Why Did the Terrorists Choose September 11?

On the 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, even after the release of the "28 pages" which revealed the involvement of Saudi Arabia, many questions remain unanswered. Why did the terrorists choose September 11 as the date for their attacks? One historical answer seems to have the most potential, but it is not without its critics.

"It was on September 11 1683 that the conquering armies of Islam were met, held, and thrown back at the gates of Vienna," wrote Christopher Hitchens in Britain's The Guardian less than a month after the attacks. He argued that "believers in propaganda by deed, like Gavrilo Princip [the man who carried out the assassination that started World War I] and Timothy McVeigh, usually choose to invest themselves with portentousness by selecting an anniversary that will freight their murder with meaning. Often, it is a date that only meant something to a very limited or arcane circle until its true value was unveiled to a stunned world."

Of the 1683 Siege of Vienna, Hitchens wrote:

Now this, of course, is not a date that has only obscure or sectarian significance. It can rightly, if tritely, be called a hinge-event in human history. The Ottoman empire never recovered from the defeat; from then on it was more likely that Christian or western powers would dominate the Muslim world than the other way around. In our culture, the episode is often forgotten or downplayed, except by Catholic propagandists like Hilaire Belloc and GK Chesterton. But in the Islamic world, and especially among the extremists, it is remembered as a humiliation in itself and a prelude to later ones. (The forces of the Islamic Jihad in Gaza once published a statement saying that they could not be satisfied until all of Spanish Andalusia had been restored to the faithful as well).

Hitchens makes a strong case, and the battle indeed has some significance. The Ottoman Turks had attacked Vienna once before, in 1529, but that siege was short compared to the 1683 event, and while the Ottomans were repulsed then, they came back later. In 1683, the city was about to fall, the Turks had broken through the outer walls, and the siege had gone on for two months before the Polish King Jan Sobieski arrived to free the city.

On September 11-12, Sobieski led a contingent of knights to free the city, and some historians have said his attack was the largest cavalry charge in history. Others say that J.R.R. Tolkien, in The Lord of the Rings, took the inspiration for his "Ride of the Rohirrim" in the battle of Helm's Deep from this event. To the minds of Westerners having read that book or seen the powerful film versions of the story, this is an attractive theory.

In his 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright lent weight to Hitchens' argument. According to him, Al Qaeda "perceived the contradiction embodied by Islam's long, steady retreat from the gates of Vienna, where on September 11—that now resonant date—in 1683, the king of Poland began the battle that turned back the farthest advance of Muslim armies. For the next three hundred years, Islam would be overshadowed by the growth of Western Christian societies."

Chillingly, Wright added, "Yet bin Laden and his Arab Afghans believed that, in Afghanistan, they had turned the tide and that Islam was again on the march."

Next Page: "If not because of the Siege of Vienna, why 9/11?"