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:
If God grants any one of you a slaughter, you should perform it as an offering on behalf of your father and mother, for they are owed by you. Do not disagree amongst yourselves, but listen and obey.
Here we find an explanation of what it means to kill a passenger who is attempting to resist. The Arabic word used for “grant” is manna, as in the biblical manna; it connotes the idea of a bounty or an act of grace conferred by God upon a person who has not asked for it. The Arabic for “slaughter” is dhabaha. The author has pointedly chosen it over the more common qatala, which means, simply, to kill. The classical dictionaries tell us the primary meaning of dhabaha is to cleave, slit, or rip something open. This is the word used for slitting the two external jugular veins in the throat of an animal. It is quick, direct, and always physically intimate; one does not slaughter with a gun, or a bomb, from afar.
The intimacy associated with dhabaha explains the vulgar usages of the word in street or colloquial Arabic, which are designed to shock the listener, to impress upon him or her how strongly the speaker feels toward the object of dhabh (more often than not a personal enemy, a tyrant, or a criminal). But it seems clear that this vulgar usage is not why dhabaha was preferred over qatala by the author of the document. Dhabaha is also what Abraham was prepared to do to his son on God’s instructions—until Isaac in Jewish and early Muslim tradition, or Isma’il, Ishmael, in later Muslim tradition was replaced with a sheep at the last minute.5 Because of the context of the word as used in the Koran, the son is called the dhabih, or the one-to-be-sacrificed. When a Muslim sacrifices a sheep on pilgrimage today, he does so as an act of remembrance of this test of faith imposed by God. Dhabaha in the context of the hijackers’ document is such a ritual act, one that is normally performed to make an offering to God. Dhabh in this sense is an act prescribed in great detail by Muslim religious law.
The thought expressed by the author of the document is that a civilian passenger attempting to resist his hijackers is a gift bestowed by God upon the man chosen to kill him. Moreover, the killer is obligated to be selfless about the bounty that has descended upon him unasked. He is expected to turn it into an offering on behalf of his parents, “for they are owed by you.” Between God’s generosity in providing an occasion for slaughter and the obligation of filial devotion (greatly stressed in the Koran) is the act of slitting a passenger’s throat with a box-cutter. This extraordinary interpretation of the explicit and implicit intent of the Koran continues:
If you slaughter, you should plunder those you slaughter, for that is one of the sanctioned customs of the Prophet, on the condition that you do not get occupied with the plunder so that you would leave what is more important, such as paying attention to the enemy, his treachery, and attacks. That is because such action is very harmful [to the mission].
The author here is exhorting his fellow hijackers to “plunder” any passenger they may have slaughtered, an instruction that needs interpretation since the hijackers would obviously have no use for physical plunder. (The one item of plunder that would have been immediately useful to them was the cell phones they failed to demand from passengers, thereby making it possible for the passengers on one of the flights to learn about the other hijacked planes, and attack their captors.) The so-called “sanctioned custom of the Prophet” being referred to is from the hadith, the accounts of what the Prophet said and did, or of things said and done in his presence (and to which he might have given tacit approval, depending on which classical scholarly opinion one was relying upon). Among the hadith are accounts of the Prophet arbitrating disputes among warriors over the personal booty of those who had fallen in battle. The pre-Islamic custom was that a dead warrior’s weapons, for instance, belonged to the man who had killed him. The Prophet is reported to have accepted this practice. The author of the document chooses to understand the hadith stories not as indicating rules for following existing practice, but as prescribing a task that had been sanctioned by the Prophet and has become a general obligation. But then the writer qualifies himself; he reminds his comrades that although it is an obligation, it is not one that should be allowed to get in the way of what is “more important.”
The scene that is being evoked and used to instruct the hijackers here recalls something that often happened in seventh-century Arabia: an attack, for instance, on the tribe of Quraysh (prior to their conversion to Islam) was not followed up by the Prophet’s followers because everyone was too busy plundering the warriors who had fallen. The writer of the manual is telling his comrades that although the Prophet had sanctioned such pre-Islamic nomadic practices as “plundering,” this approval has to be tempered by the prerequisite of unity in action and faith in a higher purpose. True selflessness, in other words, requires an acknowledgment of the flesh- and-blood self, in order to become estranged from it.
Slaughter and plunder are thus ritualistic motions, not purposeful actions. Indeed, these motions might even interfere with the proper execution of the plan. But their importance as major components of the unfolding of the sacred drama outweighs any possible negative consequence. In the introverted world of the hijackers, a world that has effectively collapsed to the inside of the plane, practical considerations that surely would have been part of the planning stage (such as maximizing the number of casualties by targeting heavily populated buildings) are by now secondary to the need to sustain the intense psychological state crucial for completing the mission:
Afterward, implement the sanctioned custom of prisoners of war. Capture them and kill them as God said: “It does not fit a Prophet to have prisoners of war until he subdues the land. You seek the goods of this World, while God looks for the Hereafter. God is almighty, all-wise.”
In the eyes of the hijackers, the passengers in the plane are to be seen as combatants; and therefore they become prisoners of war the moment control of the plane passes into the hijackers’ hands. It is worth recalling here that all Americans were declared combatants by bin Laden in his fatwa of February 1998:
We—with God’s help—call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill Americans and plunder their money whenever and wherever they find it. We also call on Muslims…to launch the raid on Satan’s US troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them.
Of all the Islamist movements “of global reach,” including several that call for jihad, only bin Laden’s World Islamic Front has attempted to legitimize in Islamic terms the equation between citizens and combatants.
We can ask how the command to “capture and kill” the passengers, all prisoners of war, is justified in the document. The Koranic verse cited by way of justification in the hijackers’ text is al-Anfal 67. It occurs in a seventy-five-verse chapter of the Koran which concerns the rules of war, in particular those governing the division of the spoils of war among Muslims, many of whom had had their property in Mecca confiscated for joining the new religion. According to the three greatest classical commentators on the Koran (al-Qurtubi, al-Tabari, and ibn Kathir), the verse in question was written after the battle of Badr, an important engagement for early Islam in which a small Muslim force defeated a large army from Quraysh, the town of Muhammad’s own tribe, which had forced him into exile in Medina. Badr was a swift and stunning victory that yielded Muhammad and his followers considerable power and booty, as well as many prisoners.
In its aftermath, Muhammad’s two main lieutenants, the future caliphs Abu Bakr and ‘Umar, disagreed about the fate of the prisoners. While Abu Bakr favored their release in return for payment of tribute, ‘Umar called for their execution, arguing that otherwise the attention of fighters in future battles would be diverted to capturing prisoners for the sake of personal gain, instead of remaining concentrated on combat for the sake of God. While Muhammad is reported to have endorsed Abu Bakr’s position, a later Koranic revelation vindicates ‘Umar by echoing his concerns. Al-Anfal 67 is understood in the tradition as a gentle but divine reprimand directed specifically to the Prophet stressing that the purpose of battle is to defeat the enemy, not to capture prisoners for potential tribute.
Other more generally applicable verses of the Koran, however, are not mentioned in the hijackers’ manual. Muhammad 4, for instance, clearly provides for the release of prisoners of war, with or without tribute, and urges forgiveness. In all cases, the action of Muslim warriors is explicitly bound by the clear injunction of al-Baqarah 190: “Fight for the sake of God those who seek to kill you, and do not commit aggression. God does not favor those who aggress.” Over the centuries, commentators, basing themselves on the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet, have defined “aggression” as it is referred to in al-Baqarah 190.
The result is an Islamic theory of warfare which, while it varied according to the historical circumstances of Islamic states, has nonetheless been carried on within the bounds of a consensus about the treatment of people in war. The statement issued on November 4, 2001, by the Islamic Research Council at al-Azhar in Cairo, the highest moral authority in Sunni Islam, restated this consensus, which is rejected by the hijackers’ text. The Cairo statement said: “Islam provides clear rules and ethical norms that forbid the killing of noncombatants, as well as women, children, and the elderly, and also forbids the pursuit of the enemy in defeat, the execution of those who surrender, the infliction of harm on prisoners of war, and the destruction of property that is not being used in the hostilities.”6
You will be soon, with God’s permission, with your heavenly brides in Heaven. Smile in the face of death oh young man. You are head- ing to the Paradise of Eternity…. Know that the Heavens have raised their most beautiful decoration for you, and that your heavenly brides are calling you, “Come oh follower of God,” while wearing their most beautiful jewelry.
The four pages of the document contain many references such as these to the physical pleasure and beauty of the afterlife. Human existence here is seen as a mere link between a glorious past and an even more glorious future. Self-sacrificing extremists since time immemorial have resorted to one variation or another of this vision, and there is nothing particularly Islamic about it. But concrete descriptions of the next life frequently occur in the Koran; and the hijackers’ document makes abundant use of images describing different stages of being in the next world. First mentioned is al-na’im al-muqim, a realm which tradition holds is the residence of martyrs. Next comes the more common jannah, or Paradise, which is distinctly personal and more intimate in character. Finally, at the end of the manual, and with reference to the climactic end of the mission, a third abode is mentioned, al-firdaws al-a’la, the “Highest Paradise.” This is the ultimate extra-reality within which God himself resides:
When the moment of truth comes near, and zero hour is upon you, open your chest welcoming death on the path of God. Always remember to conclude with the prayer, if possible, starting it seconds before the target, or let your last words be: “There is none worthy of worship but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God.” After that, God willing, the meeting is in the Highest Paradise, in the company of God.
What could be more glorious than to be “in the company of God”? The quality that makes this document so startling and dangerous, however, does not lie here. It lies in the novel notion of martyrdom that the hijackers are attempting to inject into the Muslim tradition.
The sense throughout is that the would-be martyr is engaged in his action solely to please God. There is no mention of any communal purpose behind his behavior. In all of the four pages available to us there is not a word or an implication about any wrongs that are being redressed through martyrdom, whether in Palestine or Iraq or in “the land of Muhammad,” the phrase bin Laden used in the al-Jazeera video that was shown after September 11. All the traditional Islamic distinctions between death, suicide, and martyrdom—which Muslim thinkers have wrestled with over the centuries and continue to do so in Lebanon and Palestine today—apparently do not exist for the author. Martyrdom here is not something bestowed by God as a favor on the warrior for his selflessness and devotion to the community’s defense. It is a status to be achieved by the individual warrior, and performed as though it were his own private act of worship.
But in the tradition that is being turned on its head with this idea, the status of martyrdom has always been subject to assessments of the communal benefit at stake. Even in the case of those who defend a Muslim community or Islamic state against aggression, Islamic jurisprudence holds that violence must be proportional and that, in repelling an aggressor, only the necessary amount of force should be used. (An influential discussion of the question of proportion is to be found in the works of the medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, a major reference for the Islamist movements themselves.)
Throughout Islamic history there has been a balance between, on the one hand, the sanctity of human life and, on the other, martyrdom. Only rarely in Islamic history have religious authorities endorsed actions in the community’s defense that would mean certain death for believers. Beyond this, to justify calling someone who kills civilians and noncombatants a “martyr” is an entirely modern innovation—a change driven by invasion, occupation, and political and social breakdown in Palestine, Lebanon, and Algeria. The idea that martyrdom is a pure act of worship, pleasing to God, irrespective of God’s specific command, is a terrifying new kind of nihilism.
The uses and distortions of Muslim sources in the hijackers’ document deserve careful consideration. If arbitrary constructions of seventh-century texts and events have inflamed the imagination of such men, we should ask whether the ideas in the document will become part of the tradition that they misrepresent. To take the shell of a traditional religious conception and strip it of all its content, and then refill it with radically new content which finds its legitimation in the word of God or the example of his prophets, is a deeply subversive form of political and ideological militancy.7 To contend with such an ideology effectively it is not enough to go back to the original core of the tradition as we have tried to do here. Well before the September 11 attacks, many Muslim intellectuals realized that bold and imaginative thinking must come from within the Muslim tradition in order to present social and political ideas that Muslims will find workable and persuasive. The tragic events of the past months have shown all the more clearly how urgently such ideas are needed.
January 17, 2002
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.” ↩
Koran, 54:2. ↩
Koran, 3:175. ↩
Koran, 37:102. ↩
Al-Hayat, November 5, 2001. ↩
On how this was done by BJP Hindu ideologues to denounce Islam following the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, see the excellent essay by Neeladri Bhattacharya, “Myths, History and the Politics of Ramjanmabhumi,” in Anatomy of a Confrontation: Ayodhya and the Rise of Communal Politics in India, edited by S. Gopal (Zed Books, 1993). ↩