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Correction to This Article
A Sept. 11 Style article about Marilynn Rosenthal's search for the family of 9/11 hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi inadvertently referred to two of his relatives by the pseudonyms Fatima and Amna. Rosenthal used false first names for the women because she had promised them anonymity, but she did not mention this to the reporter. Also, in a photograph of Rosenthal's son and a friend in Egypt, the names were reversed in the caption. Phil Wallis was shown on the left and Josh Rosenthal on the right.
Sons of the Mothers
Marilynn Rosenthal Struggles to Understand Her Child's Killer, the Boy Who Grew Up to Be a 9/11 Hijacker

By Tamara Jones
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 11, 2006

Marilynn Rosenthal felt the tug of gravity as the jet nosed into the empty summer sky. This journey from her leafy Michigan campus to the blazing deserts of Abu Dhabi was the culmination of years of research for the distinguished professor, and already her mind was racing. No sociologist had ever attempted to deconstruct an act of terrorism like this before.

The former Fulbright scholar had analyzed every official report, every word of testimony, every scrap of international intelligence and every oddball conspiracy theory she could unearth about the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001. She had interviewed experts, observers and eyewitnesses. There were charts, timelines, flight paths, all filed away back home in Ann Arbor.

Her particular obsession was Marwan al-Shehhi, the 23-year-old Muslim hijacker who had plowed a United Airlines jetliner into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. She had studied him down to the condiments he put on the hamburgers he ate after flying lessons in Florida. Yet details about his childhood and family life still eluded her. Visiting the United Arab Emirates was Marilynn's chance to complete her exhausting work. She had just turned 75. She was supposed to be retired.

Settling in for the overnight flight, she remembers running down the list of questions she hoped to ask the terrorist's mother once she made her way to the family compound in Ras al-Khaimah. She imagined herself gently prodding a stranger sad and veiled.

What stories did you tell Marwan as a boy? How often did he pray? What was your son's favorite holiday, his favorite food, his favorite color, his most-cherished toy?

And then there was the question at the heart of this, the one she knew no mother could ever answer.

Why did your son murder mine?

* * *

She is not a religious woman. She does not believe in fate or coincidence or destiny or an afterlife. Josh is gone. He lives on only in memory: brilliant, playful, forever late, never without a pretty girlfriend. At 44, Joshua Alan Rosenthal harbored a zeal for adventure that terrified his mother when he talked about scuba diving off Cebu or being stalked by a leopard through a Kenyan jungle. An office on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center is the last place she expected him to die.

Marilynn Rosenthal sought solace in the one faith she does embrace. "For me," she says simply, "knowledge is everything. It is power. It's personal power."

Gather every bit of data, analyze it all dispassionately, and then draw a logical conclusion. That formula had carried her through a challenging career as a sociologist exploring the culture of medicine. Now Marilynn wanted to know what had placed Josh on a collision course with Marwan al-Shehhi. What led to this? What might have prevented it? "I wanted every damn piece of information."

"I don't see what happened to Josh as a single, personal event," she says. "I have to see it in all the contexts. I am not a person who expresses emotions easily. I am a professional social scientist, and this was my way to deal with what happened to my son."

Her first stop was Fiduciary Trust International, where Josh had been a senior vice president managing pension portfolios. He had been meeting with a Japanese client over a tray of scones when the first plane hit the neighboring North Tower. He calmly ushered his guest to the elevator, then ran back toward his office. The second plane slammed into the South Tower minutes later. No one remembered seeing Josh after that.

Fiduciary Trust lost 86 people. The Japanese client, the shell-shocked CEO who had been out of town that day, the terrified vice president who had walked down 78 flights of stairs with his eyes squeezed shut -- all felt compelled to apologize to Marilynn for surviving. Their guilt struck her as sad and unnecessary. But victimhood, she sensed, could serve a purpose.

Back home in Ann Arbor, she picked up the phone and called the Federal Aviation Administration and the chief engineer for a major airline, politely introducing herself as a sociology professor whose son had died on Sept. 11. How much does it cost, she remembers asking, to harden a cockpit door? Airlines began doing so immediately after Sept. 11. Now she had her first answer.

"Thirteen hundred dollars," she says. "My son died for thirteen hundred dollars."

For five years now, she has awakened each morning and plugged 9/11 into her computer's search engine. She calls journalists to ask for contacts and phone numbers. She reads English-language versions of Arabic newspapers and interviews scholars on Islam. She had long conversations with a CIA expert on Osama bin Laden. She asked traders to teach her about the international oil market. A friend on Capitol Hill finessed a private briefing for her at the State Department.

As facts piled up, she grew convinced that Sept. 11 could have been prevented if not for "White House incompetence, bureaucratic nonsense and turf battles."

She hired a graduate student to help track threats against the United States by bin Laden, and to compare intelligence briefings the Bush administration had before Sept. 11 to disclaimers senior officials publicly made afterward. She categorized 144 unique threat warnings between 1999 and 2001, tallying 29 that specified crashing hijacked planes into buildings or landmarks. She put together a PowerPoint presentation on what the White House knew before Sept. 11. "Information," she concludes, "was there." She slapped an anti-Bush bumper sticker on her car.

When she needs to clear her head, Marilynn takes long walks, as she used to with Josh in their favorite Ann Arbor park. She sits on the bench that friends donated in his name and has imaginary conversations with him. One afternoon, she noticed graffiti on the bench. At first she was annoyed. But when she focused on the scribbled words -- part declaration, part plea -- they seemed exactly right: "I was here."

Divorced from Josh's father for decades and mindful of her daughter's more internal grieving process, Marilynn knew that her quest for answers would be a solitary one. Friends tell her it will give her closure. Marilynn knows better. Josh is the second child she has outlived. Her oldest son, Daniel, died at 22 following heart surgery. She understood from the beginning that learning why Josh was murdered might enlighten but would never comfort her. "My knowledge has made me angry!" she cries. "My knowledge has made me frustrated."

Marilynn used her share of the Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund to endow an annual lecture on the Middle East in her son's honor at the University of Michigan, where Josh went to college and she is a professor emeritus. She rebuffed initial invitations to join Sept. 11 lawsuits. But when the North Carolina law firm famous for taking on the tobacco industry mounted a class-action suit accusing the Saudi royal family of bankrolling terrorism, she reconsidered. Not because she thought it would bring accountability, but because she knew it would yield more documents.

Marilynn was shocked by the "Instructions for Last Night" that the hijackers had left behind. They were told to shower and shave the hair from their bodies, then apply cologne and pray. To check their weapons, because "you must make your knife sharp and must not discomfort your animal during the slaughter."

"Your animal," Marilynn repeats, her narrow shoulders shuddering. She plans to buy a Leatherman utility knife like the ones the hijackers are believed to have used to slit the American pilots' throats. She wants to know what it looks like, what it feels like in the hand.

Other anguished Sept. 11 families would publicly denounce the hijackers as animals themselves. But that was too simplistic for Marilynn. Marwan al-Shehhi, who piloted United Flight 175 into the South Tower, was obviously a fanatic, she concluded. But he was something else, too:

"Another mother's son."

When Rep. Cynthia McKinney organized a briefing last year to dissect the findings of the government's 9/11 Commission Report, Marilynn was invited to speak along with other family members frustrated by what remained unanswered. The number of victim subcultures seemed to keep multiplying as the years passed. "There's a revenge movement, and a forgiveness movement," Marilynn says. "There's one woman -- a widow or a mother -- whose whole focus is skyscraper safety."

After Marilynn's presentation, a woman approached her wanting to know why she hadn't delved into the failed military response on Sept. 11. Didn't she wonder why fighter jets hadn't intercepted or shot down any of the hijacked planes? The stranger pressed a disc of her own research into Marilynn's hand. Marilynn remembers how alarmed she was, not by the woman's words but by her face. "She had this look that was just utterly stricken," Marilynn says. "And I wondered, do I look like that, too?"

Through the Eyes Darkly

"Look at that face, look at that face! He's only 17. His birthday is the day before mine, May 9. What do you see in that face?" Marilynn peers at the photograph in her freckled hand. Something different -- tenderness? dismay? -- seeps into her professorial voice.

The boy in the picture gazes back with unreadable brown eyes.

"He's a murderer," she goes on. "He murdered my son. I see an innocent, rather pleasant, good-looking kid who looks a little uncertain."

The photo of Marwan al-Shehhi goes back inside the blue folder labeled "Portrait of an Islamic Terrorist." The folder has a copy of a high school report card -- "he had the same grade-point average as Josh, B-plus" -- and a copy of a thank-you note Marwan wrote to his German landlady, wishing her long life and good health.

Marilynn can't remember when, but at some point in her obsessive research, the terrorist became simply "Marwan." She finds herself referring to Marwan's faith, Marwan's training, Marwan's plane.

"Here's another photo; look how fat he's become!" Four years have passed, Marilynn explains, and Marwan has gone to study in Germany on a military scholarship. He has begun attending a radical mosque and moved in with an Egyptian named Mohammed Atta, whom investigators will later identify as the ringleader of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

"Now he's a true believer," Marilynn says. She has the transcripts of cryptic phone conversations German intelligence monitored between the Muslim extremists. "The Germans gave Marwan's name to the CIA in March of 1999, but the CIA didn't do anything because there was no last name," Marilynn learned. She has a German police report from Marwan's family, reporting him missing when he failed to call home on Ramadan. But Marwan resurfaced, and the case was closed. The photo she holds is from his application to replace a supposedly lost passport -- a common ploy of fanatics wanting to hide trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan for training in paramilitary camps. Once the new passport was in hand, Marwan got a visa to visit the United States, where he and Atta enrolled in flight school.

Marilynn routinely winters in Florida, but it wasn't until 2004, when she noticed small planes circling overhead, that it dawned on her: the flying school! The Venice flying school Marwan attended was only 15 minutes down the road!

Huffman Aviation had gone out of business. Marilynn tracked down the former owner, who quickly agreed to meet with a grieving mother of a Sept. 11 victim. "He was the one who told me how tall Marwan was -- at least six feet -- and how friendly Marwan was," she recalls. "He called Atta a sourpuss." Marilynn went to a cafe the terrorists frequented and questioned the manager, jotting down their usual order of burgers with coleslaw, like a waitress obsessed.

Marilynn studied Marwan's bank statements, too, and she began working the phone again to find details to match the numbers. The $206 was for a global positioning device. (Was this what the hijackers used, she wondered, after disabling the jetliners' transponders to hamper tracking by air traffic control?) Maybe the $40.79 spent at the dry cleaner was for the brown leather jacket Marwan usually wore. She remembers her aggravation when Burdine's refused to tell her what the terrorist had purchased.

She found a more agreeable source in the firefighter who had been Marwan and Atta's landlord in Florida. He took Marilynn through the vacant, peach-and-white bungalow. Marilynn remembers stepping into the stamp-size living room and wondering where the men found the floor space to kneel and pray. She heard about the widow next door, since passed away, who would bake Marwan cookies to thank him for small favors -- unsticking a window, screwing in a ceiling light. Marilynn felt conflicted. She was humanizing her son's murderer. Was he essentially claiming her life as well?

Marilynn sits in her study overlooking the redbud tree shading her back yard, where the beauty of her garden, nature made precise and orderly, offers respite from the feverish work that has consumed her. "I've been trying to impose an order on my own mind, my own life, my own understanding," she explains. "I have a pretty good idea what happened now on different levels."

She enrolled in a philosophy course called Knowledge and reread Plato, "and I understood what he meant, how most people are caught in a cave and know only shadows."

Blindly, she kept inching toward the light.

A Family's Side

The plane nosed down toward the bleached desert. Marilynn left the Abu Dhabi airport and stepped into the hot August night. It was 2005, and Marilynn had been preparing for this for nearly four years.

Checking into her hotel, she was relieved to find a message from the U.S. ambassador. They had been corresponding about Marilynn's wish to meet Marwan's family, and although no promises had been made, she was hopeful.

She imagined Marwan's mother cloaked in an abaya, greeting her with apprehension. "What would be the right words to say to her?" Marilynn remembers worrying. "I never could find them."

"I thought about it endlessly," she says. "We would go up to the door. I would wear my long dress. I'd be warm and kind and as soft-spoken as I could. One option was to just put an arm around her."

The ambassador took her to meet a brigadier general from Emirati military intelligence. He promised to provide a guide to help Marilynn approach the family. The next morning, a slight, smiling man in his thirties met Marilynn in the hotel lobby. He introduced himself as Maj. Eisa al-Shehhi, a distant cousin of Marwan's.

The soldier was warm and charming, Marilynn recalls, but he wasted no time declaring that Sept. 11 was a CIA-Mossad plot to justify American warfare against Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Everyone knew, she remembers him asserting, that some 4,000 Jews who worked in the World Trade Center had stayed home that morning because they had received warning calls from Israeli intelligence the night before. Marilynn struggled to refute this preposterous conspiracy theory politely. How can that be? she asked. My son was Je wish, and he was killed.

Over the course of her eight-day visit, Marilynn says, every Arab she met espoused the same conviction. Eisa had never met Marwan -- their connection was tribal -- but he steadfastly proclaimed his innocence. Marwan's passport had been stolen. He had been killed or kidnapped.

Marwan's father died several years before Sept. 11, and his oldest son, Mohammed, became patriarch of the clan. Eisa would privately relay Marilynn's request for a meeting. Meanwhile, he offered his own wife, Amna, and her mother, Fatima. Fatima's sister was married to Mohammed, and had helped raise Marwan.

Marilynn remembers removing her shoes at Fatima's door, and how cool the floor tiles were beneath her feet. A lace-covered table in the living room was laden with sweets and bowls overflowing with dates. A servant appeared with sweet tea. Amna waited for Marilynn to mention Marwan first.

Yes, she told Marilynn, she had known him well. Their families had gathered for dinner at least once a week and the children had played together. "He was three or four years younger than I," Marilynn remembers Amna saying. "Such a perfect person. Smart and nice and funny; he made jokes with me." Amna went on about how quiet, kind and considerate Marwan had been.

"He was the only boy who was always avoiding fights," she told Marilynn.

Marilynn remembers listening quietly as Amna relayed the family's belief that Marwan, too, had been a victim of Sept. 11. "Either he was brainwashed or he was killed and his passport taken," Amna asserted. "His brother feels he is still alive, that he is in hiding and will come back someday."

Marilynn learned that Marwan's mother had been one of four wives taken by his father, Yusef, a date farmer and muezzin, the one who called the neighborhood to prayer each day. A call from Eisa interrupted the visit. The negotiations with Mohammed were not going well. Eisa suggested the women drive Marilynn past the compound, so she could at least see the outside. Marilynn was disappointed but snapped pictures from the car window as they circled the cluster of modest buildings and a tiny mosque. This is where Joshie's murderer was a little boy, she told herself.

But where Marwan's mother was remained unclear. The brigadier general had told Marilynn that Marwan's mother had divorced his father when Marwan was small, returning to her native Egypt, never to be heard from again, leaving her child behind. Another version of the story was that she hadn't abandoned Marwan but had gone back to Egypt after Yusef died in 1997.

Over the next few days, Eisa delivered a series of messages from Mohammed:

Marwan didn't do this. For four years, journalists have hounded us; we want to be left alone.

Marwan's mother is crying all the time; she has become blind.

And finally, this:

This family is still bleeding. We are a peaceful family. We wouldn't hurt a cat. We have nothing to hide. Perhaps in a few years, we will be able to talk to you.

Before they parted, Eisa let go of his usual cocky good humor to ask Marilynn a question of his own. Why did Marwan do this?

Not whether.

Marilynn replied that it was more important to know what he thought.

"He had a hole in his soul," the young Muslim soldier replied.

It was only when she was on the plane home that Marilynn realized what saddened her most about her strange and fruitless journey to this faraway place where truth could not be found.

"No one had asked me about Josh."

Changing Seasons

His ghost voice has faded over the past five years. Sitting on Josh's park bench, Marilynn tries to tell him what she has learned about his death.

They carried out this mad, murderous and ingenious attack on American might to show the world they could do it and hurt us and to drive us out of the Muslim world, she imagines telling him. You died in the name of their greater cause.

But her own nation is not blameless, she feels. The criticisms some Muslims have of American society are well-founded, she argues, "the conspicuous consumption, trash TV, too much drinking and drugs."

Boiled down to its barest essence, she is convinced that "oil is what the whole thing is about. Oil is why Josh dies." She installed solar panels in her modest house, and the next car she buys, she vows, will be a hybrid.

She doubts she will get what she really wants out of all this. "I want there to be accountability. I want justice, the truth. I want an apology from the leaders of this country for being so incompetent, for not doing their duty in protecting us, for taking us into war with Iraq on lies." Her voice shakes with anger, outrage. "I'm just tired of all the lies." She is compiling her research into a book now.

She doesn't think Marwan had a hole in his soul, and she does not forgive him.

"No, no. Why should I forgive Marwan? Marwan was a mass murderer. I wanted to understand Marwan as a human being."

She no longer opens her mail with gloves for fear of anthrax, or contemplates building a fallout shelter. She laughs at herself for stockpiling canned soup. Safety is an illusion.

No remains of her son were ever recovered. A week after his murder, Marilynn planted a sapling outside her study window in his honor. A redbud, because she loves the way it bursts into flower each spring, and she finds a certain comfort in a magnificence so fleeting, so fragile. How the tree has grown now, reaching into the empty summer sky.

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