by Jim Popkin

NBC News Senior Investigative Producer

November 24, 2008

from DeepBackground-MSNBC Website


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 Commission.

“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 morning.


Propaganda message

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 its message.

“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.


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