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Prelude to 9/11: A Hijacker's Love, Lies

Aysel Senguen saw her fiance fall into radical Islam. She knew something was wrong but had no idea what lay ahead.

January 27, 2003|Dirk Laabs and Terry McDermott | Special to The Times

HAMBURG, Germany — The letter from the dead man did not surface for months after it was sent, after, presumably, Aysel Senguen had enough time to fully absorb the grim deeds and suicide death of her fiance, Ziad Jarrah.

Ziad sent the letter and a package of personal belongings to Aysel from the United States on Sept. 10, 2001, a day before he and three comrades hijacked United Airlines Flight 93, set it on a heading for Washington, D.C., and, finally, rather than allow a passenger revolt to rescue the airplane, purposely pitched it nose first from 40,000 feet into a pasture in Stony Creek Township, Pa.

By the time the letter was revealed in November 2001, Aysel knew others thought the evidence overwhelming that Ziad had been at the controls of that airliner, that he was a critical component in the deadliest terrorist attack in history. She nonetheless believed, she told investigators, that he was alive; that he would one day come back; that he would, as he had before, show up at her door with gifts and a sheepish grin, telling her not to worry, that there had been problems but now everything was fine and they would have the life they had planned.

There was something about Ziad Jarrah that made a lot of people hope, if not actually conclude, that Aysel was right and the investigators wrong -- that some horrible mistake had been made and he wasn't a mass murderer.

Then came the letter, which postal officials said was misaddressed and lost in the mail for weeks.

"I did not escape from you but I did what I was supposed to do and you should be very proud of me," Ziad wrote. "Remember always who you are and what you are. Head up. The victors never have their heads down!"

He was gone, he said. "Everyone has his time."

Ziad apologized for feeding Aysel's dreams of a wedding and children and a normal life. He called her, as he frequently did in his letters, "chabibi" -- darling.

"I am what you wished for," he said.

For many who held out hope, the letter erased it. Not Aysel. She ignored the dark passages and chose to believe the part where he promised to "always be your man," the part where he said, "I love you from all my heart. You should not have any doubts about that. I love you and I will always love you, until eternity," the part where he promised that one day they would live in a place "where there are no problems, and no sorrow, in castles of gold and silver."

Of course, Aysel didn't believe the evidence. She believed what lovers always believe: She believed in Ziad.

Aysel Senguen was for five years -- almost from the day they met in Germany in the spring of 1996 -- in love with Ziad Jarrah. For much of that time, they fought, as lovers will, about their differences, about what she described as his secrets.

Aysel watched as Ziad turned toward a harsh interpretation of Islam and joined a group of like-minded young men in steadfast commitment to wage holy war. She knew that something had gone horribly wrong. And she was hardly alone.

Evidence now being used to prosecute a member of the Hamburg group that produced three of the Sept. 11 suicide pilots makes clear that the views of Jarrah and the group were well known to relatives, friends, casual acquaintances and, notably, to police and intelligence officials.

The evidence, much of it not previously disclosed, includes interviews with close associates of the hijackers, wiretaps, extensive correspondence between Aysel and Ziad, correspondence among other hijackers and between them and friends, financial records and eyewitness accounts from informants in Germany and at Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. The accounts and quotations in this report, unless otherwise attributed, are derived from that evidence.

The evidence presents a new view of the Hamburg cell. So public were the beliefs of the hijackers and their associates that the often stated notion that they were a cell of secret "sleeper agents" of the Al Qaeda terrorist network seems almost opposite the truth.

The group was far larger than previously described, including at least several dozen men. Almost everyone who had significant contact with them knew that the men professed a personal commitment to holy war and spent years trying to determine how best to wage it. Casual acquaintances were sometimes frightened by the group's beliefs. A member of the congregation at the Al Quds mosque in Hamburg brought his father to a worship service, and the older man was so unnerved by what was a routine day at the mosque that he warned his son never to return. Others fled town to avoid the group.

Members of the group hectored acquaintances to join the cause, at one point physically beating one man because they declared him insufficiently devout. They pressured other men to grow beards, to dress in a prescribed manner and to make their wives convert to Islam.

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