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The Perfect Soldiers: The 9/11 Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It
By Terry McDermott
330 pp, $14.95
Following the September 11 attacks, books attempting to explain this tragedy began flooding the marketplace. The first generation of books sought to memorialize the dead, honor the heroes and record the devastation through photographs, eyewitness accounts and newspaper clippings.
As the mourning period subsided, these coffee-table books of remembrance gave way to a second generation of writings that explained to Western readers the origins of al-Qaida and the brewing anger in Arab and Muslim lands toward the United States. CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen's Holy War Inc. and scholar Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong soon rose on best-seller lists.
In the interlude between the liberation of Afghanistan and the impending war against Iraq, the accusatory-finger-pointing period emerged. Security and intelligence experts and ex-government officials cried out that the warning signals were evident well before September 2001 and that an attack was preventable. The Age of Sacred Terror by Daniel Benjamin and Steve Simon typified this argument. A period of shock had melted into a quest for information and a concerned curiosity toward the Middle East, only to be replaced by anger, blame and recrimination.
In recent years, a new category of books has emerged that focuses on individual terrorists, their origins, motivations, and influences. These books seek an answer to the question: What type of person would create such carnage in the name of religion? Call this period a time of reflection.
Perfect Soldiers by Terry McDermott, a Los Angeles Times journalist, is perhaps the best of this genre. Written with the acumen of a fact-digging investigator, this book traces the activities of the 9/11 hijackers and their transformation from humble beginnings in the Arab world to a new life in Europe and, later, America.
The hijackers came from different countries; some were rich, others were poor; at first, a few of the men embraced religious zeal, others shunned it. On the surface, little commonalities bound these men, beyond their faith. But as McDermott traces the movements of each hijacker from their homelands to undergraduate, graduate and language training schools in Germany primarily, a more holistic description is presented.
As youngsters and students growing up in the Middle East, these hijackers experienced first-hand the disappointment of living in countries mismanaged by their governments. Unemployment was high, even amongst the educated. The West was seen as a place to gain professional and foreign language skills; training that would enable these men to return home and better their societies. They were ambitious, placing a premium on education.
For Muhammad Atta, the Egyptian terrorist who piloted American Airlines flight 11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center, the decision to study in Germany was encouraged by his domineering father.
Ramzi bin Al-Shibh from Yemen "was always one of those guys talking about studying in Europe or the US," his brother Ahmed explained.
Ziad Jarrah was a city boy from Beirut, "an unlikely candidate for Islamic warrior," pushed by family members to study in either Toronto or Greifswald, Germany - places where relatives lived. He chose Germany.
Once abroad, loneliness and confusion set in for these young men. They missed home and the modesty of Muslim society. Germany, Hamburg especially, was to them a den of licentiousness and lust. To offset this odious combination, the students retreated to the al-Quds mosque and learning center situated in a poor section of Hamburg. The comfort of seeing faces with familiar features and hues and hearing their own language comforted them. Over time, the fiery rhetoric of Islamic preachers dulled the senses of these men who were out of place in Germany, having failed in their academic pursuits, or their ability to blend into the society.
"These men would leave these sessions and the talk would continue among them for hours, for days and eventually years," writes McDermott. "This was war, they [the Islamic preachers] said, and they'd come looking for soldiers." This path led the would-be terrorists to Pakistan and Afghanistan, crisscrossing the globe over an extended period, in preparation for a mission of martyrdom and death.
Fanaticism alone, however, did not cause these students to transform into hijackers. The benefits - and perils - of globalization facilitated their movement. Increased transcontinental flights, cellphones, the Internet, e-mail and a sophisticated banking system enabled these men to communicate with their dispatchers and each other, while living in different cities and countries spanning varied time zones. Visa application procedures were understood and easily manipulated. In the US, the hijackers lived in, visited or traveled to Arizona, California, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Virginia. These men were everywhere and yet nowhere at the same time. McDermott retraces the hijackers' movements as they bounced from locale to locale.
In the preface to Perfect Soldiers, Terry McDermott writes: "I'm sure this effort to understand the motivations of the men behind September 11 will upset other people who will think that any attempt at understanding is somehow an attempt to excuse, even glorify. It is not. A primary task - and great joy, too - of the journalist is to empathize, to try to understand the way the world appeared to the people being written about."
McDermott should not apologize. The Chinese warrior and theorist Sun Tzu taught, "If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat" - an apt aphorism applicable to Perfect Soldiers.