9/11, 20 Years Later: 17 Essential Documentaries to Watch

Men hold Taliban flags in a still image from the July 2021 special report "Leaving Afghanistan," one of 17 essential documentaries from FRONTLINE's two decades of covering 9/11 and its aftermath.

Men hold Taliban flags in a still image from the July 2021 special report "Leaving Afghanistan," one of 17 essential documentaries from FRONTLINE's two decades of covering 9/11 and its aftermath.

August 31, 2021

On Sept. 11, 2001, Al Qaeda operatives carried out the deadliest terror attacks on America in the country’s history, killing nearly 3,000 people and injuring thousands more.

Today the complex legacy of the attacks and the U.S.’s ensuing “war on terror” is still unfolding, from the bloody conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond to division and distrust at home.

As the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaches, these 17 documentaries — selected from two decades of extensive FRONTLINE reporting — probe that fateful day, investigate the cascade of decisions that followed and trace the lasting impact on America and the world.

Together, these films chronicle the intelligence failures that preceded and followed Sept. 11; the toll of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on civilians there, as well as on U.S. troops; the CIA’s use of torture; the deployment of a secret surveillance apparatus within the U.S.; the rise of ISIS; and an erosion of the American public’s trust in the U.S. government and democratic institutions that continues to this day.

These films are now streaming below, as part of our digital collection and on the PBS Video app — several for the first time in years. Many are available to watch on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel, with more films added biweekly through Sept. 11, 2021.

The Man Who Knew (2002)

Among those who died when the twin towers fell on 9/11 was a former FBI counterterrorism agent who was convinced the U.S. should kill Osama bin Laden before Al Qaeda attacked America. John O’Neill had led a six-year fight to track down and prosecute Al Qaeda operatives around the world, but he was a controversial figure inside the agency. Filmmakers Michael Kirk and Jim Gilmore chronicled O’Neill’s struggle to convince the FBI to pay attention to the threat posed by Al Qaeda before he died in an attack carried out by that very organization.

In Search of Al Qaeda (2002)

In December 2001, as American forces blasted mountain hideouts in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan, hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters fled, seemingly disappearing into thin air. Martin Smith, Marcela Gaviria and Scott Anger traveled to the Gulf of Oman, into the border regions and cities of Pakistan, and on to Saudi Arabia and Yemen to investigate what happened to Al Qaeda. Where did its members find sanctuary? Had the network been scattered and rendered ineffective — or were they regrouping and planning more attacks?

Truth, War & Consequences (2003)

Martin Smith and Marcela Gaviria traced the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq back to the days immediately following 9/11, when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered a special intelligence operation to quietly begin looking for evidence that would justify a war to remove Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein from power. The film asked tough questions about the George W. Bush administration’s claims that Hussein posed an imminent threat to the Western world and traced how inadequate planning for the post-Hussein era created conditions for continuing violence.

Beyond Baghdad (2004)

In the summer of 2003, as violence against the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq spiked, the top U.S. administrator there, L. Paul Bremer, told Martin Smith the press needed to go outside the capital city to see the progress being made in the country. Accepting Bremer’s challenge, Smith, Marcela Gaviria and Scott Anger crossed Iraq, taking a hard look at the social and political realities. The film revealed a seriously fractured country, where modest successes in nation-building had been offset by widespread interethnic and sectarian violence.

The Soldier’s Heart (2005)

A 2004 U.S. Army-commissioned study found that one in six veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was suffering from PTSD. Yet fear had kept many from seeking help. Filmmaker Raney Aronson-Rath, now FRONTLINE’s executive producer, explored how, for some, the return home could be as painful as war itself and asked whether the U.S. government was doing enough to help.

Obama’s War (2009)

Martin Smith and Marcela Gaviria traveled across Afghanistan and Pakistan to see firsthand how President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism strategy was unfolding. In addition to interviewing top U.S. commanders on the ground, the film team embedded with a Marine company in Helmand, then the most lethal battlefield in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. FRONTLINE found the Marines trying to act as armed diplomats, attempting to build trust for badly needed economic development.

Kill/Capture (2011)

Following the May 2011 death of Osama bin Laden, Dan Edge and Stephen Grey investigated the United States’ campaign of targeted killing. The filmmakers made contact with Taliban leaders and the U.S. Special Forces targeting them in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, examining reports of civilian casualties. The documentary raised questions about long-term consequences and whether, after almost 10 years of war, the U.S. could leave Afghanistan.

United States of Secrets (2014)

When the National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden downloaded and leaked tens of thousands of documents about a secret, extensive U.S. government surveillance program, it sparked a fierce debate over privacy, technology and democracy in the post-9/11 world. In this two-part series, FRONTLINE traced the lengths taken to hide the program from the public.

Part 1, “The Program,” from Michael Kirk, Jim Gilmore and Mike Wiser, explored a massive domestic-surveillance dragnet designed to disrupt terrorist attacks before they occurred that relied on the warrantless collection of millions of phone records, including those of American citizens.

Part 2, “Privacy Lost,” from Martin Smith, investigated the ways Silicon Valley played a role in the NSA’s dragnet and how tech giants reacted when the government asked them to turn over data on millions of ordinary Americans.

Losing Iraq (2014)

As ISIS burst onto the world stage and seized vast swaths of territory in Iraq more than two years after President Obama pulled U.S. troops out, Michael Kirk, Jim Gilmore and Mike Wiser traced how the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, its aftermath and decisions by the Bush and Obama administrations contributed to Iraq reaching that point.

The Rise of ISIS (2014)

Reporting from Iraq as U.S. airstrikes against ISIS began, Martin Smith examined the buildup of unheeded warnings, failures and missed opportunities that allowed Al Qaeda in Iraq to become ISIS. From Smith and Linda Hirsch, the film offered a revelatory look at how ISIS grew, gained strength in Syria, and how it developed and funded its brutal strategy.

Secrets, Politics and Torture (2015)

The story of the fight over the CIA’s controversial “enhanced interrogation” methods, now widely described as torture, used on detainees at U.S.-operated black sites. Based on declassified documents and interviews with key political leaders and CIA insiders, this film from Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser and Jim Gilmore unspooled dueling versions of history: one laid out by the CIA, which maintained its program was successful in combating terrorism, and one by the Senate, whose investigation found the program to be brutal, mismanaged and ineffective.

The Secret History of ISIS (2016)

How was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, once a small-time criminal, able to build the foundation for the brutal terrorist organization that would become ISIS? Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser and Jim Gilmore examined how Zarqawi developed what would become the ISIS playbook under the U.S. government’s nose. The film also explored how a successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, followed Zarqawi’s method to make ISIS even more powerful.

Taliban Country (2020)

Najibullah Quraishi, a journalist born and raised in Afghanistan, provided an on-the-ground look at the Taliban’s resurgence in the country and the threat posed by ISIS in this film with Jamie Doran — the team also behind 2015’s ISIS in Afghanistan. Quraishi interviewed Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s chief negotiator in peace talks with the Trump administration, pressing Baradar on how the Taliban would exercise its power if the U.S. left and whether the group had moderated its hardline policies toward women and girls.

Once Upon a Time in Iraq (2020)

The story of the Iraq War and its aftermath, told by those who lived through it — from a woman who was 6 years old when coalition troops entered Baghdad to a cadet in the Iraqi army who survived an ISIS massacre that killed 1,700 of his peers. In this two-hour documentary from James Bluemel, Iraqis shared their personal accounts of life under Saddam Hussein, the U.S.-led invasion of their country and the subsequent years of chaos.

Leaving Afghanistan (2021)

With President Joe Biden ordering the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of war, Najibullah Quraishi returned to report with Jamie Doran on the Taliban’s advance, Iran’s ambitions and rising fears of sectarian civil war in an increasingly unstable country.

In the Shadow of 9/11 (2021)

This two-hour film from Dan Reed explored the case of the Liberty City Seven, a group of Black men from Miami accused of planning an Al Qaeda plot to blow up U.S. buildings. Their indictment marked the federal government’s first major post-9/11 counterterrorism sting within the U.S., although the men had no weapons and never communicated with anyone from Al Qaeda. The film raised questions about the FBI’s use of informants and offered a window into the desperate search to confront the terror threat at home.

America After 9/11 (2021)

From Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser, Philip Bennett, Jim Gilmore and Gabrielle Schonder, this two-hour documentary traces the U.S. response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the devastating consequences across four presidencies. Drawing on new interviews and dozens of documentaries Kirk and his team have made in the years since 9/11, the film re-examines the decisions that ushered in an era of fear, division and mistrust, exposing the roots of the Jan. 6 insurrection and the ongoing challenge 9/11 poses for the U.S. president and the country.

In addition to streaming above, as part of our digital collection and on the PBS Video app — several for the first time in years — many of these documentaries are available to watch now on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel, with more films added biweekly through Sept. 11, 2021. 

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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