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Aerial view of the Pentagon

'People have a screw loose': The history of 9/11 conspiracy theories

Aerial view of the Pentagon which some conspiracy theories claim was the victim of a planted bomb not a rogue plane. | Wikimedia | Public Domain

Conspiracy theories have been around for decades, well before the internet and the likes of social media could disseminate the kind of views and opinions that, had they been sent as letters to a local newspaper, would have ended up in the editor’s bin. From the assassination of John F. Kennedy to Marilyn Monroe’s tragic demise, it was probably inevitable that after such a momentous event as the attack on New York’s iconic Twin Towers, that an avalanche of bizarre and outlandish claims for its occurrence would circulate the web before any official investigations had been corroborated. Ten years after the shocking events witnessed by millions on live television a widespread distrust of the Bush government helped to fuel suspicion and cynicism revealed in a survey at the time that found 40% of Americans in the US believed in some sort of conspiracy.

9/11 Attacks

The 9/11 attacks in 2001 shocked the world and redirected US foreign policy to a ‘war on terror’. Controversy still shrouds that fateful day when four hijacked commercial planes crashed on the morning of 11 September, 2001 in three different locations. Two hit the World Trade Center, a third hit the Pentagon and United Airlines 93 where passengers fought the hijackers to regain control of the plane which crashed in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3000 people died in total. The official verdict was suicide terrorism, directed by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden who was the founder of the pan-Islamic terrorist group.

50,000 people worked in the World Trade Center at the time of the attack, but not all were at work when, just before 8.46am, United Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower. At 9.03am United Airlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower. A third flight, American Airlines flight 77 flown from Dulles International Airport in Virginia was hijacked over Ohio and crashed into the west side of the Pentagon at 9.37am. The hijackers onboard the fourth and final plane, United Airlines Flight 93, intended to strike Washington DC but instead crashed in a field in Pennsylvania at 10.03am after passengers attempted to regain control of the aircraft.

Investigators believe that the terrorists possibly planned to hit the White House or the Capitol Building.

Televised horror and political impact

Millions around the world saw the Twin Towers struck on live television. Many watching believed initially that the drama playing out before their eyes was nothing more than a fire that had got out of control. That view changed immediately when the second plane flew directly into the South Tower. Disbelief was soon followed by terror at the reality of what the world was witnessing.

The unthinkable had become an incomprehensible reality. On 7th October, 2001, the US and allies attacked Afghanistan. All 19 hijackers were killed, but their accomplices were rigorously pursued. Osama Bin Ladin, hunted by the US military for years was eventually located and killed by US forces in 2011.

By August 2008, seven years after the attack on the Twin Towers, conspiracy supporters demonstrated in Denver, Colorado. Many threw their suspicions on the CIA and military. Others raised questions over Wall Street suggesting that the institution had foreknowledge of the attacks. Conspiracies also included beliefs that the US government staged 9/11 to justify US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The 9/11 Commission report concluded that the planes’ impact fatally damaged the towers, spewing burning fuel over many floors and causing total collapse. It concluded that there were no missiles, no hidden explosives or detonators planted in the towers and no conspiracy other than al-Qaeda’s.

Conspiracy theory merry-go-round

Conspiracy notions swirled among the rubble after the attacks and still circulates on the web some two decades after the events. Some were outlandish having been fuelled by racist and right-wing or left-wing agendas, while the more temperate raised questions such as were there other conspirators besides the al-Qaeda suicide-bombers? How had steel skyscrapers fallen so quickly? How could hijackers fly a plane straight into the tightly guarded Pentagon? Why were the airliners not shot down and did President Bush know before he was told the news at a school in Sarasota, Florida? This latter theory suggesting that the president, any president would be willing to sacrifice thousands of American lives for political gain and ideology is perhaps one of the most outlandish.

Alternative ‘suspects’ in the web of 9/11 fantasy lists were: right wing US groups; Israel and China; the World Trade Center’s owners; the CIA in collaboration with al-Qaeda using missiles ‘hologrammed’ to look like airliners. Even Scientologists offered their own theory that ‘evil Thetans’ using their invisible powers were involved in the attacks, as well as the more Hollywood movie inspired heist theory suggesting gold thieves seeking bullion kept in the World Trade Center were behind the murderous plot.

Investigation Delay

In the wake of the US Government’s ‘War on Terror’ in 2001 came the questions and a surge in theories possibly fuelled by a rise in distrust of the Bush government. The most criminally serous being, did the US government carry out the attacks to provide it with an excuse for an invasion of Iraq? Accusations and supposition surrounded the apparent lack of immediate intervention by the US military, particularly in relation to their failure to shoot down the commercial airlines that were being used as missiles. But could there be a more prosaic explanation as opposed to a sinister theory, which was that the Air Force’s lack of reaction on that day was simply due to poor intelligence and communication?

Conspiracy theorists point to the unwillingness of the United States government to hold a full inquiry at the time. Vice-President Dick Cheney initially opposed an investigation into the terrorist attacks. His reason was that resources and personnel would be taken away from President Bush’s war on terrorism policy. A delay of up to a year before an official investigation began has possibly fuelled the suspicions of conspiracy theorists reflecting on the fact that investigations into the attack on Pearl Harbour (1941) and the 1963 assassination of President John F Kennedy took place within days of the events.

One explanation to the prevalence of persistent conspiracy theories that surround 9/11 is the belief that because of an alleged ulterior, covert motive, President Bush’s government condoned, or encouraged the attacks that killed over 3000 people in America. Such a belief gives carte blanche for a myriad of accusations of criminal involvement by the government and authorities which embrace the following main alternative explanations for why the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place.

Conspiratorial Theories


One of the most popular theories was influenced by film maker Michael Moore’s documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11 which suggested that the US government, dominated by powerful neo-conservatives and the oil industry welcomed the tragedy simply to rally public opinion behind a new war in the Middle East in what was really an economic and commercial fight to access oil and not a ‘war on terror’.

Such an act, conspiracy theorists claimed, would benefit the defence industry in the US and allow the passage of repressive new legislation. In the aftermath of the attacks it became apparent that the oil and defence industries did well, especially the shareholders of the oilfield refinery and multinational corporation company Haliburton. But the appalling reality of such a government sponsored crime would be that the US President and government stood by and watched as thousands of its citizens died, taking the immense risk that the world would eventually uncover such a despotic act.

Staged Political Stunt with Explosives

Whoever was responsible for 9/11 according to conspiracy theorists depends on which theory you to subscribe to, be it the supposition that the US Government planned the attack on the World Trade Center or was privy to the Al-Qaeda plot and let it take place. Those theorists who focus on the lead up to the attack claim that the Bush administration was supplied with credible evidence and had a cast iron idea that the assault would happen.

To observers who witnessed the horrific event live on television the terrorist attack appeared self-evident, that two commercial planes hit the towers and exploded, eventually causing the mammoth structures to fall. But the staged-stunt claim focuses on speculation on whether such an impact by the aircraft would be enough to bring down the towers. They allege that something else brought down the steel goliaths. Conspiracy theories surrounding the notion of ‘controlled demolition’ through strategically placed explosive charges and detonators throughout the buildings are still circulated on the web.

The Pentagon bomb

Similar to the conspiracy theories suggesting the Twin Towers were toppled by secretly planted charges in the buildings, despite no credible evidence of such activity or how such activity was carried out covertly in a building occupied by thousands of staff, conspiracy cynics believe the Pentagon was the victim of a planted bomb rather than a rogue plane.

Critics of the official explanation claim that the original hole was too small to have been made by a 757 airliner. Suspicions surrounding events of the day’s attack on the Pentagon include questions of why a plane was able to fly for forty minutes in the direction of the headquarters of the US military without it being intercepted and shot down when sophisticated radar technology and anti-missile batteries were in existence. Conspiracy theories suggesting the Pentagon, like the Twin Towers was subject to controlled demolition also point out that the explosions happened in the West Wing which was nearly empty at the time due to construction work.

President Bush’s Televised Behaviour

On the morning of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush was attending a kindergarten school in Sarasota, Florida as he was reading a story to school children. The event was being filmed by a television crew and immediately televised. As news came in about the attacks in New York an aide is seen whispering to President Bush who appears to then carry on reading the story. Conspiracy theorists suggest, as Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 implies, that the president didn’t leap up into action on hearing about the first attack, as he knew exactly what was going on.

On the 16 September, Vice-President Dick Cheney announced that President Bush had authorised the Air Force to shoot down hijacked commercial aircraft, although an allegation that this was to protect the White House at all costs has contributed to conspiracy theorists being convinced that the attacks on the Twin Towers was a staged stunt and that the plane that hit the Pentagon was brought down by a mid-air impact.

The key evidence they cite to back this hypothesis is because of the wide dispersal of the aircraft’s debris suggesting the plane had disintegrated into pieces miles away from the scene of the crash. Many of these suspicions have been countered, particularly by the FBI who along with forensics backing the impact of a plane on the Pentagon also reiterated that paper debris from the plane had been blown to its resting place by the wind. They concluded that ‘Nothing was found that was inconsistent with the plane going into the ground intact’.

The mysterious white plane

This theory is based on allegations that several ‘eyewitnesses’ reported seeing a white plane flying very low just as Flight 93 from New Jersey bound for San Francisco that morning. After having been hijacked by four terrorists the domestic United Airlines plane crashed in a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania following an attempt by passengers to regain control of the plane from the hijackers who redirected the plane towards Washington.

At first the FBI denied the existence of such a plane until they announced that a civilian business plane flying within twenty miles of Flight 93, had been requested by the authorities to descend to 5000ft to survey the crash site and transmit the map ‘co-ordinates’ for emergency crews. This announcement by the FBI and authorities convinced conspiracy theorists that such an order to a civilian plane would be insensible considering that military planes such as F-16’s were flying in the vicinity and that the military would not require assistance from a commercial plane.

However, none of the white plane witnesses reported Flight 93 being consumed like a fireball or exploding on impact if it had been hit by a missile. One non conspiracy theory could well be that during the heroic struggle between the terrified passengers and the hijackers, one of the terrorists accidentally or deliberately detonated a bomb before the pursuing military aircraft could decide taking down the plane with innocent lives aboard.

Cover Up v Incompetence?

The suggestion that the US government actively allowed the destruction of the Twin Towers in a kind of re-staging of Pearl Harbour, is not only farfetched but seems more redolent of a conspiracy themed action-movie thriller. The charge of incompetence is more likely to explain issues of inadequate intelligence gathering and poor communication before the shocking attacks on that fateful September morning.

New information about the attacks on the 11 September, 2001 and the response to the attacks continues to be released as regurgitated conspiracy theories are painstakingly countered with factual evidence by experts. These rogue views persist perhaps because as Mark Fenster, author and law professor at the University of Florida stated, 'It’s a long-standing tradition (in America) to be distrustful of power'. Incredibly perpetrators of outlandish conspiracy theories surrounding the tragic events of 9/11 seem to ignore the fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, masterminded the 9/11 plot and began talking about the ‘planes operation’ as far back as 1995. Neither he nor Osama bin Laden have been associated by evidence to any covert plot with the US government.

In 2004 Bin Laden, after initially denying involvement in 9/11 eventually claimed in a taped statement responsibility for the terrorist attacks. The Saudi born mastermind of the worst and deadliest terrorist attack on American soil to-date cited US support of Israel, the presence of U.S troops in Saudi Arabia and sanctions against Iraq as motives for the plot.

The 20th anniversary of the world shattering events which caused the deaths of three thousand American and foreign citizens through inhuman acts of terror, stands as a testimony to the bravery and ongoing fortitude of surviving victims and families after so much loss.

Thomas Von Essen who was New York’s fire commissioner when the Twin Towers were hit lost more than three hundred fire fighters that day and has his take on conspiracy theories relating to the unforgettable tragic events. 'It’s a shame. It denigrates the respect that we need to show the families of those who have suffered. It bothered me for the first couple of years and then after that I realised these people have a screw loose'.

Despite recorded admissions by Osama Bin Laden in 2004 and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, who was captured in 2003, conspiracy theories ignore, either through ignorance or wilfulness the evidence supporting the facts behind the deadliest terrorist attack in human history and the single deadliest incident for firefighters and law enforcement officers in America.

For more articles about 9/11, check out our September 11th attacks hub