History of the War on Terror
Inevitably invoked whenever the subject of terrorism is raised, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States served as the spark that set off the Bush administration's war on terror. President Bush selected the term "war on terror" to characterize the U.S. conflict with Islamic extremists. He did so against the advice of his top aides who much preferred the phrase "global struggle against violent extremism." Relations between the United States and Iraq, as well as between the United States and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, were already strained, especially in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. But the September 2001 terrorist attacks prompted President Bush to take action against terrorism, which was viewed as a problem not just for the United States, but for all free, democratic nations.
Shortly after the September 2001 attacks, the United States faced a rash of anthrax-laced letters, which claimed the lives of five Americans and, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), constituted the worst biological attack in the country's history. The confluence of these events led to sweeping changes in the United States' foreign and domestic policy, including the drafting of the USA PATRIOT Act and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, both of which were designed to overhaul the country's surveillance and intelligence operations.
Within two weeks of the September 2001 attacks, President Bush called on Afghanistan's Taliban government to hand over Osama bin Laden, the alleged architect of the attacks, and other al-Qaeda members thought to be in the country. The Taliban refused to comply, causing President Bush to initiate combat operations in Afghanistan in October 2001. Though Bush immediately identified al-Qaeda as the perpetrator of the attacks, he used the attacks as justification for a U.S.-led fight against all forms of terrorism throughout the world.
Reaction to the Bush administration's war on terror was swift from groups such as Amnesty International, which warned that new policies being enacted in the name of combating international terrorism were unnecessarily strict. Amnesty International predicted that American civil liberties could be severely restricted in the name of protection against terrorism.
Public backlash to the September 2001 attacks was also swift and, often, misguided. Many American radio stations reported that American Muslims were celebrating the destruction of the World Trade Center and the deaths of Americans. As a result of this and other inflammatory misconceptions, an estimated 540 Arab-Americans were attacked, either verbally or physically, in the week after September 11, and the FBI had reports of at least ninety hate crimes directed at Muslims, Sikhs, Arab-Americans, or Middle Eastern-looking people.
In 2002, President Bush updated the decade-old sanctions that had been placed on Iraq in order to prevent its development of weapons of mass destruction citing Saddam Hussein's terrorist associations. At first, Bush proposed a link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, but later admitted that no such link existed. However, United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq were shut out of key facilities and found much of the information that Iraq had released on its weapons capabilities to be out of date, fueling claims that Hussein was developing weapons illegally.
In December 2002, Bush authorized the deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq. Three months later, and two days after U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan ordered weapons inspectors out of the country, Bush officially declared war on Saddam Hussein's government. Many critics found the timing of Bush's attacks on Iraq peculiar. Even though most recognized the danger that Saddam Hussein's reign posed, many in the United States felt that Hussein's links to other terrorist groups were not enough to link him to al-Qaeda, and that he did not constitute the same kind of immediate threat that Osama bin Laden did.