Vol. 33 No. 17 · 8 September 2011

The Indecisive Terrorist

Mary Anne Weaver on the brief career of Ziad al-Jarrah

3843 words

In a video shot in 2000 at Tarnak Farms, then Osama bin Laden’s headquarters, 12 miles outside Kandahar, we see Ziad al-Jarrah pacing in the receiving room of a guesthouse. He is dressed in a flowing white galabiya, his head swathed in a black makeshift turban. He seems nervous and uncertain of what to say or how to dress. He puts on his glasses, then takes them off; he takes his turban off, then puts it back on. He reads from a sheet of paper, first standing up, then sitting down. He walks out into the brown and dusty desert. Everyone around him is armed. In the tape’s last 20 minutes, he sits cross-legged next to Mohammed Atta. The two of them laugh and joke, a machine-gun propped on the wall behind them. At one point, al-Jarrah looks away from the camera and rolls his eyes. He had been at Tarnak Farms for a month or so, having come from Hamburg with three fellow university students for military training. A few days into their stay, al-Jarrah and his friends were escorted to bin Laden’s private quarters. Two days later, they swore bayat, an oath of allegiance, to him.

The video is an outtake from the martyrdom statement released after his death, discovered by US agents in 2002 and made public in 2006. ‘It’s chilling to watch him,’ Dietrich Snell, a former federal prosecutor who was on the staff of the 9/11 Commission, told me. ‘He practises over and over again. And it’s particularly chilling when you compare it to other tapes of Jarrah – one, only a few months before, dancing at his cousin’s wedding: a clean-cut young man, wearing a blazer and open-necked shirt. You have to ask yourself: who was this guy?’ Nineteen months after the tape was recorded, al-Jarrah, the privileged son of a secular Lebanese family, crashed United Airlines Flight 93 into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. ‘Jarrah was the last best opportunity the US intelligence community had to avert 11 September,’ Snell said. ‘Of all of them he was the most susceptible to turn.’ Al-Jarrah’s life is one of the most perplexing of the mysteries still surrounding 11 September 2001. He walked away from the operation at least once, possibly twice, in the months before it was launched. American intelligence officials – who, ten years later, continue to study him – still wonder why he returned.

Al-Jarrah’s last phone call, from a hotel near Newark airport on the morning of 11 September, was to his fiancée, Aysel Sengün, in Germany. ‘He said he loved me three times,’ Sengün later told German intelligence officials. ‘I asked him what was up. He hung up shortly afterwards.’ Less than an hour later, al-Jarrah boarded United Airlines Flight 93 – a daily flight from Newark to San Francisco – and was escorted to seat 1B in first class. Forty-six minutes after take-off, at 9.28 a.m., he and three other passengers tied red scarves around their heads and seized control of the plane.

Al-Jarrah grew up during Lebanon’s civil war. His father was a senior civil servant, his mother a schoolteacher. They were Sunni Muslims, but not particularly observant. They sent their son to private Catholic schools; they bought him a red Mercedes when he was 16. Handsome and charismatic, Ziad drank wine and beer, wore Italian shoes and American designer jeans.

Al-Jarrah left Beirut in April 1996. His parents had given him a choice of where to study abroad: Canada or Germany, both countries where he had relatives. He chose Germany because Canada was too distant and because there his family would insist that he marry a cousin. So with another cousin, Salim, whom he had grown up with and who was as close to him as a brother, he set off for Greifswald to study German before entering university. On their arrival, the pair were placed in the charge of an older cousin, Assem al-Jarrah. He had recently completed a degree in pharmacology and was staying in Greifswald while his wife completed her degree in gynaecology.

‘He was completely normal,’ Assem said of al-Jarrah when I met him at his office at a pharmaceutical company in Beirut. ‘No, normal is not the right word. Ziad was brilliant. He finished his language course in two semesters when it usually takes four. Ziad was ambitious and wanted to establish himself. He was also a playboy, who loved women, discos and bars. He often remarked how stuck in the 1950s Greifswald was.’

And then al-Jarrah met Sengün and, according to Assem, fell in love. A German-born daughter of Turkish immigrants, she was in Greifswald studying dentistry. Like him, she was tall, slim, athletic and fashionable; she wore high-heeled boots and jeans. They began to plan a life together. But according to a German intelligence report, at the end of 1996, when Ziad returned to Greifswald from a winter holiday in Beirut, he seemed changed. Some say he was more sombre, and had begun reading a radical Islamist publication, al-Jihad. Assem doesn’t agree. ‘Whatever happened to Ziad, it didn’t happen in Beirut, or in Greifswald,’ he said. ‘None of us noticed any change in him until he went to Hamburg in the spring of 1997 to do his university degree. There’s a mosque very near Greifswald University, where Ziad had studied. It’s just around the corner, in fact, but, in the year Ziad lived there, he never went.’

Perhaps al-Jarrah didn’t tell Assem, but he did occasionally go to the Greifswald mosque, which was presided over by Abdul Rahman al-Makhadi, a Yemeni known among students as an ‘enforcer’ of Islamic morality. By the time al-Jarrah met him, Makhadi was devoted to his efforts as a spokesman for radical Islam, and raising money for Hamas. Over the next year, al-Jarrah and Makhadi, who also moved to Hamburg, grew close – to the abiding displeasure of Sengün, of whom the puritanical Makhadi disapproved. The two men travelled around Germany together, and Makhadi introduced al-Jarrah to some of his radical friends. In Greifswald, Makhadi had been alone in his militancy; in Hamburg, there were hundreds like him. During their travels together, and their return trips to Greifswald at weekends (al-Jarrah to see Sengün, Makhadi his own family), Makhadi was under surveillance by German intelligence because of his work for Hamas.

In September 1997, al-Jarrah enrolled in the University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg to study aeronautical engineering. Why he chose Hamburg and the reasons behind his abrupt switch from medicine or dentistry to engineering are unknown. He told Assem that no medical school had accepted him, and to Sengün he explained that he had been interested in aviation since playing with toy airplanes as a child. His grades were above average, and he cultivated a circle of German friends, while still seeing Sengün at weekends. He also began attending the al-Quds mosque, where Salafist Islam was preached. Makhadi was well-connected with the al-Quds leadership, and the two of them got to know a group of young men – bearded, rigid and austere – who would cluster together in a far corner of the mosque for Friday prayers. They were the ‘enforcers’ at al-Quds as Makhadi had been in Greifswald. Other young men kept watch at the entrance to the mosque to ensure that outsiders did not get in. Al-Quds would ultimately supply three of the four pilots for the 11 September attacks and much of the logistical support. The members of the Hamburg Cell – as those involved, or thought to be involved, in the attacks became known – had cut all ties to their families. Only al-Jarrah remained close to his. He also continued his affair with Sengün, in what the others considered an illicit relationship.

By the end of 1997, three powerful influences had entered al-Jarrah’s life. The first, known in public records only as Marcel ‘Hussein’ K., a German convert to Islam, was the vice president of the Münster Islamic Centre in North Rhine-Westphalia. Al-Jarrah met him through Makhadi and over the years spoke to him often. If not a spiritual adviser, Marcel was a confidant. Phone records indicate that al-Jarrah called Marcel before making many of the decisions that would shape the last two years of his life. He called before he went to Afghanistan to train, and when he began applying to flight schools in the United States and during his flight training. The last call was made shortly before the attacks.

It was Ramzi bin al-Shibh, however, who became Ziad’s closest friend. A charismatic Yemeni and a member of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, bin al-Shibh, who was captured by US and Pakistani operatives in 2002 and has been detained at Guantánamo Bay since 2006, is alleged to be the key logistical contact for the attacks and the link between the al-Qaida leadership in Afghanistan and its pilots in the United States. Bin al-Shibh arrived in Hamburg in 1995 and was a regular presence at several mosques, sometimes visiting a dozen a day. From time to time, he would enrol in a university in order to retain his German residency status, but he rarely attended classes, failed exams and was expelled at least once. Adventuresome and extroverted, he met al-Jarrah late in 1997 at al-Quds. It was bin al-Shibh who brought al-Jarrah into contact with the Hamburg Cell.

And then there was Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a 36-year-old member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, who had moved as a child to Germany in 1971 and now had German citizenship. Loud, taunting and – at 21 stone – physically imposing, he was often intimidating and usually rude. But he had actually done jihad – first in Afghanistan, then in Bosnia – and, as a result, he played a significant role in moulding the new recruits at al-Quds. By the late 1990s, Zammar was already well known to both German and US intelligence, and was under surveillance by both. According to the House-Senate Joint Inquiry Report on 9/11, which cites an FBI summary of its investigation into the attacks: ‘Zammar is believed to have recruited … al-Jarrah’ – and Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi – ‘into al-Qaida, and encouraged their participation in the 11 September attacks.’ In other words, based on a timeline of intercepted telephone calls, the CIA – along with its German counterpart, the BKA – appears to have been investigating the man who recruited the 11 September pilots just at the moment he was recruiting them.

Al-Jarrah’s embrace of militant Islam caused problems in his relationship with Sengün almost at once. He began to criticise the way she dressed and the friends she chose. Everything that had brought the two together a few years earlier now drove them apart. More than once al-Jarrah insisted that Sengün wear a veil – and in one reproachful moment even demanded that she cover her hands. They quarrelled and separated, then patched it up. He refused to introduce her to any of his Hamburg friends and told her she was an embarrassment to him. He now spent entire days at the mosque. He skipped classes, grew a beard and began proselytising among his friends. In early 1999, he alarmed Sengün by saying he was going to wage jihad because there was no greater honour than to die for Allah. Meanwhile his family was growing increasingly concerned. His father threatened to cut off his allowance of $2000 a month, and the family sent emissaries to beg him to return to Beirut.

In the last days of March 1999, to Sengün’s amazement al-Jarrah appeared at her door in Bochum, where she had moved for her studies, and asked her to marry him. The wedding took place the following month at the al-Nur mosque in Hamburg. They never registered their marriage with the state or told either of their families. Sengün never considered the marriage genuine, she told friends, but she nonetheless insisted that al-Jarrah sign an Islamic marriage contract, according to which he would permit her to finish her studies, and then to work. When he tried to disavow his pledge she enlisted the support of the imam of al-Nur, who called al-Jarrah in and told him that Sengün was right.

Al-Jarrah and Sengün, who returned to Bochum to finish her degree, never lived together, but neither did al-Jarrah live with his friends from al-Quds, who had all moved together into a flat at 54 Marienstrasse, which Atta, the de facto head of the household, called Dar al-Ansar (the House of the Followers of the Prophet) after an al-Qaida guesthouse in Peshawar. Al-Jarrah never liked Atta, their apparent camaraderie on the martyrdom tape notwithstanding. The 3o-year-old Egyptian was strict and dour. He brooked no criticism and solicited no advice. For dinner he would boil potatoes, mash them with a fork, eat what he wanted and refrigerate the rest, which he would later eat cold.

Eight months after his wedding, al-Jarrah disappeared. Bin al-Shibh later told US interrogators that in early November 1999 he and Marwan al-Shehhi – who crashed United Flight 175 into the south tower of the World Trade Center – had met a mysterious, bearded stranger on a train. His name, according to bin al-Shibh, was Khalid al-Masri. Bin al-Shibh spoke dreamily of the jihad in Chechnya, and al-Masri gave him contact information for a man in Duisburg called Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a significant al-Qaida operative in Europe, already known to US and German intelligence, though neither agency knew that he was then living in Germany. Some days later, bin al-Shibh, accompanied by al-Shehhi and al-Jarrah, took the train to Duisburg. For months, they had been watching battlefield videos from Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia; they had sung songs of martyrdom as they sat cross-legged on the floor transfixed by videos of bin Laden. Their expectations were high.

Slahi, one of whose cousins was an aide to bin Laden in Afghanistan, made all the arrangements for the Hamburg quartet. Al-Jarrah, Atta, al-Shehhi and bin al-Shibh travelled to Afghanistan separately. On 27 November 1999, al-Jarrah went from Quetta in Pakistan to the border town of Chaman. He crossed into Afghanistan over the Toba Kakar mountain range using the same little-known passes and unmarked trails the CIA’s convoys had used during the Soviet occupation. It was at one of the CIA’s former training camps – al-Farouq – that al-Jarrah, Atta, al-Shehhi and bin al-Shibh would learn how to be jihadists.

Bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been planning the ‘Planes Operation’ since the spring of 1999. But there had been problems almost from the start, chief among them recruiting the right men. Any number of bin Laden’s followers were willing to blow themselves up, but the mission required technical competence, familiarity with Western ways and passable English. Bin Laden insisted on meeting the four young men from Hamburg immediately.

Members of the 9/11 Commission I spoke to were astonished by how casual, and fortuitous, this stage of the operational planning was. But bin Laden’s skill at evaluating people was well known, and al-Jarrah and his friends had already been vetted at a number of al-Qaida camps en route to Tarnak Farms and, before that, in Germany. The four remained in Afghanistan for two months, undergoing military training. There were also Koran readings, discussion groups, fitness training and prayers. By mid-January 2000, they had been told that they were being groomed for a martyrdom operation – the details of which were not revealed – and that they were to go to the United States immediately for pilot training. Atta would train with al-Shehhi, al-Jarrah with bin al-Shibh.

On 30 January 2000, al-Jarrah flew from Karachi to Dubai. There he was to change planes and travel on to Amsterdam and, finally, to Hamburg. But as he left the PIA plane and entered the transit hall, he was taken aside by UAE security officials, who said they wanted to question him. The officials would later tell CNN – which first reported the story in 2002 – that al-Jarrah had been interrogated at the request of the CIA. The CIA immediately denied the story, as a result, perhaps, of CNN’s getting the date wrong. (CNN had said that the interrogation took place in 2001.) A senior Lebanese security official – whose agency has a close relationship with its UAE counterpart – assured me the story was true. Al-Jarrah was interrogated for four hours. When the officials opened his leather bag, they found jihadist videotapes and religious tracts. A page of the Koran was stuck into his passport. He made no secret of having been in Afghanistan, though he did not mention he had been at a training camp. When asked where he was going now, he replied, matter of factly, that he would soon be travelling to the United States for pilot training. The Dubaians then called the CIA station at the US embassy, the Lebanese official told me, and recounted the conversation to one of their counterparts there. ‘He didn’t seem interested,’ the official went on, ‘and he told the Dubaians to let Ziad go.’

When I mentioned the Dubai airport incident to a relative of al-Jarrah’s, he exploded. ‘They arrest him at Dubai airport at the request of the CIA! He had just come out of Pakistan! He’d trained in Afghanistan! He told the Dubaians that he was going to the United States! And the Americans let him go! And then, within months, they give him a multiple entry visa to enter the States! Why’

When al-Jarrah arrived in Hamburg from Afghanistan on 31 January 2000, he shaved his beard, discarded his jihadist wardrobe and the nom de guerre – Abu Tareq al-Lubnani – he had adopted in Afghanistan. He persuaded Sengün that jihad was now behind him. There is no indication that he ever returned to al-Quds. Everything he did, including the amount of cologne he wore – not too strong and not too much, in order to blend better into Western society – was straight out of the pages of the al-Qaida training manual. He told Sengün that he was finally going to realise his dream and become a pilot, and that he was applying to flight schools in the US. Once he got his licence, they would settle down, have a family and live wherever she wanted: Germany, Istanbul, Beirut.

On 27 June 2000, al-Jarrah entered the US on a multiple entry visa. He enrolled at the Florida Flight Training Center, in Venice, on Florida’s west coast, and shared a house with four of his fellow trainees: two were German, two Dutch. They got along well and partied together – al-Jarrah even frosted his hair. Atta and al-Shehhi were training at Huffman Aviation, which was also based at Venice Airport, but al-Jarrah had nothing to do with them.

Meanwhile, bin al-Shibh, under various names and in various cities, applied four times without success for a visa to enter the US. He was not on a watch list, but as a Yemeni he was considered undesirable by the INS because Yemenis who came to America never left. Al-Jarrah at one point went so far as to pay the $2000 entrance fee at his flight school for bin al-Shibh, imploring the owner to intervene for his friend with the INS. Nothing worked and, finally, bin al-Shibh gave up. (He was later appointed the key logistical contact for the attacks, operating mostly from Europe.) Eventually Hani Hanjour, a Saudi who had fought in Afghanistan as a teenager and had been in and out of the US studying and training as a pilot for a number of years, was recruited to replace him. Hanjour was a stranger to al-Jarrah, who while in the US was very much on his own.

From the time al-Jarrah received his pilot’s licence, in October 2000, he made at least five trips abroad, during a period of just ten months: to see either Sengün in Germany or his family in Beirut. In late January 2001, al-Jarrah’s father had a heart attack. Al-Jarrah rushed home. He remained at his father’s bedside, in Beirut’s Zahla Hospital, for nearly a month and, to his family, he seemed his old self. He continued to pray and to read the Koran, but to the highly secular Jarrahs that didn’t matter. Their son had returned. ‘He was very shaken by his father’s near-death experience,’ Sengün would later tell German investigators. ‘He was so much more sensitive. He said he wanted to get married and have children soon, so that his father could see his grandchildren before he died.’

Back in Florida, he phoned or emailed Sengün every day, and his family nearly as frequently. He met Atta at least once, probably twice, and found him as insufferable as he had in Germany and Afghanistan. In late June 2001, al-Jarrah told Sengün to buy him a one-way ticket to Germany. He was not going back to the US. After months of ambivalence, he was walking away.

By mid-July, bin al-Shibh, after a meeting with Atta in Spain, rushed to Afghanistan to report to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed his growing concern that al-Jarrah could no longer be relied on. Mohammed was furious. This was not the first time that he or Atta had had problems with al-Jarrah. He was too independent, did not take orders well and was too attached to his family. Nevertheless, according to the CIA’s interrogation of both Mohammed and bin al-Shibh, Mohammed demanded that bin al-Shibh make peace between Atta and al-Jarrah: he referred to them as an ‘unhappy couple’. He also told bin al-Shibh that al-Jarrah should be warned that if he ‘asks for a divorce, it is going to cost a lot of money.’ Bin al-Shibh also told his interrogators that, at the same time, Mohammed had instructed him to send ‘the skirts’ to ‘Sally’ – a code instructing him to send funds to Zacarias Moussaoui, who was already in the US and in flight training. There is every reason to believe that Moussaoui, convicted by the US as a co-conspirator, was being prepared to replace al-Jarrah if he refused to come back.

On 25 July, al-Jarrah boarded a Continental Airlines flight in Miami, with a one-way ticket to Düsseldorf. Atta drove him to the airport. Atta remained there for an hour, and if the two talked, it would have been the longest one-to-one conversation they are known to have had. When al-Jarrah arrived in Düsseldorf, bin al-Shibh was waiting for him at the airport. Al-Jarrah said he wanted to see Sengün, and did not want to talk. A few days later the couple met. Then, after what bin al-Shibh described as an ‘emotional conversation’ with him, al-Jarrah returned to the United States on 5 August. US investigators are still trying to understand why.

Just after midnight on the morning of 9 September, al-Jarrah was stopped on Interstate 95 in Maryland. He was driving at 100 miles an hour when the state trooper pulled him over. He checked al-Jarrah’s licence and other paperwork, and then made a call. Al-Jarrah had no record, and his name wasn’t on any watch list. The trooper fined him $200 and told him to appear in court the next day. He didn’t show.

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