The Indecisive Terrorist

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

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.’

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