America is approaching a somber milestone: the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
That morning, four commercial airplanes were hijacked: two crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, one hit the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the passengers on the fourth plane forced it to crash in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people died as result of these initial attacks.
Maxar’s Satellite imagery of the 9/11 attack locations
As the devastation unfolded, Maxar’s Collection Planning Team shifted the tasking of IKONOS, the only high-resolution commercial satellite on orbit in 2001, to image the affected sites as quickly as possible. These were the first unclassified satellite images released to the public of the 9/11 attack locations.
Counter terrorism and the acceleration of commercial GEOINT
The 9/11 victims came from more than 80 nations. U.S. President George W. Bush stated, “It was an attack on the heart and soul of the civilized world.” Together, a coalition of nations initiated the War on Terror, with the goal of stopping the groups that orchestrated these and other attacks.
The War on Terror was the first major military campaign in history to leverage unclassified commercial satellite imagery for mission planning, monitoring and intelligence gathering. This foundational geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) enabled seamless intelligence sharing across U.S. combatant commands and with coalition partners.
The U.S. government began procuring commercial satellite imagery for foundational GEOINT in 2002 and continues to do so. These public-private partnerships have accelerated three significant GEOINT industry innovations:
More sophisticated spacecraft: Industry continues to launch increasingly capable Earth imaging satellites with higher resolutions, better accuracy, greater collection capacity, faster agility and more spectral bands.
Faster operational timelines: Methods for delivering space-based data to Earth have also evolved. Today, global ground station networks, mobile access terminals and the cloud all make it possible to rapidly collect, downlink, upload and disseminate commercial satellite data even in the most remote environments. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s Global Enhanced GEOINT Delivery platform puts the most recent imagery in the hands of U.S. government users within two hours of collection.
Augmented analysis: In the early 2000s, analysts would spend hundreds of hours manually searching through imagery. Now, with the industry-driven rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning, trained algorithms can perform the tedious task of locating the needles in the proverbial haystack, allowing analysts to dedicate more time to interpreting results and to deliver insight to decision-makers.
Geospecific training and the bin Laden raid
Commercial GEOINT also played a role in one of the most pivotal moments in the War on Terror—when the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden, was killed on May 2, 2011, by the U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6.
U.S. intelligence agencies tracked bin Laden to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and used Maxar imagery to study the structure of the compound in detail, allowing the military to simulate and train for the raid, enabling a precise operation once boots hit the ground. The Pakistani government demolished the compound in 2012. The site is now bare except for an old foundation.
20 years later
Significant rebuilding efforts have taken place at the 9/11 attack locations throughout the last two decades.
All imagery is ©Maxar Technologies.
Let us never forget!