The terrorist attack on the USA on September 11, 2001 did a lot towards making the mere mention of terrorists in fiction an incredibly risky gambit in the eyes of Hollywood. Many executives even went so far as to remove the Twin Towers from their movies to avoid offending or saddening people in the years afterwards; this was done for fear of it being Too Soon, but also helped Al Qaeda destroy the twin towers retroactively.
For Films and Live-Action TV series, the time after September Eleventh can be classified into three periods:
The First Where a great, great many movies after 9/11 don't talk about it, mention it, or even imply it happened, stories set in the US, especially New York, after the attacks that should logically deal with terrorism never even talk about it passingly.
In The Second, as these fears subsided writers and directors would dare to be brave and artsy by using incrementally larger references and even plots related to terrorism.
Until eventually The Third brought the opposite reaction to the first: movies that go overboard in dealing exclusively with terrorism.
These movies (though Live-Action TV deals with this too) tend to fall flat for several reasons. In the First, because of the total absence of what should be logically there (lame excuses add to this). The second tend to be too self-congratulatory for the relatively minor mention; leading into the third turning Anvilicious in their focus on terrorism.
Another aspect is that the armed forces tend to be given one of three treatments: puppy-kicking monsters, a helpless Red Shirt Army, or a near Mary Sue competence boost. This last usually happens in action movies that want to kick terrorist tail. This (for international viewers anyway) tends to have a bit too much America Wins the War, considering the war is ongoing.
Interestingly, shows that dealt with terrorism before 9/11 tend to fare better than those made after, albeit they reacted in different ways.
As more and more time passes, these works are inevitably becoming Unintentional Period Pieces.
A Sub-Trope of The War on Terror. See Western Terrorists.
The three Transformers movies managed to capture all three periods:
The first film averted all mention of the war on terror, even the army base in Qatar attacked in the beginning, though in the Middle East, has been there for decades. Notably, the US military is capable of helping the Autobots on occasion, and even fighting off Scorponok. However, no one ever mentions the possibility of a terrorist attack, even with the hacking attacks it's assumed to be the work of Iran, North Korea, or China.
In the second film they portrayed American-led special forces hunting Decepticons around the world with carte blanch international support.
By the third film this had changed completely. The Decepticons are portrayed as terrorists that execute a 9/11 event on a citywide scale in Chicago. The filmmakers evoke 9/11 imagery throughout the entire scene by setting buildings on fire, knocking them over and showing human beings jumping from them. What happens if Americans made concessions to terrorists makes up a large portion of the plot.
The Kingdom likewise gives the dispatched US agents the military might of an entire platoon to kill an entire terrorist cell in their fortified barrio. Interestingly, it does otherwise deal with the issue more realistically than other films, dealing with the politics and culture involved and even how both sides can get fanatical, including a rather chilling future Tyke Bomb in the making.
The original draft of the script had a different ending in which all of the U.S. agents were killed by the other Saudi liaison as the Americans boarded the plane at the end. It was agreed that the audience just wouldn't be able to walk away from the movie after seeing that, and rightfully so.
The one-of-a-kind multimedia montage is one of the most concise and accurate film representations of the events that lead up to 9/11, it should be used in history classes.
Strangely yet unsurprisingly, the real life Saudis claimed the movie as racist and stereotyping against them, in spite of some of the more positive imagery that the movie gives their perspective.
Spike Lee's 25th Hour was at the time amazingly risqué for showing five minutes worth of a character's first hand view of ground zero being cleaned up. To be fair, considering the rest of the movie's downer tone, it was used devastatingly well.
Munich, which dealt with the aftermath of the 1972 terrorist attacks during the Olympics, took place long before 9-11 and hence avoided mentioning it specifically... though the last shot of the film is of the Twin Towers in New York City. Judge for yourself.
Reign Over Me, a melodrama with Adam Sandler as a 9/11 widower and Don Cheadle as a friend attempting to help him recuperate, exemplifies the second type, while not actually being about terrorism per se.
Speaking of Adam Sandler, You Don't Mess with the Zohan dealt directly with the terrorism involved in the Israeli-Arab conflict mostly in the third way: the main character was a counter-terror operative. In a rather surprising fact for an Adam Sandler film, both sides are treated as sympathetic people who want to just get on with their lives but have to fight a ridiculous war to please annoying, nationalist parents. This isn't entirely true, but it's damn good for a film that otherwise focused on Sandler finding new ways to talk about sex with a funny accent.
In Spielberg's The War of the Worlds, Dakota Fanning uncomfortably takes us out of the movie with "IS IT THE TERRORISTS?!".
Justified: she was a nine year old New Yorker, and things were exploding again. Of course that's where her mind would jump.
Then there are the movies actually about the 9/11 attacks:
United 93, which ironically somewhat subverts the trope by being a verite-style docudrama
Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, which tells the true story of two firemen trapped in the rubble.
Right at Your Door, which was about a biological attack on Los Angeles. Ignored the actual terrorists completely, focusing solely on the effect this would have on average people.
In Iron Man much of the plot takes place in Afghanistan, but the Ten Rings aren't Islamist terrorists.
On the other hand, the fact that the Ten Rings aren't jihadists isn't made apparent to the viewer until later in the film, when the video of Tony being held captive is given in-universe subtitles, which seems to be deliberate.
The Robert Pattinson film Remember Me. The very last shot of the movie, shows a classroom with the date of September 11, 2001, then Pattinson's character in his office in the World Trade Center. Audiences and critics alike did not take this well.
A passing mention to 9/11 is made in Casino Royale. In the same film, there is also a terrorist plot to blow up a plane, albeit as part of a stock market scam. M's offhand comment "Christ, I miss the Cold War", besides being a Continuity Nod to older Bond movies, is likely an allusion to the post 9/11 state of politics.
A passing mention, but an important one: M says that the CIA discovered a massive shorting of airline stocks that allowed "somebody" to profit from 9/11. While it's never stated outright that Le Chiffre was involved in the attacks, it's at least heavily implied: he tries to pull the same scam in the movie, and as a banker for terrorists it stands to reason that he'd have the connections to know 9/11 was coming.
The Thai superhero film Mercury Man is more than a bit shameless in this aspect. the Big Bad is an Afghan terrorist named Osama bin Ali (though he sounds and looks Thai) and his evil plan is to blow up American military installments in Thailand with stolen weapons.
By contrast, the other "White House gets taken over by terrorists" film ''Olympus Has Fallen is more of a type three as it has a darker and more brutal tone to it and the villains are all North Koreans.
Its predecessor, JAG, went right into full War On Terror mode after 9/11 (naturally, seeing as the show was always just one big propaganda project to drum up support for the military). The main characters routinely traveled into hotspots like Afghanistan, Iraq and others where real-life Judge Advocate General personnel would never set foot.
Although never dealing with 9-11 specifically (although this is arguably justified by it being set in what is in many ways quite clearly an Alternate History; it's quite possible that the attacks simply never happened in that universe), The West Wing often dealt heavily and frequently with Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism in the seasons following 9-11; the episode "Isaac and Ishmael", a non-canon episode written, filmed and aired within three weeks of the attacks, dealt with Islamic terrorism, and a running plot in the third and fourth seasons dealt with the fall out from an attempt by a Qurac-sponsored terror group to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge.
Law Procedural shows had episodes that followed the second example. The 2001-2002 seasons of The Practice, Judging Amy and Family Law all had episodes where an Arab or Persian character is picked up by the FBI or Homeland Security, and the lawyers are stymied by "classified information" in trying to understand what their client did and how to defend them. These showed fears of civil liberties eroding in the "early days" of the War on Terror.
Law & Order dove deep into the second type during the Fred Thompson years, occasionally veering into Type 3. Episodes often touched on 9/11's effect on the country and New York City in particular, and often used the War on Terror to generate Jurisdiction Friction (With the feds interfering with - or outright hijacking - cases in order to further anti-terrorist goals).
Farscape. When John Crichton finally gets back to Earth he asks why his previously open-minded and egalitarian father has such a paranoid and hardline attitude on sharing alien technology with other nations. His father replies simply, "September the 11th." Crichton, having seen a lot worse, isn't impressed with this view.
Rescue Me is interesting in that while 9/11 is incredibly important to the series, it hardly ever touches on the idea of terrorism. Rather, it focuses on 9/11's effects on firefighters and their families (in particular, turning a large number of them into alcoholicShell Shocked Veterans.).
In later seasons, they purposefully split the fanbase by having star character Franco Rivera "come out" as a a Firefighter For 9/11 Truth who points out how various policy-makers spoke of a "new Pearl Harbor" as the first step toward an American-dominated world. These views are shared by his actor, Daniel Sunjata.
The Sopranos also deals with the post 9/11 environment in an interesting way. It started by doing the standard thing: removing the Twin Towers from the intro theme. But then it starts to realistically discuss the effects it would have on Tony's world, as the FBI Agent that had chased him for several seasons is re-assigned to Anti-Terror. Tony then spends the remainder of the series trying to cultivate a relationship with him in order to trade info about potential terrorists (the only snitching his colleagues will tolerate) for leniency in the ongoing investigation.
Some Truth in Television here: A number of east-coast gangsters managed to avoid the long arm of the law during World War II by agreeing to help the government defend its borders in high traffic cities and engaging in smuggling duties and espionage work.
And also using their influence with dockers unions in New York harbor, and other east coast ports, to increase security regarding transatlantic convoys departure schedules and guarding against possible sabotage in the shipyards building the liberty ships and escorts meant to guard them against the wolf packs.
Similarly, the FBI as shown on The Wire has shifted its priorities away from drug crime, leaving the overmatched Baltimore PD to handle it alone. In fact, the only way they can get Federal help in most seasons is to baldly lie to the Feds to tie their investigation to a Terror case.
Interestingly enough, the writers actually predicted that the real FBI would do the exact same thing, since the pilot was written months in advance of the FBI's move towards dealing mostly with terrorism.
Mentioned briefly in the first few episodes of The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Sarah and John jumped from the nineties to present day, thus completely skipping over the 9/11 attack. Sarah goes to get a new identity forged, and she is told it will be harder after the attack. She speculates that if she hadn't time jumped straight through it, that she would've thought it'd be the end.
Standoff brings us the episode Man of Steele, where the eponymous radio shock jock has a man on the line who takes a woman hostage. When Emily tries to reason that the FBI is trying to find the woman who scammed him Steele scoff, "Yeah right, the FBI couldn't find 19 known terrorists with box cutters." This quote is later seen on Lia's computer, who recorded Steele for when the FBI would step in to take him off the air, labelled 'September 12'.
Blue Heelers mentions this trope in passing, from fear Muslims are terrorists in light of 9/11 to Osama bin Laden being used to score political points in a town election to an episode revolving around Afghanis on the run: subverted when it had to do with them being asylum seekers.
Largely averted on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she missed the attacks, but "Help" had counselor!Buffy...help a boy who feared his brother joining the Marines. Afghanistan was a battlefield and Iraq was about to become one, and Buffy reassures him it's not stupid to be scared of what might happen like he thought it was.
Full Metal Panic!, which despite being set in an alternate history where the USSR never fell and terrorism is of the good old fashioned state sponsored kind, got the Type One treatment, with it's US premiere postponed for about a year following 9/11, just because it's fourth episode featured a plane being hijacked, despite the fact that, the plane then landed safely and all it's teenage passengers where rescued by Mithril. So except the actual act of hijacking and airplane there was ZERO parallel with 9/11.
In Eden of the East, Mononobe's plans involve what's basically a copy cat crime version of 9/11. He noticed how those attacks brought people together in America, and so wants to recreate that effect via a False Flag Operation which involves firing missiles at Japan and killing thousands of people. Oddly, the hero doesn't find the False Flag Operation part an intrinsically bad idea- he just wants to create the same effect but without having to kill anyone.
After 9/11, G.I. Joe merchandise and programs took the "terrorist" out of Cobra's description as a "ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world."