Perfect Soldiers: The Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It


From an award–winning L.A. Times reporter, a brilliantly researched investigation of the lives of the men responsible for September 11 attacks – how they lived, what they thought, and how they changed into the sort of men who could do what they did.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the acknowledged mastermind of the September 11 attacks, had been to the United States before; as a bright young man, he had come here from his native Kuwait to study science. He had returned home appalled, ...

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From an award–winning L.A. Times reporter, a brilliantly researched investigation of the lives of the men responsible for September 11 attacks – how they lived, what they thought, and how they changed into the sort of men who could do what they did.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the acknowledged mastermind of the September 11 attacks, had been to the United States before; as a bright young man, he had come here from his native Kuwait to study science. He had returned home appalled, telling people Americans hated Muslims, and spent the next 20 years plotting to get even, developing for this purpose an unusual weapon: a group of young men from Hamburg, the agents of a seismic shift in modern history but in many respects utterly normal.

The Sept. 11 attackers have largely been depicted with a series of caricatures that run from evil genius on one end to deluded fanatics on the other, but most of Mohammed's protegees came from apolitical and only mildly religious backgrounds. Under his watch, though, they evolved into devout, pious Muslims who debated endlessly on how best to serve, to fulfil what they came to regard as their religious obligations. In fundamentalist Islam, religion and politics are inseparable; the Hamburg men saw themselves as soldiers of God.

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Editorial Reviews

Joanthan Yardley
Now, in Perfect Soldiers , Terry McDermott provides the hard facts behind the fictional picture that Seymour so persuasively draws. A reporter for the Los Angeles Times who has been on the story of the September 2001 terrorist attacks since the day they occurred, McDermott has talked to everyone -- everyone who will talk, that is -- and read everything, the result of which is what may well be, for now at least, the definitive book on the 19 men who brought such devastation and terror to this country nearly four years ago. Clearly written in good, plain English, Perfect Soldiers is a group portrait of ordinary men who were driven to do a surpassingly evil thing.
— The Wahington Post
Michiko Kakutani
The reason for reading Perfect Soldiers has to do with the chilling portraits the book draws of the ordinary men who executed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, resulting in the deaths of almost 3,000 people - a portrait that gives new meaning to the phrase "the banality of evil."
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
It's taken three-plus years for a serious study of the hijackers, but the wait was worth it. L.A. Times reporter McDermott has dug deep, interviewing scores of friends, relatives and officials worldwide and trawling through troves of documents. Engrossing and deeply disturbing from the start, the book begins with two events Americans rarely connect: Russia's retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, followed in 1990 by Western troops pouring into Saudi Arabia after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. McDermott shows victory in Afghanistan electrifying Islamic warriors who hated Christianity as much as communism; a new "infidel" army to fight proved an irresistible challenge. For McDermott, this moment marks the beginning of organized, nonstate-supported terrorism. Not very organized, he adds, describing half a dozen plots cobbled together by clumsy enthusiasts who were often caught-though often too late. Despite the media attention paid to bin Laden, McDermott paints him not as the f hrer of terrorism, but as a rich leader with the most aggressive P.R. Bin Laden, for example had nothing to do with the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993-but he was inspired by it. McDermott's detailed biographies of the hijackers go far beyond the characterizations of the 9/11 report, and he is skeptical of accounts that portray them as deeply disturbed: all came from intact families, most were middle-class, few were deeply religious, none were abused or estranged. Recruited for the hijackings and informed they would die, they thought it over and agreed. McDermott's clear rendering of that decision is just one of this book's strengths. (May 3) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Is there any reason why we need to know more about the 19 hijackers who attacked America on 9/11? Actually, there is. Los Angeles Times reporter McDermott concedes that none of these young, robotlike religious fanatics were particularly remarkable or even interesting. Indeed, they were tedious company for everyone but the like-minded. But therein lies McDermott's cautionary point. The fact that the hijackers were "fairly ordinary men" makes them more ominous, easily replaceable by any one of thousands of similar human drones presumably waiting in the wings. This account focuses primarily on three of the hijackers: Mohammed el-Amir Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah. It follows them from separate mundane childhoods in the Middle East through their student days in Hamburg to the final months of preparation in the United States. In the process, we witness their evolution from pious Muslims into radical jihadists, along with the growth of the loosely conceived plot that outwitted U.S. security largely through its sheer simplicity and insanity. McDermott never really fulfills the promise of his subtitle to explain why they did it, aside from offering the standard bromide that they saw themselves as martyrs in a holy war. But his extensive research and well-organized narrative does better in showing just who these misguided killers were and how they eluded suspicion by simply keeping their heads down. The story carries several lessons. Not the least is the repeated failure of U.S. and German authorities to prevent the catastrophe, although they were often achingly close to doing so, even days before Sept. 11. Another lesson is that despite the near-preternatural reputation Al Qaeda acquiredfollowing 9/11, the group's small core was composed of men in many ways as bumbling and error-prone as your local Mafia crew. Tragically, it was American inattention and carelessness that allowed them to succeed. A chilling, often depressing read that merits attention, if only for the other "perfect soldiers" who may be waiting out there.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060584696
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/3/2005
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.13 (d)

Meet the Author

Terry McDermott has been a reporter at eight newspapers for twenty-five years, the last seven at the Los Angeles Times, where he is a national correspondent. He has won prizes for his journalism in a number of fields, including foreign affairs, economics, and science.

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Table of Contents

Key Figures xi
Preface xv
Prologue: Welcome 1
Book 1 Soldiers
1 A House of Learning 9
2 Alone, Abroad 20
3 Friends 34
4 Pilgrims 47
5 The Smell of Paradise Rising 69
Book 2 The Engineer
1 The Rebirth of Jihad 93
2 Those Without 107
3 World War 127
4 War, After War 155
Book 3 The Plot
1 The New Recruits 171
2 Preparations 185
3 The Last Year 212
4 That Day 233
Appendix A Mohamed el-Amir's Last Will and Testament 245
Appendix B The Last Night 249
Appendix C Bin Laden's 1996 Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places (abridged) 253
Appendix D Bin Laden's 1998 Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders 267
Notes 271
Selected Bibliography 309
Acknowledgments 311
Index 313
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First Chapter

Perfect Soldiers
The Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It

Chapter One

A House of Learning

The Delta

Nearly all of egypt's 65 million people are squeezed by the great surrounding deserts onto thin ribbons of arable land strung along the length of the Nile River. This savannah, made fertile by the regular flooding of the river, has been populated for tens of thousands of years -- far beyond the range of human memory. North of present-day Cairo, the river splits into two main branches -- the Rosetta and Damietta -- and innumerable smaller ones, a spiderweb of streams crisscrossing between the two larger channels. From there north, 100 miles to the sea, the river feeds a broad, improbably lush delta. These northern reaches of the Nile endowed one of the great civilizations of the earth long before the powerful realms of the western world were even the faintest of far-off dreams, when, as one Islamic scholar put it, "northern Europeans were still sitting in trees." The Delta's abundance has forever remained the source of the enormous wealth and talent Egyptian civilizations have produced. Presidents, poets, and revolutionaries have all been shaped in its villages.

Today, the Delta remains Egypt's breadbasket. Its markets overflow; the roads are jammed with pickup trucks and donkey carts. Tractors are rare -- most of the work of the fields is still performed the way it has always been, by hand and hoof. The Delta is thick with people, too. Women wear veils or scarves; many men wear the long cotton tunics called galabiyas, muddied at the hem from hard work on wet ground. The last village is seldom out of sight before the next slides into view. Between towns, the fields, small and irregularly shaped, jigsaw across the tableland. Billboards for the latest Nokia cell phones straddle irrigation ditches teeming with trash. Women bathe and wash dishes along the dirty shores.

Mohamed Mohamed el-Amir Awad el-Sayed Atta was born here in 1968 in the northernmost delta province of Kafr el-Sheik. His father, Mohamed el-Amir Awad el-Sayed Atta, came from a tiny hinterland village, and his mother, Bouthayna Mohamed Mustapha Sheraqi, from the outskirts of the provincial capital, also called Kafr el-Sheik. As was, and is still, customary in rural Egypt, the elder Mohamed and Bouthayna met and married by arrangement of their families. At the time of the wedding, Mohamed el-Amir, as he was known, was already an established local lawyer, having taken degrees in both civil and sharia, or Islamic, law. Bouthayna was only 14, but as the daughter of a wealthy farming and trading family, she came from several rungs up the social ladder and was a good catch for the ambitious Mohamed. They soon had two daughters, Azza and Mona, then a son named for the father.

They hadn't many relatives on the father's side and maintained a cool distance from Bouthayna's family. This was according to Amir's wishes, Bouthayna's family said. The father was regarded by his in-laws as an odd man -- austere, strict, and private. He was and remains a bluff, forceful fellow who permitted little disagreement.

Village life in the Arab world offers much the same degree of privacy as village life elsewhere, which is to say, very little at all. Egypt's crowded geography further insists that life be communal and shared. People are piled on top of one another. To resist the weight of the centuries in which life has been spent and shaped this way takes real effort. Amir, a stubborn man, was willing to expend it.

"The father is alone. There are no brothers, one sister maybe. We never met her," said Hamida Fateh, Bouthayna's sister. "Here, the families are all very close. But even here, the father was separate."

Fateh's family is prominent in Kafr el-Sheik; they own farmland, an auto-parts store, and a six-story commercial building. The family lives unostentatiously above a cobbled, dusty street in a cramped walk-up with whitewashed walls, plain rugs, overstuffed furniture, a Panasonic boom box, and a 19-inch Toshiba television. It is unair-conditioned and the apartment's balcony doors hang open to let the inevitable afternoon heat escape.

Fateh wears a head scarf, more out of habit than belief, she said; neither her family nor the Amirs were particularly religious. They were part of the secular generation that grew up in Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt, when the country's future did not seem as bound to the past as it does today. They were the generation that would remake Egypt and reclaim its glories. We are educated people, Fateh said, people from the country but not country people. Fateh studied agricultural engineering at university; her husband studied electrical engineering.

The senior Amir was ambitious, too, and exceptionally focused. His law practice thrived in Kafr el-Sheik, but he was not satisfied. "He moved to Cairo," Fateh said. "He wanted to be famous."

Perfect Soldiers
The Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It
. Copyright © by Terry McDermott. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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