In Hijacker's Bags, a Call to Planning, Prayer and Death

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 18, 2007; 3:56 PM

Mohamed Atta, one of the key organizers among the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, left behind a five-page handwritten document in Arabic that includes Islamic prayers, instructions for a last night of life and practical reminders to bring "knives, your will, IDs, your passport" and, finally, "to make sure that nobody is following you."

FBI investigators, who found the writings in Atta's luggage, which did not make it onto his flight, are not sure of the author's identity -- whether it was Atta, another hijacker or someone else.

The document is a cross between a chilling spiritual exhortation aimed at the hijackers and an operational mission checklist. With the hijackers all dead, the pages may turn out to provide the most vivid and penetrating glimpse into their mental states and final hours before they embarked on the deadliest act of terrorism in U.S. history.

The haunting writings urge the hijackers to crave death and "be optimistic." At the same time, the document starkly addresses fear on the eve of their suicide mission.

"Everybody hates death, fears death," according to a translation of highlights of the document obtained by The Washington Post. "But only those, the believers who know the life after death and the reward after death, would be the ones who will be seeking death."

This appears in a section of the document beneath the words, "The last night."

That section begins, "Remind yourself that in this night you will face many challenges. But you have to face them and understand it 100 percent. . . . Obey God, his messenger, and don't fight among yourself where you become weak, and stand fast, God will stand with those who stood fast."

The translated version of the document instructs the hijackers to steel their will with prayer before embarking on their mission.

"You should pray, you should fast. You should ask God for guidance, you should ask God for help. . . . Continue to pray throughout this night. Continue to recite the Koran."

It continues: "Purify your heart and clean it from all earthly matters. The time of fun and waste has gone. The time of judgment has arrived. Hence we need to utilize those few hours to ask God for forgiveness. You have to be convinced that those few hours that are left you in your life are very few. From there you will begin to live the happy life, the infinite paradise. Be optimistic. The prophet was always optimistic."

The document offers eerie practical advice for the hijackers:

"Check all of your items -- your bag, your clothes, knives, your will, your IDs, your passport, all your papers. Check your safety before you leave. . . . Make sure that nobody is following you."

Interwoven throughout is spiritual guidance on purifying one's mental and physical state. The document says, "Make sure that you are clean, your clothes are clean, including your shoes."

A recurring theme is the promise of eternal life.

"Keep a very open mind, keep a very open heart of what you are to face," the document says. "You will be entering paradise. You will be entering the happiest life, everlasting life."

Atta, 33, and Abdulaziz Alomari spent the night of Sept. 10 in Room 232 of the South Portland Comfort Innin Portland, Maine. Early Sept. 11, they boarded a flight from Portland to Boston's Logan Airport, where they connected to American Airlines Flight 11, the plane that was commandeered and flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Atta's luggage did not make it onto Flight 11. The FBI found another copy of essentially the same document in the wreckage of United Flight 93, a government source said. Flight 93 was also hijacked and crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. The multiple copies suggest the document was shared among at least some of the hijackers.

After the attacks, several published reports stated that Atta had left a "suicide note," which is what the FBI initially called it in a document sent to police investigators in Europe. Other reports called it a will written by Atta, an Egyptian who joined radical Islamic circles while studying urban planning in Germany.

Yesterday, the Dallas Morning News quoted federal officials as saying that a copy of anArabic-language prayer guide had been found in the wreckage of Flight 93.

The first four pages of the document obtained by The Post are handwritten on large paper and recite some basic Islamic history about the prophet fighting infidels with 100 men against 1,000. They also include prayers such as, "I pray to you God to forgive me from all my sins, to allow me to glorify you in every possible way."

The fifth and last page is on standard stenographer paper that apparently had been ripped from a pad and is headed, "When you enter the plane":

It includes a series of prayers or exhortations. "Oh, God, open all doors for me. Oh God who answers prayersand answers those who ask you, I amasking you for your help. I amasking you for forgiveness. I amasking you to lighten my way. I amasking you to lift the burden I feel.

"Oh God, you who open all doors, please open all doors for me, open all venues for me, open all avenues for me."

The author doodled on the paper, drawing a small, arrowhead-like sword. Two circles entwine the shaft, which also has serpentine swirls drawn onto it. The doodle also resembles a key.

The word "ROOM" is written vertically in large double-block letters at the end.

The document continues: "God, I trust in you. God, I lay myself in your hands."

It closes, "There is no God but God, I being a sinner. We are of God, and to God we return."

The document, several scholars of Islam said, draws on traditional Islamic prayersand alludes to Koranic verses. It begins with the universal Islamic benediction recalling God's mercy and compassion. And the last two paragraphs repeat the basic Muslim belief that "there is no God but God."

However, some noted that words like "100 percent" and "optimistic" are modern vocabulary not found in ancient prayers.

"Except for the section that talks about going into a plane and the knives, virtually everything else you could find in some medieval devotional manuals," said John Voll of Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

It seems to have been written, Voll added, "by a person who lives in a devotional environment that involves a significant amount of memorized material. . . . It is embedded in a broad Islamic devotional discourse."

Other scholars noted the document's use of Islamic language to clothe a practical call to action.

"The jargon is authentic Islamic jargon," said Imad ad Dean Ahmad, president of the Bethesda-based Minaret of Freedom Institute. "It's obviously phrased to make it sound like it's part of a message to people going on a mission from which they will not return."

Richard C. Martin, professor of Islamic studies at Emory University, said the document appears to refer to "the purification that martyrdom represents" before it gets to "the quotidian matters of entering the airplane and gives final instructions."

Martin added, "This is a kind of spiritual preparation as I read it, or so it sounds."

However, two scholars said they found "incongruous" the opening line that refers to praying "in the name of God, of myself and my family . . ." because Muslims do not pray in their name or their families' names.

Jonathan Brockopp, assistant professor of Islamic studies at Bard College, noted another incongruity in the statement about seeking death.

In mainstream Muslim tradition, he said, "there is an important distinction between suicide and martyrdom in that martyrs don't seek death.A martyr seeks to glorify God and be God's instrument . . . and is not necessarily seeking death."

The idea "of not seeking death," Brockopp added, "is tremendously important in Muslim tradition."

He noted, however, that Islamic extremists have recently arrived at their own interpretations of these early Muslim teachings, and the document's author appears to follow the extremist view.

Finally, Brockopp said he found certain phrases like "lighten my way . . . lift the burden" typical of self-exhortations made by "a person who joins a charismatic community or cult" and then tries "to do something beyond impossibility."

Staff writer Caryle Murphy and staff researcher Jeff Himmelman contributed to this report.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity