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RESPONSE TO TERROR | THE INVESTIGATION / REFUGEES

Friends of Terror Suspect Say Allegations Make No Sense

Investigation: Ziad Jarrah, believed to be one of the 19 hijackers, appeared to embrace Western life.

October 23, 2001|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

'He Was a Friend to All of Us'

Those who met Jarrah at the flight school also say they can't see him as a terrorist.

"Our entire staff does not believe that he had bad intentions," says FFTC President Arne Kruithof. "Let's put it this way: Everybody interviewed here on this guy was in shock, because he was a friend to all of us."

"I don't think there's anyone in the time that he was here that could say anything negative about him; on the contrary, he would help everybody," says Kruithof, who insisted that Jarrah's demeanor was "not faked."

Thorsten Biermann, who roomed with Jarrah at the flight school for the first six weeks of training, found him to be "just a normal person, like anyone else."

Biermann says he never saw Jarrah pray in the time they lived together, and Jarrah never had visitors. However, he says his roommate was looking forward to a visit by Senguen that occurred after the German returned home Dec. 13.

Jarrah called his family two days before the terror attacks to confirm that he and Senguen would be in Beirut on Sept. 22 for another family wedding--this time Salim's younger sister.

Ali, the family friend, said Senguen called him Sept. 11 to tell him that she had just spoken to Jarrah--about an hour before he boarded United Flight 93. She described the conversation as pleasant and normal, although it is unclear whether she knew he was flying that day.

"We watched the news on television at the racquet club--all anyone did that day was watch TV," Ali recalled of the first hours after the hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center about 3 p.m. local time. "She was upset like everyone else, and when she didn't hear from him for two whole days when everyone in America was calling to say they were OK, she became really worried."

Ali next heard from Senguen when she called in tears from a Bochum police station, where she was held overnight and interrogated as detectives combed her tiny apartment, impounding a suitcase belonging to Jarrah and personal records such as phone bills and banking statements.

In retrospect, Ali wonders whether Senguen heard something in Jarrah's voice in that last phone conversation that put her on alert and prompted her to declare him missing.

Meanwhile, the tantalizing coincidences pile up.

Three months before the terror strikes, Jarrah traveled to Las Vegas. His uncle in Lebanon describes the trip as a gambling junket, but that June 7-10 sojourn also provides another possible connection with other hijackers. Atta, Al-Shehhi and three other suspects also made trips to Las Vegas between May and August, although none overlapped with Jarrah's.

Like Atta and Al-Shehhi, Jarrah reported his passport lost in late 1999 and obtained a new one from the Lebanese consulate in Bonn. Authorities speculate the men were trying to get rid of visas to Afghanistan or elsewhere, although Salim Jarrah insists his cousin was never unaccounted for in those days.

Although Jarrah paid his expenses in cash from money wired by his parents, U.S. federal investigative documents suggest he had a Visa debit card and that its number was only a few digits off from those used by four other suspects.

Jarrah also moved in April from Venice, Fla., on the west coast to Hollywood, in the east, living separately but in the same city as Atta and Al-Shehhi and spending much of his free time working out and taking self-defense classes at a gym in nearby Dania Beach.

Several of the other suspects also worked diligently at getting themselves in shape, although at different facilities.

Jarrah was also identified by a landlady in Ft. Lauderdale-by-the-Sea as having rented a cottage for a few weeks in late summer with another suspect who died on Flight 93, Ahmed Al Haznawi, someone Jarrah was never previously associated with.

It all leaves those who knew Jarrah wondering.

In one of the last photos taken of him, in Beirut early this year, he wears a jacket and tie and designer eyeglasses, his hair brushed back and an arm lovingly draped around the shoulders of his diminutive mother, Nafisa.

"We were all telling him he should marry Aysel and get themselves out of this little one-room student apartment," says Ali. "But he wanted this too. He really loved her."

Being nagged about living with Senguen was something Jarrah should have been used to.

"I used to criticize him for living with her. By our religion, this living together before marriage is not allowed," recalls Abdullah Al-Makhadi, a classmate of Senguen's at the Greifswald premed program and founder of a rudimentary mosque in the town that hosts more than 500 foreign students from Islamic nations.

Jarrah rarely attended Friday prayers and never prayed five times daily, as do the devout, says Al-Makhadi. "He was a weak Muslim, I must say."

Salim says none of the Jarrahs was raised with much religious conviction. The cousins went to parties and discos, drank alcohol and flirted with women of various ethnicity and religion.

"I remember the first time we went to a disco here, we were laughing at how small and pathetic it was," says the restaurateur. "Back home in Lebanon, discos are much more elegant, sprawling up several floors and much more modern."

That Ziad Jarrah might have become more serious in the last couple of years, when Senguen's 1999 transfer to Bochum ended the pretext for his weekly visits to Greifswald, is something his cousin cannot exclude.

But he says he can "rule out with 100% certainty" that his cousin could have turned into a fanatic.

"We came here to Germany so we could live better, not to die for some insane idea," he says. "We don't know if it was really Ziad on that plane. It seems it was, or he would have come forward by now. But if he died in that crash, he died as a victim like the other passengers."

*

Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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