St. Petersburg Times Online: World&Nation
Place an Ad Calendars Classified Forums Sports Weather

printer version

He seemed like such a nice boy

Follow the path Ziad Jarrah took from beloved, well-educated son to terrorist hijacker.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 14, 2001

Interactive Flash graphic: Odyssey of a terrorist
[You'll need the Macromedia Flash Player to view this presentation. If you need it, click here.]
In mock battles at a gym near Fort Lauderdale, Ziad Jarrah practiced how to evade an attacker's punch. He learned to block a knife-wielding hand and to stun a wily enemy with a gun.

The most important conditioning was mental, however. Trainer Bert Rodriguez taught the slim, cleanshaven young man how to react to danger and control his fears.

"He was focused on his mission in life and he was happy," Rodriguez says.

Terrorist hijacker Ziad Jarrah apparently was flying United Airlines Flight 93 when passengers overcame him. The plane crashed in Pennsylvania.
Little did Rodriguez know that Jarrah would soon practice for real. The lessons in the gym last summer were the final steps in his evolution from a carefree boy into a human bomb.

On Sept. 11, Jarrah, 26, was apparently at the controls of United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco when passengers overcame him and three fellow hijackers. The plane crashed in Pennsylvania.

From Lebanon to Germany to the United States -- Jarrah's odyssey offers a window into the dark dynamics that produce suicide bombers.

To Americans, last month's attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center are so frightening because the 19 hijackers seemed like madmen who cared nothing for their lives.

The available evidence suggests, however, that many of the men -- ages 20 to 33 -- were relatively normal as youths, with typical adolescent angst.

They came to radical Islam from different backgrounds under different circumstances. Some were lured by spiritual hunger. Some were pushed by a relative or friend. Some were searching for a cause larger than themselves after experiencing a setback: bad grades, a troubled relationship, a sense of restlessness or alienation.

Most likely, psychologists say, the hijackers were fueled by a lethal mix: frustration, restlessness, religious devotion and male bonding.

Throughout their lengthy indoctrinations, small groups of men quietly worked, prayed and received intense lectures about Islam.

As they learned to share a common religious goal, they forged a bond not unlike combat officers pulled together in commando training schools.

Yet none of them remains more of an enigma than Jarrah, the sweet-faced son of an affluent Lebanese family that favored Western clothes and paid little attention to religion and politics.

His family is still stunned, unable to accept that their affable only son was a religious fanatic bent on mass murder and suicide.

"I am his mother and the best person in the world to judge him," Nafissa Jarrah says, describing Ziad as a kind young man. "We know the person we have raised and I know he is not capable of such horror."

Experts aren't convinced. To understand people like Ziad Jarrah, they say, you have to look beyond their personality into their environment.

Born into war

Ziad Samir Jarrah was a child of war. In Lebanon, clashes between Christians, Muslims and Druse, dating back centuries, gave violence a new meaning. About a year after Ziad's birth in 1975, troops from Syria, 20 miles from his home in the Bekaa Valley, entered the volatile brew. A new civil war killed thousands, and much of Lebanon, once called the "Switzerland of the Middle East," was essentially reduced to rubble.

When Ziad was 3, Israel invaded Lebanon to stop attacks by Palestinians. Then came American troops to deal with the fallout of the Israeli invasion. French and Italians followed, all trying to stop a bloody orgy of assassinations, car bombings, kidnappings and massacres.

The Bekaa Valley gradually became known as a haven for terrorists.

Still, Ziad seemed to have the kind of bloodlines that promised success. In his village of al-Marj, where the two-story family home is surrounded by trees and plants, the Jarrahs had money and influence.

Ziad's father, Samir Jarrah, was a government social service inspector; his mother taught in an elementary school. The family had money from a 25-acre farm inherited from a grandfather.

"He had everything going for him," Jamal Jarrah, his uncle, told reporters in Lebanon. He is a banker and campaigner for Lebanon's wealthy prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

Ziad had two sisters, Dania, a year older, and Nisrine, a few years younger. Their parents pampered them all, but Ziad was raised with "special care because he was the only son," his uncle says.

The family did everything to protect the kids. Their mother even kept them out of school once during a thunderstorm, a childhood friend recalled.

Ziad's parents, both Sunni Muslims, sent him to Christian schools, including one in Beirut, where the family has an apartment.

When it was safe, the Jarrahs traveled outside Beirut so the children could release pent-up tensions caused by continuous bombings, according to Ziad's uncle.

Still, "when violence is part of a child's everyday existence, you tend to become hardened -- desensitized to it," says Jason Spiegelman, a board member of the American Association of Suicidology.

In the short term, war can make children emotionally withdrawn, experts say. Others may suffer a loss of trust, aggressive behavior or a tendency toward revenge.

Complicating things, Lebanon developed a culture of "altruistic suicide," where suicide is sanctioned, even encouraged.

The term "suicide bomber" was coined by an Associated Press reporter in Beirut in a story about a young man who drove a bomb-laden car into the Iraqi Embassy in 1981.

When Ziad was 8, a suicide bomber blew up the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 servicemen. The violence inspired extremists who quickly saw the tactical pluses of suicide attacks: They left no suspects to squeal on collaborators.

Palestinian guerrillas recruited suicide bombers from refugee camps. Hezbollah, a radical Shiite Muslim group operating in the Bekaa Valley, made a promise to young Lebanese: If they killed the "infidels" (notably the Israelis occupying South Lebanon), they would get a place in paradise alongside 72 black-eyed virgins. The families they left behind would get other benefits, including health care and housing allowances from private support groups.

"There was no shortage of volunteers," says A. Nizar Hamzeh, an expert in Islamic issues at the American University of Beirut. "Suicide, on its own, is condemned, but if you take suicide for a higher purpose, a young man becomes a martyr . . . a hero."

Ziad's parents say that the family never discussed martyrdom attacks and that Ziad never was interested in joining any religious group or political party.

Nonetheless, psychologists say that in cultures where suicide is romanticized, there are more suicides. This is especially true for high school students, 80 percent of whom think of suicide anyway, says psychologist Lisa Firestone, who studies the relationship between violent thoughts and violent behavior.

Ziad was eager to prove himself. After attending the Christian Patriarchate college in Beirut, he asked if he could continue his studies in the United States. "But his parents wanted him to be closer to them and convinced him to go to Germany," Jarrah's uncle says.

When Ziad left in April 1996, his protective parents had no idea he could be an easy target for extremists.


After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Germany saw an explosion of fringe groups -- neo-Nazis, skinheads, new religions of all types.

Young people flocked to them, seeking replacements for mainstream institutions that had collapsed with communism. Across Germany, Arab students began to line up to hear fiery sermons by imams calling for holy war against the West.

Ziad Jarrah spent his first year at the University of Greifswald near the Baltic Sea. Outgoing and handsome in a clean-cut way, he seemed to make friends easily. He quickly learned German. He also found a pretty girl, a Turk with German citizenship named Aisle Senguen. After a short time, they exchanged silver engagement rings.

His family looked after the couple, sending $1,500 a month for living expenses.

There were problems, however. Jarrah wanted to study medicine, but he was late in submitting the required documents from Lebanon, his uncle says. Ziad's fiancee got her paperwork in on time. When she moved to the town of Bochum to attend medical school, Jarrah transferred to the University of Applied Science in Hamburg to be closer to her.

There, he signed up for a different field of study: aircraft engineering. He told his parents he wanted to be a pilot.

Jarrah was 22, eager to live his life at full throttle and looking for a way to channel his energy.

"In the transition between adolescent and manhood, between daredevil and fearful," professor Hamzeh calls it. Without commenting specifically on Jarrah's case, Hamzeh says many Arab students who went to the West suffered from "culture shock."

Disillusioned, they sometimes turned to mosques, prayer circles or fundamentalist groups.

By the time Jarrah got to Hamburg in the winter of 1997, he was already changing. He stopped drinking and became a devout Muslim who prayed five times a day. He never told his family about his conversion, and they say they never noticed any changes.

"He was still the same person," his uncle says.

People at his university agree. Jarrah's professors describe him as an average student, though he worked hard. His German classmates say nothing suggested he was a zealot.

During the week, German students occasionally visited him in a small apartment in a Hamburg suburb. After the attacks, classmate Michael Gotzmann told reporters how he studied, cooked and laughed with Jarrah, who never said a bad word about the United States.

"On the contrary, he loved that country," Gotzmann said. "He absolutely wanted to go there."

Almost every weekend, Jarrah drove to Bochum to see his fiancee, who wasn't religious. His name was next to hers on the mailbox of her tiny second-floor dorm room.

Sometime in 1998, authorities say, Jarrah met Mohamed Atta, an Egyptian studying urban planning at another university in Hamburg. Atta founded a fundamentalist group that authorities say was a terror cell. The group, they say, believed in global jihad to rid the world of "infidels." They suspect Atta recruited the fun-loving Lebanese man.

Atta's group and other underground cells in Europe were on a talent hunt for leaders to help in their holy war. They had been enraged by America's bombing of Iraq and Israel's continuing military actions against the Palestinians.

These cells, authorities say, secretly bought supplies for terrorist plots, such as cell phones, computers and chemicals. They raised money, arranged for visas and IDs, and they supplied volunteers to train in terrorist camps in Afghanistan run by Osama Bin Laden.

Europe's universities were a fertile recruiting ground, and antiterrorism police in Germany say Jarrah fit the profile.

He was educated, computer literate and multilingual. He was financially independent and comfortable in Western circles. He was an aspiring pilot. And psychologist Firestone says Jarrah's roots in a war-torn country that encouraged children to martyr themselves may have made him more receptive to a group that tried to give its members a sense of community and a feeling of power.

He also had an agreeable nature. Jarrah began attending Atta's prayer circle.


In a brown wood house at the edge of the university, the men studied and discussed contemporary events. They meditated and collectively recited verses from the Koran.

Experts say the indoctrination methods were similar to "influence techniques" used by many fringe groups and cults.

Members were gradually clued in to radical doctrines. They were taught that only believers in Allah were saved; unbelievers, even less devout Muslims, were seen as infidels.

The men also were taught that orthodox Muslim men were expected to suppress sexual urges and restrict contact with women. They were allowed to kiss only their mothers, sisters, aunts and daughters -- women they couldn't marry.

"The male relationships in these groups are critical," says Lionel Tiger, an anthropologist best known for developing the concept of male bonding. Because they had little to do with women, their reliance on other men grew.

Just like young men going through a rigorous college hazing, men in extremist groups feel intense social pressure to conform, experts say. Members who don't show total loyalty are badmouthed as malcontents. Those who are more committed begin to experience a sense of power.

"The cause (jihad, or holy war) is the common ground, the bond of unity," Hamzeh says.

After the attacks, Jarrah's landlady told a German newspaper she had noticed Ziad "becoming a religious fanatic." Another German paper said he apparently fought with his fiancee over her Western lifestyle. He wanted her to wear a veil, and he didn't want her to smoke, listen to Western music or go dancing.

What happened next isn't clear. At some point, British prosecutors say, Jarrah may have traveled to Phoenix, Ariz., to get a taste of flying. He also may have visited London, where trips were often organized to terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.

Jarrah apparently traveled back and forth to Germany, where he visited his fiancee and took his last exam in July 1999.

He told classmates he was dropping out to study in the United States. He promised to stay in touch.

Then he disappeared.

His worried fiancee called his parents in Lebanon. She feared he had gone to Afghanistan.

There, in the mountains, holy warriors learned to make bombs and practice poison techniques by administering cyanide to dogs. It was in the camps, experts say, that men drawn together by holy war sealed their bond through common rituals, trials and dangerous missions.

Defectors have testified that they were clued in to "spectacular attacks" planned on Western targets. They learned how to "blow up the infrastructure of a country." One defector recalled how bin Laden, who had become a sort of cult hero, came to a camp and exhorted the men to "work hard at training to get the skills to fight the Americans."

Whereas many Islamists give up their pasts and their families, Jarrah talked to his relatives constantly. They deny reports that Ziad went to Afghanistan and say they continued to send him money for flight lessons in the states.

Act like the enemy

Bin Laden's soldiers had been taught to act like the enemy. A training manual instructed them to shave their beards, carry cologne in their luggage and act like they were interested in women.

When Jarrah got to Florida in the fall of 2000, he kept to the script.

He endeared himself to some acquaintances, who said he smiled constantly. They described him as the kind of agreeable guy you would want to take to a baseball game.

Other people saw a different side. Thorsten Biermann, a young German who took flying lessons with Jarrah in Venice, noticed on a training flight that he seemed to crave danger.

Last February, Jarrah returned to Lebanon for the last time. His father was having open-heart surgery. His mother says Ziad stayed with his dad in the hospital and was "the lovely Ziad he always was."

He didn't try to convert any of his relatives. He didn't criticize his older sister, a business school graduate who lived in France and loved to party. He didn't even fault his baby sister, Nisrine, a tall, slender young woman who liked to wear tight pants and tank tops.

Jarrah stayed in Lebanon for 10 days.

Authorities say he also may have made a trip to Bochum to see his fiancee. They also suspect that he, Atta and a third hijacker cleared out their belongings in Hamburg.

When Jarrah returned to the states, investigators believe he flew briefly to Las Vegas to meet several hijackers and Lofti Raissi, an Algerian pilot. British prosecutors suspect Lofti was making sure the hijackers were capable of taking control of their planes.

At the US 1 Fitness Center in Dania, where he signed up for street-fighting instruction in May, employees got a glimpse of Jarrah's two sides.

Trainer Rodriguez saw the air of quiet maturity. He described Jarrah as a diligent, almost egoless student who seemed eager to please and succeed. But he also tended to stick to safe subjects when he talked, and his expression was sometimes tight.

"A frigid face," says gym employee Alex Castro. Very little emotion.

Near the gym, Jarrah rented a gray house in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, where he was just another anonymous face amid Roller Bladers, beach bums and retirees. He tooled around in a red Mitsubishi with Ahmed Alhaznawi, a 20-year-old Saudi man who would join him on Flight 93.

In late August, investigators believe, Jarrah traveled north to a suburb of Washington, where he joined hijackers assigned to the flight that would crash into the Pentagon.

Jarrah called home and asked his younger sister Nisrine, 21, to convince their father to give him extra money. He said he needed it to "have some fun."

On Sept. 4, his parents sent $2,000 via Western Union.

Two days before the attacks, Jarrah called home to thank them. He sounded upbeat, his family says. He planned to complete another semester in pilots' school, then return to Germany and Lebanon to marry his fiancee, have kids and find a job.

"How would he make all these plans if he was planning on bombing himself," says his sister, Nisrine.

Final hours

On his last night, Ziad Jarrah was instructed to make an oath to die. A step-by-step manual told the hijackers how to prepare for paradise -- which assignments to perform, what clothes to wear, which prayers to say.

The Day of Judgment, the manual said, had arrived. It is the time the Muslim faithful are to be questioned by two angels. Only those who died as martyrs will be guaranteed a place in heaven; everyone else will go through a type of purgatory.

Psychologist Firestone says the elaborate rituals detailed in the manual suggest a "suicide pact." They helped the hijackers gain control over their own deaths, while making them more dependent on each other.

"If one person became ambivalent, another roped him back in," the psychologist says.

The night before the attacks, the manual said, the men were to fast, study the battle plan and read war chapters from the Koran. They were to shave their bodies, shower and tame and purify their souls so they could understand "100 percent obedience."

Recognizing the fear they were feeling, the manual offered this key to emotional survival: "Forget something called this world. . . . You should feel complete tranquility because the time between you and your marriage in heaven is very short."

The next morning, Jarrah and the other hijackers were to pray alone and then together for their luggage, their clothes, their knives and their papers.

"Check your weapons before you leave," the manual instructed. "You must make your knife sharp and must not discomfort your animal during the slaughter."

They were instructed to say a prayer for traveling as they stepped onto the planes and a prayer for victory after the planes started to move. Then, as they stormed the cockpits, the men were to shout "Allahu Akbar," meaning "Allah is the greatest."

If they became distracted, the manual warned, it "would be treason." And in the moments before impact, they were to pray, "There is no God but God."

Investigators suspect Jarrah took the controls of Flight 93 somewhere above Ohio, then abruptly turned it around, apparently bound for a target in Washington.

Some of the passengers had learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center, however. They charged the hijackers.

The plane crashed in the countryside southeast of Pittsburgh.

After the attacks

Jarrah's worried fiancee reported him missing for the second time in two years.

When the German police arrived at her apartment, they found a suitcase with what they called "airplane-related documents." They took her into protective custody.

At the crash site, investigators found a copy of the hijackers' final instructions.

In Lebanon, the attacks left people embarrassed. Government officials said Jarrah was never involved in any radical groups and may have been an innocent passenger, not a hijacker.

On the wall outside the family's apartment in Beirut, someone scratched in pencil, "What people say makes no difference."

In the Bekaa Valley, where he was born and loved, his family refuses to wear black. A village sheik said no one should mourn until there is evidence of a body.

Huddled under vines in their courtyard, family and guests waited for a call that there had been some mistake. It never came.

-- Correspondents Cilina Nasser and Samar Kanafani in Beirut, Times staff writer Nancy Paradis and Times researchers Kitty Bennett, John Martin, Barbara Oliver and Cathy Wos contributed to this report, which contains information from Der Spiegel, Das Bild and Times wires.

Back to World & National news

Back to Top

© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South • St. Petersburg, FL 33701 • 727-893-8111
Special Links
Susan Taylor Martin

From the Times wire desk
  • It's Arab news in Western style
  • Bill would help ensure health of jobless since Sept. 11
  • Religious charity bill to be sliced
  • He seemed like such a nice boy
  • Flood of cash for N.Y. leaves other charities dry
  • Canada beefs up border security, adds ID cards
  • Pilot: Taliban's weapons antiquated, but functional
  • America strikes notebook
  • More cases of exposure reported
  • Saudi philanthropy or funding for terrorists?
  • Antiwar protests fill the streets in Europe
  • Terror's new focus unheeded
  • Atta: Shy child to single-minded killer
  • A better system?
  • The last 12 days
  • Care needed in anthrax tests
  • Afghans welcome 'strange' food aid
  • Afghan rebels expect to take Kabul in a month
  • Taliban's soldiers survive a week of U.S. airstrikes
  • Bomb destroys Kabul homes

  • From the AP
    national wire
    From the AP
    world desk