by Jim Popkin
NBC News Senior Investigative Producer
November 24, 2008
Ziad Jarrah will forever be known as the 9-11 hijacker who
deliberately crashed United Flight 93 into a field in Pennsylvania, killing
a plane full of people just as they were bravely storming the cockpit.
But now videotape obtained by NBC News appears to confirm that Jarrah was
stage-managed - and at times even prodded along by al-Qaida - during the
early stages of the terrorist’s training.
The unlikely jihadist
The 9-11 Commission found that Jarrah was an odd fit for al-Qaida. The
Beirut-born student was Westernized, and almost backed out of the plot at
the last minute.
“Jarrah clearly differed from the other
hijackers in that he maintained much closer contact with his family and
continued his intimate relationship with” his German girlfriend, the
9-11 Commission wrote. “These ties may well have caused him to harbor
some doubts about going through with the plot, even as late as the
summer of 2001.”
The videotape was shot in Afghanistan in late
1999 or January 2000, when investigators know that Jarrah and other members
of the Hamburg cell traveled to Osama Bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan for
training and plot instructions. The unedited tape is meant to be Jarrah’s
“martyrdom” video, in which he explains why he’s committed a terrorist act
and killed himself and others.
But Jarrah frequently stumbles through his own martyrdom tape, and often
can't maintain a serious tone.
His al-Qaida handlers coach him, off-screen, to
be more dramatic.
"This speech requires passions and
enthusiasm," one of them scolds Jarrah off camera. “Start again!" the
man scolds a bit later.
"Why didn’t you try a different approach? I mean another style," a
second man chimes in. “Something for the Muslim youths…”
NBC News showed the unclassified videotape to
Tim Roemer, the former congressman who served as a member of the 9-11
“This is not reality jihadism,” Roemer said.
“Martyrdom films like this, we usually think that they're unscripted,
that they're emotional and that they're like reality TV - a view into the
soul of this person about to commit suicide for a cause. Instead, we see
in this that it's edited, that it is stylized, that people are directing
him in what to say and how to say it.”
Roemer said the tape is further evidence of
Jarrah's early reluctance.
“He was somewhat conflicted. He was one of
the least likely to be recruited. And al-Qaida was very worried that he
might pull out."
Educated in Christian schools, Jarrah was known
in his college years to frequent discos and drink beer. He was in many ways
an unlikely Islamic extremist.
And yet it was Jarrah who got pilot training in the U.S. and then
intentionally crashed United 93 on 9-11, just as passengers stormed the
cockpit. Many of them already knew the tragic fate of the passengers on the
two jets that were flown into the World Trade Center towers earlier that
Terror experts say the propaganda video - shot a year and a half before 9-11
- reveals al-Qaida's patience and determination and the lengths to which the
terror group will go to recruit extremists.
The tape “tells us that al-Qaida really
values this propaganda and really is trying to push buttons of
communication in the Middle East with a dislocated alienated youth, and
trying to get more people on their side,” Roemer said.
NBC News terrorism analyst Evan
Kohlmann said the tape shows how carefully al-Qaida strives to control
“You see that the narrator behind the camera
is essentially pushing and prodding Jarrah into saying particular things
and to using particular expressions,” Kohlmann said. “I think the point
here is that al-Qaida wanted to make sure that everything that Jarrah
said fit very neatly into al-Qaida's propaganda line.”
Kohlmann, who is frequently hired by the Justice
and Defense departments to act as an expert witness in terror cases, said
the raw video pulls back the curtain on al-Qaida’s propaganda machine.
“Despite the fact that Jarrah seems to
approach this with a lot of enthusiasm, al-Qaida is still poking and
prodding him, moving him in a particular direction,” Kohlmann said.
“This message needs to be so carefully tapered. Enthusiasm and eagerness
are not alone here, and they're not going to take the chance at
something going wrong. Every word has to be right. Every phrase has to
be right. Everything is being carefully monitored.”
Al-Qaida videotaped Jarrah’s message so that it
could be played, after the attacks, for maximum effect.
But U.S. officials
recovered the tape before it could ever be used to recruit others, and
played it recently at a terrorism trial at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.