By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 1, 2005
The Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It
By Terry McDermott. HarperCollins. 330 pp. $25.95
Earlier this year the British writer Gerald Seymour constructed an exceptionally good novel, The Unknown Soldier , around the premise that the men who are drawn into the embrace of al Qaeda are not at all who we think they are. We believe, as one of his characters puts it, that they are "brainwashed," when in fact "Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants . . . have refined a skill in identifying young men of varying social backgrounds and economic advantage who are prepared to make supreme sacrifices for a cause." They are not necessarily loners but are attracted to "the excitement of being a part of that select fugitive family," they have strong "personal self-esteem," they seek "adventure and purpose."
Now, in Perfect Soldiers , Terry McDermott provides the hard facts behind the fictional picture that Seymour so persuasively draws. A reporter for the Los Angeles Times who has been on the story of the September 2001 terrorist attacks since the day they occurred, McDermott has talked to everyone -- everyone who will talk, that is -- and read everything, the result of which is what may well be, for now at least, the definitive book on the 19 men who brought such devastation and terror to this country nearly four years ago. Clearly written in good, plain English, Perfect Soldiers is a group portrait of ordinary men who were driven to do a surpassingly evil thing.
McDermott takes his title from Dashiell Hammett: "He was the perfect soldier: he went where you sent him, stayed where you put him, and had no idea of his own to keep him from doing exactly what you told him." The last part of that equation is not wholly true of these young men -- Mohamed Atta, for example, was a planner of the Sept. 11 attacks as well as an instrument of al Qaeda's will -- but the overall description is accurate. Having discovered a cause for which they were ready -- indeed, often eager -- to sacrifice their own lives, these young jihadists followed orders as precisely and dutifully as the most assiduously trained U.S. Marine.
They were not born to be soldiers -- none seems to have come from a military background -- and there was little in their early lives to suggest that they would become what they did. The pilot of the first plane to hit the World Trade Center, Atta, came from "an ambitious, not overtly religious middle-class household in Egypt" and had led "a sheltered life" until he arrived in Hamburg, Germany, in 1992 to do graduate study in architecture. The pilot of the second plane, Marwan al-Shehhi, was an amiable, "laid-back" fellow from the United Arab Emirates who had joined the UAE army, "not the world's most effective fighting force but one of its most generous, paying [its scholarship] students monthly stipends of about $2,000," which may have been his primary reason for enlisting; this enabled him to go to Hamburg, though there is little evidence that he "had any serious scholarly ambitions."
Hani Hanjour, the Saudi pilot who flew American Airlines flight 77 into the Pentagon, "had lived in the United States off and on throughout the 1990s, mostly in Arizona, intermittently taking flying lessons at several different flying schools." He was, in the view of one of his flight instructors, "intelligent, friendly, and 'very courteous, very formal,' a nice enough fellow but a terrible pilot." He finally got a commercial license from the FAA but was unable to find work here or in the Middle East. As for Ziad Jarrah, the pilot of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, he was "the handsome middle child and only son of an industrious, middle-class family in Beirut," a "secular Muslim" family that "was easygoing -- the men drank whiskey and the women wore short skirts about town and bikinis at the beach." At university in Germany he met Aysel Sengün, "the daughter of conservative, working-class Turkish immigrants"; eventually they got married, but he disappeared for long periods, usually without explanation, leaving her frantic.
His disappearances, like changes in the other men's lives, were traceable to his discovery of radical Islam and jihad -- not jihad as "the individual's daily struggle for his own soul," but jihad as a Muslim's " obligation to fight on behalf of his beliefs, against nonbelievers and corrupters of belief." Eventually he too found his way to Hamburg, where he joined many other young Muslims in prayer and discussion, sometimes at a mosque called al Quds (the Arabic name for Jerusalem), sometimes in one of the various group houses where the men lived austerely and piously: "The Hamburg men who joined their plights to that of fundamentalist Islam chose not simply a new mosque or religious doctrine but an entry to a new way of life, the acquisition of a new world view, in fact, of a new world." To Atta and a friend who called himself Omar (ultimately he became the backstage coordinator of the 2001 attacks under his real name, Ramzi Binalshibh), "no matter where they fought, their real enemies were the Jews, and ultimately the Americans. 'One has to do something about America,' Omar said."
For all of them, radical Islam and jihad soon became obsessions, eclipsing everything else. Studies were abandoned, families ignored, the outer world denied as they plunged themselves into their fanatical version of faith. As a German investigator put it: "They are not talking about daily life stuff, such as buying cars -- they buy cars, but they don't talk about it, they talk about religion most of the time . . . these people are just living for their religion, meaning for them that they just live now for their life after death, the paradise. They want to live obeying their God, so they can enter paradise. Everything else doesn't matter." Talking one week of Kosovo, the next of Chechnya or Afghanistan, the "men were agreed: they wanted to fight -- they just didn't know which war."
It was, of course, Osama bin Laden who gave them their war. A preview of it had been staged in early 1993, when an ad hoc jihadist group under the leadership of the "master terrorist," Abdul Basit Abdul Karim, a.k.a. Ramzi Yousef, planted a bomb in the basement of the World Trade Center's North Tower, "killing six people, injuring 1,000, and causing $300 million in damage." The United States was shocked, but clueless:
"To a considerable extent, America did not recognize the advent of a new age but whether anyone knew it or not, an era of religious terror had arrived. Intermingling religious and political goals had been the norm for most of human history. Islam itself came into the world with secular as well as sacred aims. What had changed in this latest incarnation had more to do with the world it was in than Islam itself. By the latter half of the twentieth century, the movement toward secular government had triumphed almost everywhere except in the Islamic world. The advocates of political Islam became aberrant simply by outlasting the political ambitions and empires of other religions. They might have been mere curious anachronisms had not the modern world provided them the means to wed their old beliefs to new, readily accessible technologies. The outcome of that union is terror on a scale not previously known."
Al Qaeda, McDermott argues, was almost ideally suited to waging this new war. Insisting that "all states in the Muslim world . . . be returned to Muslim doctrine" as they saw it and preaching "violent revolt against insufficiently Islamist regimes in the Middle East," al Qaeda came up with a doctrine perfectly suited to young, pious, single-minded men, and it had the organizational apparatus to mobilize them. It "was never the huge organization its opponents sometimes portrayed," having a core of "at most a couple hundred men," and its operations often were "crude," but its small size was one of its great strengths: "If Al Qaeda were a nation with all of the infrastructure that implies, it would have been more vulnerable to penetration by American intelligence. . . . The September 11 attacks were by far the biggest thing it had ever attempted, but even at that, the number of people involved in the plot could be counted by the handful. The scale helped keep it hidden."
Among that handful were the 15 hijackers who joined the pilots aboard the four airplanes. All but one were from Saudi Arabia, most "were from families headed by tradesmen and civil servants, well-off, but not wealthy," mostly "unexceptionable men," none of whom "stood out for their religious or political activism." As McDermott writes, "that young men from good backgrounds would leave homes and families without fanfare or discouragement was evidence of the broad support within Saudi Arabia for jihad." Contrary to rumor, McDermott says they knew they would die and welcomed martyrdom: "The men were trained in hand-to-hand combat in the Al Qaeda camps [in Afghanistan], taught the physical skills they would need for the sole task given them -- to physically overpower flight crews. The pilots were the leaders. The new men would be the muscle."
All 19 of these "perfect soldiers" now are dead. Whether they are in the paradise to which they believed their attack would deliver them we cannot possibly know, but McDermott's well-told, meticulously researched cautionary tale makes one thing clear: There are more of them. Whether we are more prepared for their next strike than we were for their last is something else we cannot know, but this much is certain: It will happen. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.