Was 9/11 an act of war?

I’m sure this has been debated ad nausem, but I feel it’s relevant again in light of recent decisions made in regards to the detainees and how and where they will be tried. I wanted to post this in recent threads floating around that are more topical and kind of begged the question, but decided a new thread would be best. I hope any debate would lead to an understanding of why one court would be chosen (military), versus another (criminal); even if you still disagree.

The question for debate is was 9/11 an act of war, or more broadly, can non-state actors commit acts of war? So…Do you? Why or why not? If you feel it’s an act of war now, is this how you felt previously?

Bush, Congress (previous and present), NATO, United Nations, Supreme Court, and Obama all seem to agree it was an act of war (to various extents, but agree is still an appropriate word). The suggestion is novel that it is, and the implications are far reaching by treating it as such.

The general views are:
NO, it’s always been a crime and they are mere criminals; or
YES, they caused mass destruction against civilian/military lives in ways that some States can’t even do.

No. It was a crime. A war has to involve actual states.

There is no “war on terror” either.

Even a civil war?


Good question. I think that ‘acts of war’ are a gray area, especially since most ‘wars’ fought these days aren’t even declared as such, even between nation states. For instance, the US didn’t declare war on either Afghanistan OR Iraq, yet our actions against both countries certainly SEEM to be warlike.

As for Al Qaeda…they ACT like a military organization, and certainly their intent was to cause an act of war against the US…in their case, a declaration of holy war that would be unmistakable (in case we missed their other attacks against the US and US interests for the decade before).

Well, NATO certainly considered it so, since they invoked the mutual protection treaties (which is why NATO forces are in Afghanistan). I certainly concede that it’s a gray area, however. The thing is, that war itself has become a gray area in the last few decades, so the definition of what is or isn’t ‘war’ is, itself, debatable.

I’d have to say Yes, that when militant groups act like nation states, have military structures like nation states, and directly attack other (real) nation states, that, indeed, ‘war’ or ‘acts of war’ are what they are engaged in. If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.


the entire concept of “act of war” and “declaring war” is a holdover from days yore. you know, like those days when you sent your big block of troops marching towards the other, stopping to get your guns out, them doing the same, rinsing and repeating

it’s irrelevant to how all conflicts, regardless of the nature of the parties, are instigated and prosecuted today.
as for how this affects military tribunals and whatnot, i would just as soon have them all processed through the same court systems that we have for all others accused of violating the laws of this country.

I tried to use the broadest word possible. I didn’t mean “declaration of war.” It did trigger a military response.

I guess you could say, did they commit an act that invokes the laws of war (Law of Armed Conflict/Humanitarian Law, or ie, Geneva Conventions, Hague Conventions, ect)

That’s the million dollar question. Did they only violate domestic law or the laws of war (or both). It hinges on whether they committed an act of war against the United States. They can be tried through domestic or military courts either way. Your point is well taken, of course.

i’m trying to say that i don’t care what laws or types of laws they violated - they should be adjudicated under the same types of legal institutions used against other criminals.

hell, even the Nuremberg trials had a certain marsupial smell to them.

Please provide a cite for this novel viewpoint.

Acts of war must have some sort of official or unofficial type of backing.

Afghanistan started out for a simple request. The USA had no issue with the Taliban, 'though they didn’t care much for them. Remember Bush’s ultimatium was hand over Osama and that is that.

International Law recognizes that a country MUST contain criminals within it’s borders. If a country won’t or is too weak or for any other reason unable to contain criminals another nation has the right to interfere and go after them.

This is where it become conflicted.

For instance, if people in Lebanon shoot rockets over the border into Israel, Lebanon has a duty as a nation to stop this. These people shooting rockets are criminals, at least for now. You cannot shoot rockets at people, that is a criminal act.

But if Lebanon is not actively trying to stop this, or cannot stop it because they don’t have the manpower to do so, then Israel, under international law, has a right to go into Lebanon and put an end to it.

Now the situation has changed. You have criminals shooting rockets into Israel but you have Israel responding by warlike advances on another nation. These people who were criminals before Israel exercises it’s right to stop it, suddenly become soldiers defending the integrity of Lebanon.

This is basically what happened in WWI. The immediate cause was a person of Serbian nationality, but living in Bosnia, which was part of Austria-Hungry, shot the archduke. Austria-Hungry viewed this as Serbian nationalist that should’ve been under the control of Serbia but weren’t.

So Austria-Hungary said, “Control your people or we will.” And it gave Serbia an ulimatium. Serbia agreed to all but one points, and WWI began. Of course this is only the immediate reason there were much larger reasons for WWI to get as large as it did.

So you can’t always say “someone is a criminal OR a soldier” sometimes they are both. People can be criminals then become soldiers and on the flip side, soldiers can commit criminal acts and be tried.

Exactly. So many people seem to have this conception that there is a list somewhere that defines what an “act of war” is. As in, the Iranians taking over the US Embassy was an “act of war” and somehow the country was under some obligation to respond with war.

War is essentially a violent struggle pursued for political objectives. It is typically international in nature, but doesn’t have to be, of course. A war can certainly be within a state, as in a civil war, so one cannot fairly say that it must be between two governments or states. In my view, there need only be two (or more) coherent entities which have undertaken armed conflict in order to achieve some political goal.

There is no reason whatsoever that war must be limited to one specific strategy, such as solely military means. To the topic at hand, there’s no reason why a war between most Western nations and Al Qaeda would have to be carried out only through the organs and capabilities of the armed forces, it can be prosecuted as a hybrid of military and civil means, such as either putting bullets in the head of one’s enemy or capturing them and jailing them for specific crimes. It is as true today as it was when the Marines went after the Barbary pirates.

The only question in my mind is the most advantageous mix of military and law enforcement actions to prevail. But I also completely agree with Diogenes in that it makes no sense to actually believe we are at war with a type of violence, or more accurate, a concept, and that is terrorism. It’s like Crusaders trying to beat apostasy – it is a concept with no means to establish criteria for victory, so it is not a political struggle.

Cite, please.

I think it was an act of war and I disagree that there is much of a grey area. The Taliban was effectively the government of Afghanistan. They supported and allowed another group to execute a plan to kill thousands of Americans. One government launches an attack on another country, that’s an act of war.

That is why we had to invade Iraq. Wait…what?

It is a criminal cartel like the Mafia. Did we declare war against the Mafia? Is there a war on the biker gangs? Bush proclaimed longly and loudly that it was a war because it conferred some special powers he wanted. It will not be solved by armies.
It should be fought mostly underground . With CIA types , using police activities.

But no declaration of war was given between the US and Afghanistan either. So, I’d have to stick with the whole concept of ‘war’ being a gray area. Are we at ‘war’ with Afghanistan? With the Taliban? With AQ? All of the above? None of them?

Personally, I think this comes down to semantics. Obviously we ARE at ‘war’ with AQ, since we are using our military to attack them…which is a ‘war’ like act. From their perspective, they are engaging our military directly as well, which is also a ‘war’ like act.


The United Nations has a specific definition in Article 2, which is, basically an inter-state dispute involving armed conflict (ie, an “armed conflict”). This is likely what Diogenes the Cynic was referring to in his first post.

There are also “armed conflicts” not of an international character. ie, Civil Wars.

There’s nothing for the “War on Terror”, it is not a war between states or an internal conflict. But the UN did state, while not explicit, the attack was an act of aggression towards the United States.

It’s not uncommon for the military to assist the police (FBI) when fighting terrorism pre-9/11. Or now. The switch now though, is military first, with law enforcement assistance.

Very true. Like having a war against blitzkrieg. It’s just a method/tactic.

Do or do not is a policy decision. Congress did declare war against Al Qaeda, a terrorist organization. NATO did invoke the article on mutual protection (the first time it’s ever been invoked). An organization like Al Qaeda just seems different than the mafia or the Hell’s Angles.

Bush proclaimed it was an armed conflict for the reasons you stated. No doubt. He also did it to get the population to appreciate the gravity of the situation. These were not mere criminals and we were going to war with them. They will be tried in “military” commissions because they attacked us. These type of attacks can’t continue, so get ready.

Roosevelt did something similar in WWII. The US population did not care much about going to war with Germany, because they didn’t do anything to us. The Japanese did. So the President made a big deal over a couple of German saboteurs who snuck into America to commit acts of war against us. These Germans were the three stooges, but Roosevelt made a big deal out of the “threat”, tried them by military commission (on purpose) to let the population know that Germany was here, on our soil, attacking us, and we needed to go fight them.

I’m not following what you have referenced. The term “armed conflict” isn’t used in Article 2 of the Charter.

You had mentioned that there is no definition of what constitutes a war. I was pointing out the definition of Inter-State Armed Conflict under Article 2 of the Geneva Conventions. It’s the objective gold standard for being in a war.

After re-reading your post, i actually said “act of war” which you replied too, and now I’m thinking you might mean what triggers Article 2 or what constitutes an act of war. As in, the military shooting a missile into an enemy State HQ’s is definitely an “act of war.”

The UN uses phrases like “act of aggression” to determine when one State has committed an act of war against another. They stated 9/11 was an act of aggression (albeit, the resolution can be debated to an extent; but it is pretty unprecedented).

Using act of aggression/act of war interchangeably, even the UN endorsed our right to self-defense (wage war) against a terrorist organization.

Oh, I thought you were referring to the Charter.

In any case, the definition of war for the purposes of the GC is obviously incomplete. It isn’t the “gold standard” for the definition of war. It’s meant to define the circumstances under which the state parties to the treaty are bound to adhere to it, because the GC specifically states that “the present Convention shall apply to all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties…”

Obviously, war can exist among countries that are not a party to the GC, so the definition there is incomplete. Your OP asked whether non-states can carry out war. If we went by the GC “definition,” then if the Taliban and Freedonia (neither being a signatory to the GC) were having a pitched battle, then it wouldn’t be war, neither being a signatory to the treaty… but that doesn’t make sense. If the Taliban musters an army and marches on Freedonia with the intention of overthrowing President Rufus Firefly, that’s clearly a war.

There is a more fundamental definition of war beyond the limited circumstances that force the GC into effect, and I maintain war is the violent struggle between two entities seeking a political objective. By that definition, then a non-state actor can carry out war.