Three handwritten copies of a five-page Arabic document were found by the FBI after the September 11 attack: one in a car used by the hijackers and left outside Dulles International Airport, one in a piece of Mohammad Atta’s luggage that, by accident, did not get on the plane from Logan Airport, one in the wreckage of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. Only a part of this document—pages two through five—is publicly available; it was posted on the FBI Web site on September 28, 2001.1 In view of the number of copies found, it is reasonable to assume that there were other copies in the luggage of the other hijackers. If so, it is unlikely that many of the hijackers did not know the suicidal nature of their mission, as some commentators have argued. Since one of the three copies was found in Mohammad Atta’s luggage, it also seems unlikely that the hijackers were trying, by leaving copies of the documents behind, to mislead the investigators who would retrace their steps after the event.2
We don’t know who wrote this document. From everything in it, the author seems to have been an organizer of the attacks. But the text contains a valuable record of the ideas that the hijackers would have been expected to accept. One of its underlying assumptions is that all its intended readers were going to die. It seems clearly intended for the eyes of the hijackers and no one else, and reads as if it were written to stiffen their resolve. One would expect each person to have studied his copy very carefully beforehand, reading it over many times before the mission.
The document is in effect an exacting guide for achieving the unity of body and spirit necessary for success. It is not a training manual of procedures, applicable to different situations; most of the sentences seem tailored to the particulars of the Septem- ber 11 operation. There are no technical instructions or operational instructions in the four pages, only a fairly obvious list of practical precautions:
[Check] the suitcase, the clothes, the knife, your tools, your ticket, …your passport, all your papers. Inspect your weapon before you leave…. Tighten your clothes well as you wear them. This is the way of the righteous predecessors, may God’s blessings be upon them. They tightened their clothes as they wore them prior to battle. And tighten your shoes well, and wear socks that hold in the shoes and do not come out of them.
In fact, it seems that an effort has been made to eliminate clues about the intended target should the document happen to fall into the wrong hands before the raid was carried out. No mention of the target is made throughout the document, and letters substitute for names or places. For example, “M” is used for matar, or airport, and “T” is used for ta’irah, or plane.
Page two begins abruptly, without the traditional basmallah, or invocation of God’s name, and without any of the formulaic phrases which one would expect in a text permeated with references to the Koran and the Prophet. The Washington Post published a translation—evidently leaked by US officials—of two extracts from page one of the copy found in the luggage of Mohammad Atta, who is thought to have been the ringleader of the terrorist group. This page contains the basmallah and the sentence,
Remember the battle of the Prophet…against the infidels, as he went on building the Islamic state.
The fragment of Islam’s history that is implicitly glorified in the document is the ten-year “state-building” period between 622, the year of the Prophet’s flight from Mecca, and 632, the year of his death. Before 622 the Prophet had followers and a calling that was at odds with the existing order of pagan worship in Mecca; after 622, he was the leader of an emerging political community that was at first limited to the township of Medina and struggled to extend its scope throughout the peninsula. This period, stripped of all historical context, becomes the mythical environment in which the hijackers view their actions.
To consolidate his position the Prophet engaged in “raids,” the Arabic for which is ghazwah. Raiding for loot, not territory or retaliation, occurred frequently among the impoverished nomads of pre-Islamic Arabia. During the short period of his reign as the head of the emerging Muslim state, the Prophet, in his actions and instructions, sought to redefine the character and purpose of the raids and to make the object the benefit of the community, not individual gain. Over the centuries the frequency of raids in the name of Islam rose and fell. They came to an end in the early twentieth century with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of a strong central authority under the House of Saud. The reconstituted ghazwah directed at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and other targets is intended to overturn that history and bring men back to the example of the Prophet. According to the text,
Consider that this is a raid on a path. As the Prophet said: “A raid… on the path of God is better than this World and what is in it.”
The object of the document is apparent: to have the hijackers act as a firmly committed group. To this end, the unknown author outlines a series of rituals that are to be performed beginning with “the last night.” This section contains fifteen items; the first item directs the readers to make a “mutual pledge to die and [a] renewal of intent” to carry out the mission. If there was a ceremony accompanying the rituals, we have no full account of it. The text specifies that a ritual washing should take place; that excess hair should be shaved from the body, and perfume applied to it. The night is to be spent in prayer, going over the details of the plan, reciting selected chapters of the Koran. The reader is urged to maintain a positive attitude and purify his heart:
Forget and force yourself to forget that thing which is called World; the time for amusement is gone and the time of truth is upon us. We have wasted so much time in our life. Should we not use these hours to offer actions that make us closer [to God]?
The “second phase” starts the following morning with the journey to the airport. The document urges the reader to repeatedly remind himself of God. This takes the form of a series of conventional invocations calling for God’s blessing. At each point in the journey a different invocation is to be made. The text of the invocation is taken for granted and is not specified in the document. A typical such invocation for boarding a vehicle—a taxi in this case—would be “Oh God, may you make my entry to this car a safe entry, and my exit from it a safe exit. May you make my journey an easy one, and may you grant me support and success in all my endeavors.” The hijackers are reminded of other invocations they should keep on reciting silently in order to fortify their resolve at each stage of their journey. Once each invocation has been made, the hijacker is told to
Smile and feel secure, God is with the believers, and the angels are guarding you without you feeling them.
The hijacker is assured that “all their [the enemy’s] equipment, and all their gates, and all their technology do not do benefit or harm, except with the permission of God.” He is told not to fear such things. Those who do are “the followers of Satan.” They are “the admirers of Western civilization,” who have become besotted in their love of it. Their forebears are the ones who feared Satan over God to begin with, and became his followers:
Fear is indeed a great act of worship offered by the followers of God and by the believers only to the One God who rules over all things….
This idea evokes the spirit of some of the most powerful passages of the Koran relating to the Day of Judgment—often expressed in short, forceful sentences and in the present tense. Dreadful punishments were inflicted by God upon sinful cities that refused to listen to the warnings of their prophets in the past. These were signs of what was coming, and coming soon. There was no time to waste. “The Hour has drawn nigh,” the Koran warns, “the moon is split.”3 Men should live, think, and act on the premise that further horrible catastrophes lay just ahead. True Believers are those who tremble when they call upon God; their very skin creeps at the reciting of the Koran.
Taqwa, the fear of God, remains at the core of the Islamic relation between the human and the Divine. The anticipation of impending doom it fosters is balanced, however, by the worldly emphasis of the subsequent phases of the Prophet’s experience as the ruler of Medina. Later developments in Muslim civilization relegate the most extreme forms of “fear as worship” to ecstatic and mystical experience, an emphasis found particularly within the Sufi tradition. By contrast, for the author of this manual an overpowering fear of God must rule in the mind of the True Believer, a fear that so focuses the mind as to rid it of all mundane considerations arising from experience and observation, thus enabling the Believer to remain utterly concentrated on his mission. In support of this the manual cites the Koranic verse, “Fear them not, but fear Me, if you are Believers.”4
The “third phase” cited by the text begins when the hijackers set foot on the plane. Again, the author reminds his accomplices of the importance of performing in their hearts the necessary ritualistic invocations and supplications upon boarding the plane and being seated:
Keep busy with the repeated invocation of God…. When the [airplane] starts moving and heads toward [takeoff], recite the supplication of travel, because you are traveling to God, May you be blessed in this travel.
More invocations and supplications follow the takeoff, which is identified in the document as the beginning of “the hour of the encounter between the two camps”:
Clench your teeth, as did [your] predecessors, God rest their souls, before engaging in battle. Upon the confrontation, hit as would hit heroes who desire not to return to the World, and loudly proclaim the name of God, that is because the proclamation of the name of God instills terror in the heart of the nonbelievers.
This passage is typical of several others that shed light on how the hijackers see themselves. Outwardly they are boarding a Boeing 757 departing from Logan Airport, or from Newark or Dulles; but according to the text they are living on a battleground, participants in a great dramatic performance that conjures up the seventh-century heroic deeds of the Companions of the Prophet. It is as if men like Ali ibn Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, are going to be on the plane with Mohammad Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, Ziad Jarrah, and the others. (The text cites approvingly a story about Ali ibn Talib never acting on the battlefield “out of a desire for vengeance.”) The killings that the hijackers are about to undertake are no longer real but part of a sacred drama. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the following chilling instructions about what to do should the hijackers encounter unexpected resistance, as we know happened on United Airlines Flight 93:
See www.fbi.gov/pressrel/pressrel01/letter.htm. No translation is now available on the FBI Web site. Our own translation will appear in Striking Terror: America's New War, a collection of articles which will be published by New York Review Books in March and which will include the present article.↩
Powerful evidence that bin Laden was behind the September 11 attack, and is therefore the inspiration behind the document, was provided by the videotape released by the Department of Defense on December 13. The tape and its transcript do not bear out earlier reports in the press that the hijackers "did not know they were on a suicide mission" (The New York Times, December 11). The crucial passage occurs in a conversation between bin Laden and a former fighter from Saudi Arabia, in which bin Laden says: "The brothers, who conducted the operation, all they knew was that they have a martyrdom operation and we asked each of them to go to America but they didn't know anything about the operation, not even one letter. But they were trained and we did not reveal the operation to them until they are there and just before they boarded the planes."
The handwritten document that we discuss in this article, which never mentions targets, supports bin Laden's claim that the hijackers did not know the intended targets of their mission. It also makes it clear that the intended readers of the document (that is, the members of the team of hijackers not identified in the document by name or number) knew that they were carrying out a "martyrdom operation," to quote bin Laden. In view of the culture of martyrdom promoted by al-Qaeda, it is most unlikely that people who were not united in their desire to die for bin Laden's cause would have been chosen for such a critical undertaking.↩
See www.fbi.gov/pressrel/pressrel01/letter.htm. No translation is now available on the FBI Web site. Our own translation will appear in Striking Terror: America’s New War, a collection of articles which will be published by New York Review Books in March and which will include the present article.↩
Powerful evidence that bin Laden was behind the September 11 attack, and is therefore the inspiration behind the document, was provided by the videotape released by the Department of Defense on December 13. The tape and its transcript do not bear out earlier reports in the press that the hijackers “did not know they were on a suicide mission” (The New York Times, December 11). The crucial passage occurs in a conversation between bin Laden and a former fighter from Saudi Arabia, in which bin Laden says: “The brothers, who conducted the operation, all they knew was that they have a martyrdom operation and we asked each of them to go to America but they didn’t know anything about the operation, not even one letter. But they were trained and we did not reveal the operation to them until they are there and just before they boarded the planes.”
The handwritten document that we discuss in this article, which never mentions targets, supports bin Laden’s claim that the hijackers did not know the intended targets of their mission. It also makes it clear that the intended readers of the document (that is, the members of the team of hijackers not identified in the document by name or number) knew that they were carrying out a “martyrdom operation,” to quote bin Laden. In view of the culture of martyrdom promoted by al-Qaeda, it is most unlikely that people who were not united in their desire to die for bin Laden’s cause would have been chosen for such a critical undertaking.↩