a plane ticket” led inevitably to an attack are outliers. Here, the go-to case is that of Moner Abu Salha, an American citizen who returned to the U.S. after receiving training from Jabhat al Nusra, the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, before returning to Syria to conduct a suicide attack. As McCain told CNN’s Candy Crowley in early August while arguing against the Obama administration’s policy, “Candy, there was a guy a month ago that was in Syria, went back to the United States, came back and blew himself up. We’re tracking 100 Americans who are over there now fighting for ISIS. ISIS is attracting extreme elements from all over the world, much less the Arab world. And what have we done?”

Yet even in this case, we can see the constraining role of local communities. According to an NBC investigative report, when Abu Salha returned to the United States he tried and failed to recruit his friends to fight with him in Syria. What’s more, according to a senior law enforcement official quoted by NBC, one of those friends tipped off the FBI, which put Abu Salha on their radar as he returned to Syria.

In a propaganda video released after his death, Abu Salha made clear that he felt these constraints: “I stayed with my friend’s family. And it was no good. The reason I had to stay with them is that the state I was in, I finally realized I was being watched,” he says in the video.

Indeed, Douglas McCain – an American who died fighting with ISIS – was known to American authorities because of his social media activity. He was also on a terrorism watchlist in order to constrain his ability to return undetected to an American city.

Three years into the Syrian civil war, there has been only one lethal attack in the West – the murder of four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels by Mehdi Nemmouche, a veteran of the Syrian jihad. In the United States, no one returning from or seeking to join a Syrian jihadist group has even been charged with plotting an attack inside the United States. In comparison, there have been two deadly incidents in the United States committed by individuals motivated by far right ideology in the past six months. If thousands of extremists were only a plane ride away from American cities, one would hardly expect such a limited record of Syria related violence in the West.

None of this is to say that Jihadist groups in Syria should be allowed to fester and develop the capability to conduct attacks in the United States, or that it is impossible that a returning Syrian foreign fighter will evade the layered defenses that protect the American homeland. That Abu Salha was able to return undetected to the United States after participating in Jihadist training should concern law enforcement. The layered defense system may need reinforcement to deal with new challenges, but the constraints it imposes upon jihadist activity ought not be obscured, particularly when making the case that the threat posed by foreign fighters calls for military action. Doing so does a great disservice to the admirable efforts of Muslim communities, local and federal law enforcement, and American citizens in confronting Jihadist extremism at home.

David Sterman, a research associate at the New America Foundation and a master’s candidate at Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies. His work focuses on homegrown extremism and the maintenance of the New America Foundation’s datasets on terrorism inside the United States and the relative roles of NSA surveillance and traditional investigative tools in preventing such terrorism. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk.

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