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Foreign AffairsWithin hours of the attack on the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, the final letters of hijacker Muhammad Atta, discovered in the trunk of a rental car parked at Dulles International Airport outside Washington D.C., were being dissected by journalists and TV pundits. As the new book Strong Religion tellingly observes, commentators almost uniformly characterized the mindset revealed in these notes as "chilling," "eerie," and "haunting." Once again, it seemed, Americans had been caught in a state of incomprehension: what kind of religious beliefs could propel people to murder thousands of innocent civilians?
Americans had experienced that same incomprehension, drawn out over a longer period of time, in 1979, when militant Iranian students took 52 American citizens hostage within the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Who were these people? What strange religious and political sentiments motivated them to do such things?