The Men Who Pursued Paradise in Destruction


May 15, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on May 15, 2005.

Perfect Soldiers The Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It Terry McDermott HarperCollins: 330 pp., $25.95

We are inclined to see terrorists as fiends, wild-eyed expressions of evil, diabolical but two-dimensional figures whose faces briefly flash on news broadcasts or populate Hollywood movies. To portray them as human beings runs risks. Any attempt to understand terrorists' motivations could be seen as an excuse for their actions.

The Sept. 11 attacks were clearly monstrous. What about the monsters who carried them out? How did they come to be in the cockpits of four airliners, hurtling themselves toward their own deaths and those of thousands of others? Terry McDermott, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, sets out to answer these questions in “Perfect Soldiers: The Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It.”

In the 1970s, analysts searched in vain for the psychological profile of a terrorist. Alas, terrorists did not conform to any diagnosis. They were found to be normal, if not ordinary. They emerged as true believers who see the world in black and white — action-oriented, fascinated by death and violent fantasies but not crazy in any clinical sense. However, do these attributes explain why some people become terrorists, or do they merely reflect the fact that they are terrorists?

McDermott is not the first to tackle the Sept. 11 plot, but “Perfect Soldiers” benefits from interviews with acquaintances of the hijackers, evidence from the Sept. 11 commission report and material from interrogations of captured terrorists who helped plan the attacks. He skillfully blends these to produce a group portrait of the Sept. 11 hijackers. They emerge as three-dimensional, some even likable, human beings. It is a fascinating tale.

The leader, the man we call Mohamed Atta but whom friends knew as Amir, emerges in McDermott's account as a real stiff. Acquaintances described him as being very intelligent but not creative, analytical but close-minded, respectful of authority but argumentative, never warm, with little interest in personal conversation.

He flaunted his disgust at any display of immodesty. The more fervently he committed himself to jihad, the more introverted he became. Any deviation from routine made him visibly upset. To him, the lack of order in the West was chaos. “Joy kills the heart,” he said.

Next comes Ramzi Binalshibh, who met Atta in Germany. Calling himself Omar, Binalshibh and Atta comprised the core of the Hamburg group. Binalshibh was slated to be the fourth pilot on Sept. 11, but when he could not obtain a visa to the United States, he instead reportedly became the key contact between team members in the field and the operation's planners.

Binalshibh could not have differed more from the dour Atta. McDermott's sources describe him as having an exceptionally sunny disposition. Binalshibh had a good understanding of human nature and was an effective recruiter. While Atta imposed order, Binalshibh gave his comrades a sense of purpose.

That purpose, in his view, was religion, specifically jihad. Coming from Yemen, he saw himself as a warrior who, like generations of holy warriors before him, would face a coming test of his faith and commitment. He happily embraced the idea, casually accepting death. “What is life good for?” he asked. “Paradise is better.”

Ziad Samir Jarrah, the third man and second pilot, came from Lebanon. A bright but inattentive student, more cosmopolitan than the others, he was also more easygoing in his religion, drank alcohol and was somewhat of a playboy. He alone among the principals had a wife, but his new domesticity did not relieve a sense of dissatisfaction with life. He wanted to do something meaningful; the lure of jihad captured his soul.

Marwan Al-Shehhi, the third pilot, was a soldier in the armed forces of the United Arab Emirates who arrived in Germany on an army scholarship. Acquaintances describe him as laid-back, good-humored and lumbering, even clumsy. He entertained friends with Arab fairy tales, but he took his religion seriously.

Hani Hanjour, the fourth pilot, replaced the erratic Zacarias Moussaoui, who proved too unreliable. Moussaoui has denied being part of that operation, insisting he was to carry out a separate mission — crashing a plane into the White House. Hanjour was a Saudi who already had a commercial pilot's license but no job as a pilot. Devout but drifting, he took off to Afghanistan, where he was recruited for the operation.

All these men seemed to be tumbling through life. Broken off from their roots, they found one another and clung together. They shared a sense of destiny but had no sense of direction until they piled up against an angry ideology that commanded jihad, not as a spiritual quest but as global war. Much seems explained by mere chance. Believers would say it was written.

No centralized formal recruiting process led this group of men to Sept. 11. They did not sign up for jihad and board a bus for basic training. Transition from acolyte to assigned warrior took several years.

Thousands of young men like them found in their piety the urge to fight, and set off to battlefields in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Kosovo. The little band in Hamburg discussed various destinations to pursue the struggle against the infidels, who they felt had invaded their lands, destroyed their culture, corrupted their society, threatened their souls. Participation brought its own reward: paradise.

In the burning glow of jihad, even the grim Atta appeared assured. Binalshibh seemed never to have a doubt. Jarrah appeared to struggle with it a bit more, but jihad gradually pulled him in. The men cut themselves off from outside contact, created their own universe, became almost feral, as if they already were part of jihad's underground, lacking only a commander and orders.

What became Al Qaeda's ambitious Sept. 11 scenario, in fact, did not call for these particular volunteers from Germany. Convinced by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the scheme's alleged mastermind, that it could be done, Osama bin Laden chose two Saudis and two Yemenis to become the pilots, but they could not get visas. It was at this time that the Hamburg four, who had found their way to Afghanistan, were selected for the job.

This was the test Binalshibh foresaw, and it transformed a disparate set of wanderers into a dedicated team that spent the next 20 months meticulously preparing to kill tens of thousands, including themselves.

We have no X-ray for men's souls and can only guess why these men decided to accept this destructive mission. In their own minds, they were at war. Ferocious sermons and atrocity-filled jihadist videotapes told them that infidels threatened Muslims everywhere with annihilation. American troops were in the holy land of Saudi Arabia, Israeli tanks rolled over Palestinian homes, while Christian Serbs killed and raped Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo. To do nothing was to accept humiliation and dishonor. The only alternative to physical and spiritual destruction was violence. God commanded it. One could be a victim or a warrior. This was propaganda but nonetheless powerful stuff that continues to propel thousands of young men to Al Qaeda's brand of jihad.

McDermott correctly points out how small the Al Qaeda organization actually was. Tens of thousands of men went through training camps in Afghanistan; Al Qaeda directly controlled only a few of these. And although jihadists carried out terrorist attacks around the world, most of them were independent, local operations. “In the attacks that were instigated by Al Qaeda, the same handful of people were involved in virtually every one… [I]t was a few men persistently pursuing a few deadly enterprises,” McDermott writes.

True, but Al Qaeda's access to this network gave it unprecedented capability to assemble specialized talent. Finding 19 men able to operate in a foreign country for months and dedicated enough to carry out a joint suicide mission, without a single betrayal or desertion that we know of, is no small organizational feat.

We still do not have the whole story from those held in various countries, and key figures remain at large, including Bin Laden. There is much we do not know. “Perfect Soldiers” certainly will not be the last book on the subject. But for now, it is the very best available.

Brian Michael Jenkins is the senior advisor to the president of the Rand Corp. He founded Rand's research program on terrorism in 1972.

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