Sunday, 1 June 2008

Book Review: Perfect Soldiers, by Terry McDermott (2005)

Who exactly were the 19 suicide hijackers who carried out the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001?

Los Angeles Times reporter Terry McDermott sets off on a journey to find out the many stories behind one of the biggest stories of our time. This is a book at the human scale: the focus is on the attackers and their individual motives, rather than the overall geopolitical and broader strategic objectives of the attack.

To some extent, McDermott succeeds in delivering a new level of detail and nuance to the lives of some of the key plot members, including Mohamed el-Amir Atta, Ziad Jarrah, and Marwan al-Shehhi.

Undertstanding and describing the full reasons for the transformation of seemingly normal young men, suffering through not untypical passages of life, into radicalized religious extremists is an almost impossible tasks. The numerous compounding social and psychological factors that interact to complete the journey to extremism can be described from the outside, and McDermott does this well. Without access to the obviously deceased men themselves, the story from the inside remains shrouded.

McDermott provides insight through the stories of friends and relatives who were close to the hijackers, particularly during their time in Germany. For example Jarrah's girlfriend becomes a perplexed but entangled observer of her man's journey into increasingly erratic behaviour.

The book falls short in discovering the stories of the many lesser known hijackers, particularly those from Saudi Arabia. It appears that McDermott had a lot less access to information and contacts from the Saudi kingdom, and so many of the secondary characters remain just that.

McDermott also spends a lot of time and text re-treading the very well known stories of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed (the plot mastermind), Ramzi bin al-Shibh (who desparately tried to join the hijackers and but was repeatedly refused a visa), and Ramzi Yousef (Khaled Sheikh Mohammed's nephew and the mastermind behind the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Centre). McDermott offers very little that is new here, and many of these stories were covered as early as 1999 in Simon Reeve's book "The New Jackals". The 2003 book "Masterminds of Terror" by Fouda and Fielding also covered much of this territory from the inside.

Without being groundbreaking, "Perfect Soldiers" is an important piece of the library for those interested in understanding, as completely as it is possible to understand, the events of September 11, 2001.

Published by Harper Collins, 270 pages.

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