With all the books that came after 9/11about the Taliban, the little tiff between Islam and the West, and countless hagiographies of all things Giulianinot a single one concerned the people who did the deed.
For all of bin Ladens financing and fatwas, for all the Talibans passive (and active) support, it was 19 menall but four Saudi citizensthat made Khalid Sheikh Muhammads wicked plan a murderous reality. A few pages of Terry McDermotts scrupulously reported Perfect Soldiers: The HijackersWho They Were, Why They Did It makes it clear why their story was not among the first (or 15th) to be told: Tracking down a community of globally dispersed jihadists is really hard. At the risk of stating the obvious, dead martyrs (or combat teams, for all you Ward Churchill fans) dont give interviews.
Nevertheless, the questions raised by the hijackers lives are fascinating. How do so many young men go about abandoning lifes prospectsand however humble, these guys had other optionsto become human missiles? Where does the certainty come from to concede that its not only OK to kill innocents, but its actually Gods will?
A reporter covering the hijackers for the Los Angeles Times, McDermott doesnt answer these questions directly, but he sheds more light on them than anyone to date. At worst, Perfect Soldiers offers tidbits for pondering less Why do they hate us? than Is radical Islam a misogynist death cult?
The story of Egyptian-born Muhammad Atta provides a case in point. Like most of his fellow conspirators families, his rejected political Islam for a more secular Arab nationalism. For Attas father, manhood was linked with professional achievement, specifically earning a Ph.D.
So it was no doubt humiliating for young Muhammad when his sisters earned doctorates from a graduate school his test scores kept him out of. Maybe this is only a minor footnote, but could such an early emasculation have helped him become the sort of pious bigot whose last will specifies that no woman should visit his grave?
To say Atta had problems with women is like describing North Koreas Kim Jong Il as having some control issues. The portrait McDermott paints is of a man so profoundly humorless he makes James Dobson look like Krusty the Clown. As many of his former roommates noted, Atta never smiled or laughed. He would enter and leave rooms without acknowledging people in them. Women in sleeveless blouses made him uncomfortable. He even lamented the necessity of eating.
McDermott devotes considerable time to profiling Atta and others in the Hamburg group, a gaggle of students from throughout the Arab world who became radicalized together in the mid-1990s. One of the books main points is how this strain of Islam needed Western democracies to flourish. In many Arab nations, Islamists are suppressed by the government, but throughout Western Europe theyre free to denounce the governments of their choice, while tempting young minds with the greater glories of jihad.
McDermott manages to stay above the fray by not judging his subjects or engaging in cheap shots of jingoism. His voice is dry, but he communicates a lot of information with clarity. As a dyed-in-the-wool reporter, hes less comfortable with ideas and their implications than with facts. This works both for him and against him. For instance, he details how the Hamburg crew was captivated by tapes of speeches from fiery imams, and jihad videos featuring battle footage from Chechnya, Afghanistan and Bosnia, but he doesnt take it further. The role that home-brewed counter-media played in building a network of otherwise disparate radicals is never expanded upon. Without it, one has to wonder if bin Ladenan engineer with no clerical bona fidescouldve built up his reputation as the Bill Gates of global jihad.
Another theme left unexplored is that nearly all the pilots became radicalized in the West. While theres nothing like living in another country to teach you about your own culture, what was it about being an Arab man that made them more vulnerable to hate? Finally, McDermott notesbut doesnt highlightthe extent to which misogyny played a part in alienating these men from Western culture and binding them to each other. The Hamburg crew was nothing if not a 24-hour sausage party. As one of his sources noted of 9/11 pilot Marwan el-Shehhi, He never spoke about women as anything other than potential marriage partners and never spoke to them at all unless compelled.
Theres plenty of imperfection in Perfect Soldiers. At times, facts are jammed on top of each other to make it feel less like a narrative than a case file. Nevertheless, this is a refreshing, and often chilling account of the people who brought us 9/11and the countless others who yearn to produce the sequel. PERFECT SOLDIERS: THE HIJACKERS: WHO THEY WERE, WHY THEY DID IT By Terry McDermott Harper Collins New York $25.95 336 pp.