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A Research on Terrorism Before and After the September 11, 2001 Attacks Research Paper

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Updated: Jan 21st, 2020


The events of September 11, 2001 undoubtedly forever changed the perception of terrorism among Americans. This paper explores the significant changes that occurred with regard to terrorism following the events of 9/11.

A brief introduction to terrorism and the various forms of terrorism that have been practiced through the years will provide a rich backdrop from which the discussion on the characteristics of terrorism before and after 9/11 will be discussed.

By focusing on the differences between the pre and post 9/11 terrorism activities, the new features that emerged following the actions that were precipitated by 9/11 will be discussed. As such, the paper will highlight the role that 9/11 played in necessitating this changes.

An elaborate discussion following the facts advances that while there have been gains from the war on terror, an overemphasis on the military approach to dealing with the problem may lead to an indefinite end to the war.


While acts of terrorism are as old as human civilization and the United States has always been prone to the nefarious actions of terrorists, the horrific events of 11th September 2001 (9/11) brought home the painful reality to Americans of the capability of terrorist attacks to disrupt society life. Terrorists had achieved the unthinkable on the very soils of America causing massive losses of life and property.

On that tragic day, the Al-Qaida terrorist group who are sworn enemies of the Western civilization in general and the United States in particular proved that they did not just trade empty words but were capable of striking on American soil with devastating results.

From that day onwards, modern day terrorism emerged as the most perilous global problem and nations in the world are still struggling to end this vice for the safety and freedom of humanity. Gearson (2002) documents that this new age of terrorism is characterized by fanaticism and religiously motivated groups which are equipped with weapons of mass destruction and ready to use them to achieve their ends.

In light of the change in our perception of terrorisms as a result of the events of September 11 and the raising impact of religious fanatics who are quoted many a times declaring death and destruction to the USA and all her allies, it would be a worthwhile endeavor to perform a critical analysis of terrorism.

To this end, this paper shall set out to perform an in-depth analysis of terrorism with reference to September 11. The paper shall begin by giving a brief introduction to terrorism and proceed to highlight the various types of terrorism in existence.

The paper shall then access terrorism activities prior to the 2001 World Trade Center bombing and how terrorism organizations and counterterrorism efforts have reinvented themselves after the events of 9-11.

A brief Introduction to Terrorism

As at the present, there is no universally acceptable definition of “terrorism” and each nation or organization prefers to use its own definition. This lack of a unified description springs from the fact that what may pass as “terrorism” for one party may be legitimate use of violence by another.

However, terrorism is generally defined as “the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change” (Hoffman, 2006). The political angle sets apart terrorism from other kinds of crimes and as Hoffman (2006) insists, one should distinguish terrorists from other types of criminals since most terrorism organizations have a deeper ideology and higher motives that common criminals or irregular fighters.

While the evils of terrorism are undeniable to all, Gearson (2002) asserts that defining a person or a group as terrorists implies a moral judgment which varies depending on the position from which it is being taken from. While there exist many motivations for terrorism, most terrorism activities are driven by politics.

This statement is reinforced by the fact that throughout history, terrorism has been the preferred tool by revolutionaries, nationalists and in some cases even governments who want to maintain state power. In general, terrorist organizations engage in unconventional styled warfare since they lack the capacities or capabilities to engage in conventional warfare as a state/nation can (Kendall, 2007).

Despite the fact that a resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1972 denounced terrorism as endangering and taking innocent human lives and jeopardizing fundamental freedoms, most of the early terrorism organizations sprout forth from the strong anti-colonialism sentiments expressed by the people (Walter 2004).

As such, the organizations did not view themselves as anti-democratic movements which endangered the lives of people but instead, the movements purported to safeguard their people from some oppression. Historically, freedom fighters have adopted terrorist tactics at times to advance their cause.

The relationship between terrorism and colonialism was therefore very strong from the earlier years since the international law did not make an exception for a “just causes” as justification for terrorist activities. A good example of a liberation movement that gained terrorism status is the Hezbollah group which traces its roots to the long standing crises of the Shiite community in the post independence Lebanon.

Hamzeh (2004) notes that the main reason for the emergence of Hezbollah as a potent fighting apparatus was the invasion of Lebanon by Israeli troops whose aim was to destabilize the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s operations in Lebanon. Israel’s invasion led to the legitimization of Hezbollah as a militant movement group which engaged in guerrilla warfare against the foreign invaders.

As such, Hezbollah emerged in the 1982 as a Shiite Muslims organization in the Lebanese whose aim was to fight against foreign invasion as well as injustices to the Shia population n Lebanon. This type of political terrorism is still widely favored by groups which think that their pleas can only be heard if they engage in acts of violence.

One of the defining characteristics of terrorists is that they seek maximum publicity. It is for this reason that most terror attacks are not aimed at military targets but rather at civilian population since the impact is felt greatest if a large audience is obtained (Gearson, 2002).

The reason behind this is that most terrorist movements seek to make a statement and the best venue to do this is by atrocious means which are bound to catch the eye of the public. However, this notion of publicity has been questioned in recent years as a result of a rise in the number of unclaimed attacks in various regions of the world.

This has brought about an even more disturbing theory as to the purpose of terrorist activities; to punish people or avenge the citizens of the offending nation. Brown (2003) asserts that theory may hold true for most of the modern terrorism groups which are mostly made up of brainwashed religious fanatics.

Types of Terrorism

While terrorism activities all have the key characteristic of imposing fear on the masses and rampant destruction of property or even lives, there exist some particular differences in the various forms of terrorisms practiced. A particularly potent form of terrorism in existence is the state sponsored form of terrorism.

As the name suggests, this are terror activities which are funded and in most cases overseen by legitimate government. This of course goes contrary to popular misconception that all terrorism activities takes place independent of the involvement of governments. According to Wilkinson (2004), state funded terrorism is especially effective since it grants the terrorist group some degree of organization, training and the finance with which to purchase weapons.

It is worth pointing out that state funded terrorism can be committed on an internal basis against perceived enemies of the state or against foreign adversaries of the country who mostly exist in the international sphere. In both cases, the attraction of this form of terrorism is that the state cannot be held accountable for the actions of the terrorists since their direct involvement cannot be proven beyond doubt.

While the end of the Cold war led to a dramatic decrease in the number of states using terrorism as a weapon of foreign and domestic policy, there still exist a number of countries (predominantly in the Middle East) that still extensively assist terrorist groups. Griset and Mahan (2003) declare that states favor the use of terrorism instead of conventional armies for strategic reasons.

The most obvious reason is that modern warfare is extraordinarily expensive and is almost inevitably bound to provoke a counterattack. A state’s covert sponsorship of terrorism on the other hand is cheap and it gives the state a chance to deny its roles as an aggressor thus avoiding retaliation.

As such, the relationship between the state and the terrorist organization which it sponsors is mutually beneficial since the terrorist can obtain surplus supply of finance to maintain its operation and expand its projects.

Another unique form of terrorism is the transnational terrorism. Coolsaet (2008) defines transnational terrorism as “the engagement in violent struggle by sub-state groups on an international level.” Such kinds of groups have been in existence since the early 1970s and the defining characteristic of such groups has been their presence in multiple countries and the attack of civilians in states other than their own.

The globalization phenomenon which has led to n increased in the interaction between nations has been partly responsible for the prevalence of transnational terrorism. Members of such organizations spend most of their time laying the groundwork for a long-term sustainable environment and they lead normal lives far from any connection with terrorist activities.

They only become “active” once they are ordered to do so by their organization. Coolsaet (2008) further notes that what makes this form of terrorism so formidable is their ability to assimilate into the population which makes the operatives of the terrorism organizations all the more hard to detect.

While the events of 9/11 may have given religious terrorism the notoriety with which it is viewed today, Brown (2003) notes that even before the tragedies of September 11, the role of religiously motivated international terrorism had become increasingly prevalent. Religious terrorism is earmarked as being especially dangerous to international security since those who engage themselves in this form or violence view it as a morally justified struggle of good against evil.

While indiscriminate attacks among the faithful of a particular religion or sect are virtually unheard of, Brown (2003) affirms that “the exclusivity of the faith may lead religious terrorists to dehumanize victim’s even more than most terrorist groups”. While almost all major religions are involved in some form of religious terrorism, Islam stands out as being the one religion that has had a majority number of terrorism acts carried out in its name.

The Ethnic form of terrorism is a form of violence carried out to with the aim of encouraging a “communal identity” that is contrary to the identity proposed by the government. The major differences between ethnic and ideological terrorism is that while ideological terrorism is strongly dependent on political factors like freedom and democracy, ethnic terrorism might be independent of this factors.

Ethnic terrorism has one major goal which is to achieve freedom from a “foreign” or “alien” oppressor. This leads to the groups seeking out a unique identity through terrorist activities which are aimed at creating communal bonds that result from retaliation from the government or rival communities.

Byman (1999) observes that most countries that have ethical terrorism tend to be ethically heterogeneous and have often experienced a particularly troubled development to democracy. At the extreme, ethnic terrorism results in creation of fear which leads to the “voluntary” emigration of other people who are not a part of the ethnic group therefore leading to ethnic homogenization.

Another type of terrorism is the Lone-wolf terrorism which involves an individual’s acts of violence as part of a revolutionary activity. This terrorism form borrows from the Russian anarchist theorist, Mikhail Bakunin who proposed that individuals or small groups of people should kill those who represented an oppressive form of social order.

Reports by the Instituut voor Veiligheirds (2007) show that most Lone-wolf terrorism cases in America are of a domestic nature and are carried out mostly by white supremacists and anti-abortion activists.

However, the reports also acknowledge that in addition to lone-wolf terrorists being motivated by white supremacy, there also existed those whose primary motivations were Islamist fundamentalism and national-separatism.

Perhaps one of the most effective lone-wolf terrorist of our time is Theodore Kacynski who ran an 8 year bombing campaign in America. His attacks resulted in public anxiety but despite this, the authority’s perception of the lone terrorist as a security risk remained fairly low in the years preceding 2001.

Terrorism before 9/11

One of the most distinctive features of terrorism prior to 2001 was that until 9/11, most international acts of terrorism targeting U.S. interests took place outside of the country. Owing to this lack of significant attacks on U.S. soil, many people were under the illusion that the country was mostly exempt from this international phenomenon that had wrecked havoc throughout the world.

Scaperlanda & Kane (2002) declare that these assumptions were naive since terrorism organizations had made known their desire to attack U.S. targets as a means of exploiting their own goals. In addition to this, before September 11, most of the terrorist acts had been perpetrated by use of bombs and against buildings.

This Brown (2003) assets is the reason why analysts failed to anticipate the 9/11 attacks. Experts in the field of counterterrorism pointed to the declining number of attacks against airliners between the 1970s and the 1990s and from this fact, they deduced that the airline screening of passengers and increased security had all but removed the terrorism threat from the skies.

Before the attacks on the World Trade centers, most major terrorist organizations had a form of leadership that governed the particular organization’s activities and finances.

While most major terrorist groups before 9/11 were veiled in secrecy and their leadership structure unknown to the outside world for security reasons, research indicates that most of them e.g. Hezbollah, The Palestinian Liberation Organization, Al-Qaeda and the Tamer Tigers all had a clearly defined structure.

Without doubt, terrorism organizations and in particular bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda had been involved in terror attacks. Over the ten years prior to 9/11, Al-Qaeda had been credited with numerous attacks against US interests including the earlier attacks against the World Trade Center and the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. However, the scales of these attacks were relatively small and they therefore did not elicit major action on the part of the government.

Arguably one of the forms of terrorism that has faced a marked change from the pre 9/11 era to the post 9/11 years is the transnational terrorism. Prezelj (2008) argues that prior to 9/11, the Western world failed to recognize terrorism as a major international security threat and as such, collective anti-terrorist response was unwarranted.

In addition to this, the threat that transnational terrorism posed to Americans was by the end of the 20th century significantly lower than that posed by the same to European countries (Farer, 1999).

Traditionally, political terrorism had in Europe and parts of Latin America facilitated transnational crimes. These transnational crimes were aimed at providing money, arms and equipment for terrorist activities.

For this reasons, European and Latin American countries were wary of transnational terrorism. However, laxity in airport securities and lack of resources by intelligence units resulted in the terrorists operating across nations with little hindrance.

Terrorism after 9/11

As this paper has suggested up to this point, the events of September 11 acted as a turning point of how the international community in general and the United States in particular perceived terrorism. The modes of operation of terrorist groups also changed so as to align themselves with the new challenges and opportunities that availed themselves as a result of the 9/11 attacks.

Arguably the most significant change following the 911 attacks was that governments all over the world began viewing terrorist groups as a significance threat to world peace.

Hoffman (2001) accentuates this point by illustrating that a month after the 9/11 attacks, when the infamous Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden appeared on a major international broadcast declaring war on the United States, the US government took his threats with a preternatural seriousness.

This is unlike previous threats which had been disregarded as empty words. In addition to this, the Western World led by the USA decided to take a more proactive role in fighting terrorism. Previously, efforts against terrorism were mainly of a reactive nature only taking action to contain the situation once the terrorists had struck. However, 9/11 led to the nations hunting down the terrorists with an aim of permanently disabling them.

One of the significant actions taken against terrorism consequent of 911 was the waging of the “war on terror” which was commissioned by the then US president George W. Bush. The war on terror, also known as the global war on terrorism is the term used to refer to a campaign that was launched with the sole aim of curbing the rise of terrorism.

The US government under President Bush introduced this war in an attempt to face out terrorist groups that were threatening the peace and stability of the nation. The war included various military, legal, political and ideological actions that would be taken against terrorists.

Miniter (2004) accentuates the fact that the core aims of the war on terror on the onset were the Capturing of Osama bin Laden, the man seen as the mastermind of the September 11 attacks. Afghanistan, which was the alleged safe haven of the terrorists, was also to be made “unsafe” for the terrorist organizations by placing some form of legitimate government which would not condone any terrorist organization within its borders.

While religion fanaticism has been the basis of terrorism for many years in history, religious terrorism has become even more prevalent in the post 9/11 world.

It has been argued that this rise in religion fanaticism has by large been as a direct result of the declaration of the international war on terror was the birth or a new form of terrorism and as Laqueur (2003) explains “the ‘new’ terrorism has increasingly become indiscriminate in the choice if its victims.

Its aim is no longer to conduct propaganda but to effect maximum destruction”. Echoing this sentiments is Wilkinson (2001) who notes that religious terrorism is more violent and destructive since the perpetrators think that they are serving a higher purpose and the outsiders with whom they are at war are not seen as people but merely as infidels or heretics.

This from of fanaticism which is mostly as a result of radicalization has and continues to play a major role in terror attacks and as Wilkinson (2001) observes, it is not the exclusive preserve of any single major religion but a characteristic of most religions but in varying degrees.

The United States government has done a lot to reduce the scope and influence of state terrorism. The identification of states which sponsor terrorism and the subsequent blacklisting of the same as primary threats to the United States and its allies is one of the steps taken by the United States after 9/11. Griset and Mahan (2003) note that most of these countries are from South Asia, the Middle East and Northern African.

To discourage these activities, the US has imposed economic and political sanctions which are intended to force the states to “renounce the use of terrorism, end support to terrorists, and bring terrorists to justice for past crimes” (Griset and Mahan, 2003).This use of sanctions against states that sponsor terrorism has contributed to the economic stagnation of the affected states.

However, the effectiveness of such means as a tool to fight terrorism has been questioned by many since in most cases, this sanctions only end up depriving the ordinary citizens since they result in starvation as a result of increase in food prices and decrease in earnings. In addition to this, sanctions have at times benefited the very terrorist organizations that the US is trying to snuff out by making the disgruntled masses recruit to the terrorist organizations.

In the widening war against terrorism which came about as result of the September 11 attacks, the U.S. forces has engaged in the training of local militaries to fight terrorist. Perl (2003) noted that U.S. marines have been deployed in some countries such as Yemen to assist in training efforts to equip the local military to fight against terrorists.

These efforts combined with the stepping up of intelligence sharing and law enforcement cooperation with other governments to root out terrorist cells has been credited for the destruction and dispersion of many terrorist cells especially in Afghanistan and the Northern Asia region.

This move by the U.S. government to train foreign troops and share intelligence represents a marked difference in the approach taken prior to 9/11 where intelligence information was hardly shared to other organizations.

Owing to the crackdown on large well established organizations such as Al-Qaida, modern day terrorism has taken a new form; localized cells which are able to operate with little guidance or support of the major organizations. While such cells are by far less formidable than the large well organized organizations, their survivability is guaranteed as a result of their autonomous nature.

Brown (2007) explains that “new age Islamic fundamentalist organizations like Hamas and the bin Laden network consist of groups organized in loosely semi-independent cells that have no single commanding hierarchy.” The authority of leadership is irrelevant to such groups since they seek to wage fanatical terrorist campaigns against their enemy in line with their religious duty.

The recruitment process of the terrorism cells also underwent a radical change due to the significant weakening of major terrorism organization. The recruitment process has taken on a bottom up rather than the traditional top down perspective, As such, individuals bring in their family members and friends to the organization.

The Lone-wolf terrorist drew little attention before 9/11 and he was overshadowed by the threat of larger terrorism organizations which were perceived to have a higher capability to inflict damage. However, the events of 9/11 and the ensuing war on terror triggered proposed changes in the legal provisions aimed at preventing lone-wolf terrorism (Instituut voor Veiligheirds, 2007).

Of particular concern with these changes in the legal provisions was the enactment of new law enforcement powers beyond those contained in the USA patriot Act of 2001. This mandates enabled law enforcers to obtain a foreign intelligence warrant where there was probably cause that a targeted individual was acting on behalf of a foreign power (Scahill, 2006).

This warrant would be issued regardless of whether a person as affiliated with an international terrorist group or not. This change is believed to enhance the investigation of lone-wolf terrorists who may not have active ties to an established terrorist group.

One of the consequences of the 9/11 attacks was an increase in the security especially in airports and a greater emphasis on surveillance. This compounded by the sharing of intelligence by international agencies meant that terrorist could no longer operate with the ease with which they had prior to 2001.

In addition to this, Perl (2003) highlights that by the end of 2002, the US treasury department had succeeded in freezing off assets belonging to terrorism organizations and their financiers worth more than $121 million. While most of the financial flow of terrorist funds is said to take place outside of formal banking channels, the freezing of their bank assets was a major blow to the organizations.

As such, the ability of terrorists to move and operate internationally was greatly hampered. This lead to the need for members of the terrorism organizations to reinvent the way in which they operated.

A captured al Qaeda operative, Ressam, attests to this by his confession that unlike the previous era whereby professional terrorists were well funded, he was given only $12,000 as seed money and instructed to raise the rest of his operational funds from petty thievery (Hoffman, 2002).

Coolsaet (2008) also asserts that owing to the inhibitions to carrying out terror attacks on Western countries as a result of increased security and intelligence measures following 9/11, most cells have resulted to attacking Western interests that are local to them.


The increased pressure on governments to join the anti-terrorism campaign has bore fruits as is evident by the willingness of certain previously acclaimed state sponsors of terrorism to distant themselves from extremist groups (Perl, 2003). Libya for example had made efforts to cut down on its relationship with terrorist groups and Sudan has taken measures to ensure that no terrorists are trained in her territories.

While these moves are but a tip in the iceberg of cracking down on terrorism, they point to a change in perception of terrorism by the international community. No longer is terrorism in any of its forms seen as acceptable and with more countries united to fight against terrorism, this war can be won.

While most people do concede that the drastic measures taken following the 9/11 attacks were necessary to safeguard American and the rest of the world from the terrorism, there have been arguments that some of the measures infringe on people rights.

This is a valid fear considering the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act amendment which dictates that a person may be arrested or searched on speculation of affiliation with an international terrorist group even though there is absolutely no proof of the same (Scahil, 2006).

This combined with the Amendments which allow for a U.S. citizen to be detained indefinitely on suspicion of terrorist activities has led to fear that our rights as U.S. citizens are being stifled in the name of fighting terrorism. However, a majority of U.S. citizens concede that a minor infringement on their privacy is a relatively small price to pay if it will lead to the prevention of future terrorist attacks.

For all the successes of the global war against terrorism that was started in 2001, there has been a huge pouring of foreign troops into Afghanistan. Military invasions almost invariably lead to a feeling of alienation by the local populace.

Bin Laden and his ilk have therefore been able to capitalize on the widespread sense of alienation that exists in invaded regions such as Afghanistan and the Pakistan border regions therefore leading to the advancement of their objectives.

Barret (2008) asserts that the continued campaigns to dislodge the Taliban and destroy Al-Qaida have led to the formation of an alliance of the two terrorist groups leading to their continued survival even in the face of relentless attacks. This point to the complexity of dealing with terrorism since as it has been demonstrated, the use of force may lead to empowerment of the movement.

An interesting argument raised following the events of 9/11 is that the use of violence by the Al-Qaeda terrorism group was designed to gain publicity and provoke reprisal by the U.S. government. This retaliation would subsequently lead to the undermining of the government to the and hence a heightening of popularity for the terrorism organization.

Gearson (2002) contends that this is a valid argument considering that the 11 September campaign by Osama bin Laden involved a small number of individuals who were able to evoke retaliations of epic proportions by the U.S. military.

Meanwhile, the war against terrorism that was started in the wake of the September 11 attacks at the world trade center still continues to be waged with little sight of an end. This is despite the U.S. and her allies pumping in billions of dollars and thousands of troops to the war efforts.

This clearly demonstrates that military victory alone will not secure a lasting peace and the beefing up of intelligence capabilities will only retard terrorist; not completely vanquish them. Scaperlanda and Kane (2002) suggest that the best hope at securing peace it to respond to the cultural factors that make so many people sympathetic and supportive of the groups that reign terror.


This paper set out to shed light as to the face of terrorism before and after the tragic events of September 11 in America. From the various arguments presented, it is clear that terrorism and counter-terrorism efforts underwent a drastic change following the events of 9/11. Most of these changes were as a result of a new appreciation by the Western world that terrorism presents a very real threat to the society.

To highlight these changes, this paper has illustrated the state of terrorism before 9/11 and the state of terrorism after 9/11. From the discussions presented in this paper, it is evident that most terrorist organization fundamentally believe that their are serving a good cause which is designed to achieve a greater good, an armed retaliation against the terrorist may only serve to strengthen him as have been demonstrated by the Afghan invasion.

As such, it has been suggested that the best means to tackle any form of terrorism is to address the underlying causes and support mechanism for terrorism. Policymakers and analysts alike must recognize that the war against terrorism cannot be won only by military means since this may end up giving the terrorist’s platform from which to advance its agenda and help in recruitment efforts.

Instead, governments should recognize that concessions and understanding of the cultural aspect of the terrorist organizations can be used to fight terrorism without backlash. This together with increased cooperation among various intelligence agencies and nations on terrorism issues can lead to the creation of a world free of the menacing threat of terrorism.


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