Hijack suspect lived a life, or a lie
By Elizabeth Neuffer, Globe Staff, 9/25/2001
NEW YORK – By now, even those who love Ziad Jarrah are confused about the truth of his 26-year-old life.
The Lebanese student, says the FBI, helped hijack United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco and aim it toward Washington, part of the deadly terrorist plot that unfolded Sept. 11.
But for that to be true, the young engineer would have had to live a double life worthy of a first-rate spy – concealing from his family, girlfriend, and friends that he was a Muslim extremist, not the religiously moderate, pro-American, fun-loving person they knew him to be.
”It makes no sense,” his uncle, Jamal Jarrah, said in a telephone interview from the village of Al-Marj, Lebanon, recalling that two days before the hijacking, his nephew called and told the family he’d be coming home for a cousin’s wedding in mid-September. ”He said he had even bought a new suit for the occasion.”
Of all the dozens of mysteries still swirling around this month’s devastating terrorist attacks, the life of alleged hijacker Jarrah has emerged as one of the more perplexing.
From Lebanon to Germany to the United States, there are few clues as to why he would have joined a terrorist organization, much less commandeered an airplane in a suicidal mission that claimed dozens of innocent lives as well as his own. Flight 93 crashed in rural southwest Pennsylvania, after passengers apparently tackled the hijackers.
Jarrah emerged as a suspect in that hijacking when FBI agents, reviewing flight manifests, found a Ziad Jarrahi – the ”i” in the last name a possible misspelling – on United Airlines Flight 93. Along with Jarrah, the other names on the FBI’s suspect list included Ahmed Alhaznawi, Ahmed Alnami, and Saeed Alghamdi – although at week’s end authorities acknowledged the list could contain errors.
So far, the best evidence of Jarrah’s involvement is in the striking parallels between his life and that of other alleged hijackers – and the fact that on Sept. 11 he went missing.
Jarrah lived in Hamburg, Germany, as did Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, who allegedly flew the planes that struck the World Trade Center. Like them, he attended a technical university (although not the same one they did) and then moved to Florida to take flight lessons. His roommate for two months this summer was Alhaznawi, another of the suspected hijackers.
And on Sept. 11, he vanished. It was his girlfriend, Aisle Senguen, who first alerted the police, calling to report him missing. German federal police say they found a suitcase of ”airplane-related documents” in her home.
But Senguen, who is now in a witness protection program, denied in a recent telephone conversation with the family that Jarrah was acquainted with any of the other alleged hijackers.
Echoed Jarrah’s uncle: ”He knew none of them – he was at a different university.” Convinced of his nephew’s innocence, he added, ”Maybe someone stole his ID. Maybe he was simply on the flight en route to visit some friends.”
Or maybe Ziad Jarrah did lead a double life – not atypical for members of Al Qaeda, the worldwide terrorist organization headed by Osama bin Laden.
Evidence presented in this year’s trial of four men accused of the 1998 bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania revealed that Al Qaeda members were told to mingle with Westerners, and conceal their extremist beliefs.
And terrorism specialists say that the practice of presenting one persona to the world, and keeping another secret, is a brand of spycraft not unknown in certain parts of the Islamic world.
”Taqiyya is what it is called,” explained German terrorism expert Bassam Tibi. ”You are two-faced. You hate me, but you smile at me.” Taqiyya, says Tibi, was practiced by many Shi’ite Muslims during historic periods of persecution by Sunni Muslims. And while Jarrah’s family was Sunni, he grew up in a Shi’ite stronghold, Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where the art of polite deception might well have been practiced.
Little else in Jarrah’s background, however, fits the profile of most Islamic extremists-turned-terrorists, typically born into a life of desperate poverty. Instead, Ziad Samir Jarrah was born May 11, 1975, the only son in a prosperous, educated family. His father, Samir, 62, is a local government official; his mother, Nasisa, 57, is a schoolteacher.
Growing up in the Bekaa Valley – a rich swath of green fields between two mountain ranges – Ziad Jarrah wanted for little. The area produces much of Lebanon’s fruit and vegetables and is also home to many of its well-to-do.
He loved sports, particularly swimming and basketball. He adored – and was doted on by – his two sisters, Dania, now 29, and Nisren, 24
And his upbringing was anything but radical. While the Jarrahs are Muslim, they are not particularly devout. In fact, believing education more important than religion, they sent their son to a series of exclusive, Christian schools.
As Ziad matured, he appeared neither political nor religious. He drank alcohol and had girlfriends. ”No one in the family has this kind of radical belief,” said Jamal Jarrah.
But by adulthood, Ziad Jarrah did have a dream: to be an airplane engineer. And so, when he graduated from high school in Beirut in 1995, the family agreed to let him follow in the footsteps of other family members who studied abroad. Jarrah chose Germany.
Although a Brooklyn apartment lease from 1995-1996 bears Ziad Jarrah’s name – and landlords there have identified his photograph – his family insists he was in Beirut at the time.
Not until 1996, they say, did Jarrah leave Lebanon for Gleisfeld, Germany, where he studied German and met Senguen. After a year, he moved to Hamburg, where he registered at the University of Applied Sciences. Senguen moved to Bochum, Germany, where she pursued her studies to become a doctor, but the two continued dating.
In Hamburg, Jarrah is remembered as a polite, quiet young man. ”He was a very, very nice boy,” recalled Rosemary Canel, who rented him a room in her stately home in a leafy suburb of Hamburg from 1997 to 1999. He rarely had friends over; he studied or watched TV while he was home.
At Hamburg’s University of Applied Sciences, Jarrah’s academic career appears to have been undistinguished. One of his professors, Ludwig Schwarz, recalled him in a telephone call as a quiet student who only got average grades.
”He didn’t stand out,” he said.
Classmate Michael Gotzmann, 25, who was in a study group with Jarrah, also has a hard time reconciling the Jarrah he knew – or thought he knew – with reports that he was one of the hijackers. ”He never said anything bad about America,” he told Der Spiegel magazine. ”To the contrary, he loved America, and said he always planned to go and study there.”
Yet Hamburg – a bustling port city where newly arrived immigrants rub shoulders with the German elite – is one hub for terrorist organizations in Germany. Studying there, Jarrah could have fallen under the sway of Islamic extremists linked to terrorist groups, says German terrorism expert Tibi.
”There is a lot of peer pressure,” even among German-born Muslims, Tibi noted, to embrace conservative Islam if not more radical groups. ”Once he was in, he might not have been able to get out,” he added.
An estimated 2,450 extremists live in Hamburg, a city of 1.7 million with a Muslim population of about 80,000, according to the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which monitors extremist groups. Al Qaeda has members in the city, as does the Palestinian group Hamas.
But if Jarrah found religion and the terrorist cause, he revealed nothing. Although records of the Federal Aviation Administration reportedly show him as having a pilot’s license in Hamburg, Jarrah told his parents he wanted to move to the United States to learn to fly a single-engine aircraft.
With their blessing, he moved to Florida at the end of 1999, living first in Hollywood, and then in June moving to Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. In Hollywood, Jarrah lived in a seedy, palm-fringed complex of mostly single-story adobe-brown apartments, typically rented mostly by winter residents.
Several other suspects, including Atta, also lived for periods of time in Hollywood. While there, Jarrah drove a flashy, red Mitsubishi Eclipse, his neighbors at Bernard apartments said. ”His car stood out,” one said. ”He seemed like a bit of a showoff.”
But he was also a model tenant, recalls Carol, the manager, who would not give her last name. ”He was a very quiet guy,” she said. ”He went to work every day. He told us he was a pilot, but he didn’t say where.”
In June, Jarrah moved to Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, where he roomed with Alhaznawi in an apartment attached to their landlord’s house.
”They said they were taking flying lessons around here,” said landlord Charles Lisa. ”They were polite and friendly … At times they had quite a few visitors over, but I never suspected anything.”
During his time there, Jarrah studied street fighting techniques at a local gym. He paid for the lessons in cash, said Bert Rodriguez, owner of US 1 Gym in Dania Beach. ”He was … strong, athletic, and well-coordinated. He was learning to be in control,” said Rodriguez.
When the pair were vacating their Lauderdale-by-the-Sea apartment, Lisa said, he asked them for a forwarding address. ”I’ll send you a postcard,” said Alhaznawi.
Jarrah’s family says they sent him $2,000 each month to pay for flight lessons. But last month, Jarrah did something unusual – he asked his parents for an extra $700, ”for fun.” When he called home Sept. 9, he confirmed he had received $2,700. His family believes he wanted to use the extra cash to go to California, possibly to visit friends.
But his destination, it now seems, was Newark. On Sept. 5, according to an employee of Passage Tours in Fort Lauderdale, Jarrah and his roommate each bought a one-way ticket on the Sept. 7 flight. Each paid cash.
As FBI agents scour Florida for clues to Jarrah’s life, his family has come to believe that Jarrah may well have been on Flight 93, but as an innocent passenger, not a perpetrator of the biggest terrorist attack in US history.
For his family to believe otherwise would be to admit they didn’t know him at all. ”It is unbelievable someone – anyone – would do this,” sobbed Jamal Jarrah over the telephone. ”Unbelievable.”
Globe special correspondents Amie Parnes contributed from Miami, Sylke Schumann from Berlin, and Isabel Stolte from Hamburg.