Is there any reason why we need to know more about the 19 hijackers who attacked America on 9/11?
Actually, there is. Los Angeles Times reporter McDermott concedes that none of these young, robotlike religious fanatics were particularly remarkable or even interesting. Indeed, they were tedious company for everyone but the like-minded. But therein lies McDermott's cautionary point. The fact that the hijackers were “fairly ordinary men” makes them more ominous, easily replaceable by any one of thousands of similar human drones presumably waiting in the wings. This account focuses primarily on three of the hijackers: Mohammed el-Amir Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah. It follows them from separate mundane childhoods in the Middle East through their student days in Hamburg to the final months of preparation in the United States. In the process, we witness their evolution from pious Muslims into radical jihadists, along with the growth of the loosely conceived plot that outwitted U.S. security largely through its sheer simplicity and insanity. McDermott never really fulfills the promise of his subtitle to explain why they did it, aside from offering the standard bromide that they saw themselves as martyrs in a holy war. But his extensive research and well-organized narrative does better in showing just who these misguided killers were and how they eluded suspicion by simply keeping their heads down. The story carries several lessons. Not the least is the repeated failure of U.S. and German authorities to prevent the catastrophe, although they were often achingly close to doing so, even days before Sept. 11. Another lesson is that despite the near-preternatural reputation Al Qaeda acquired following 9/11, the group’s small core was composed of men in many ways as bumbling and error-prone as your local Mafia crew. Tragically, it was American inattention and carelessness that allowed them to succeed.
A chilling, often depressing read that merits attention, if only for the other “perfect soldiers” who may be waiting out there.