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.