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Friends of terror suspect say allegations make no sense
Jarrah, believed to be one of hijackers, appeared to embrace Western life
By Carol J. Williams
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
October 23 2001
GREIFSWALD, Germany --
Nearly every weekend of his childhood and adolescence, Ziad Samir Jarrah's doting parents drove him from war-ravaged Beirut to the Bekaa Valley oasis of Al-Marj so he could play with his cousin Salim.
Born just 40 days apart to two brothers of a close-knit and prosperous family, Ziad and Salim learned how to ride bikes together, how to drive and how to dodge their parents' plans for their future. More like twins than cousins, the two left Lebanon together April 4, 1996, at the age of 20, heading to the eastern German town of Greifswald in pursuit of both an education and a good time.
Today, Salim has a German wife, a young daughter and a thriving restaurant in Greifswald. He is a picture of integration and contentment. Ziad also seemed on track, destined for a career in aviation and a happy family life -- until he turned up on the FBI list of the 19 suspected terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. How a handsome, likable young man who appeared to be at peace with the Western world could have gotten mixed up in mass murder is one of the many mysteries still shrouding the terrorist assaults.
Little, if anything, is known about the personal lives of most of the suspects. Of the 19, only alleged organizer Mohamed Atta and Jarrah left behind a long trail of acquaintances. But family and friends say the Ziad Jarrah they knew exhibited none of the smoldering political resentments or cultural conservatism of Atta.
Instead, they recall Jarrah as quiet, pampered, a little lazy and madly in love. How, they ask, do you convert a happy, intelligent young man with little religious or political conviction into a suicidal foot soldier in a holy war? With no answers, they are left to speculate that he was brainwashed or coerced.
For investigators, many circumstances point to the 26-year-old Lebanese being part of a plot to hijack the four jetliners. Jarrah studied in Hamburg, where two of the suspected leaders of the terror plot lived. He trained for a pilot's license in Florida just a few miles away from other sky pirates. He lost his passport two years ago, about the same time that two other Hamburg suspects did, leading investigators to believe they were trying to cleanse their travel documents of visas that might arouse suspicion.
There also are jarring details and gaps from his months in Florida that friends and relatives cannot explain. Why did he rent a cottage with one of the other suspected hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93 in late summer? Why did he, like many of the other suspected hijackers, seek personal fitness training? And besides hijacking, what other reason could he have had to be on the flight from Newark to San Francisco, which crashed into a Pennsylvania field and killed all 44 passengers and crew?
Identified by their 'Arabic' names
Jarrah and the other three men named by the FBI as hijackers of the flight -- Ahmed Ibrahim A. Al Haznawi, Ahmed Alnami and Saeed Alghamdi -- initially came to be on the list of 19 because they "have been identified as having 'Arabic' names ... on the UA93 manifest," according to the first FBI document alerting Hamburg police to their city's connection to the terrorist act, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.
What prompted investigators' theory that Jarrah was at the controls has never been disclosed. The first publicly released list of the 19 suspects named by the FBI on Sept. 14 provides no other information about Jarrah except his name and the words "believed to be a pilot."
That list was released in Washington a day after Jarrah's girlfriend back in Germany, Aysel Senguen, reported him missing to police in the Ruhr River city of Bochum.
If they didn't know already, police probably would have learned from interrogating her that Jarrah, who had gone to the United States for pilot training the previous fall, had just earned his license, and that he had previously studied in Hamburg.
But German police and officials who are familiar with the investigation say that they have little to link Jarrah to the two other Sept. 11 suspects who lived in Hamburg at the same time, Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi.
Federal prosecutor Kay Nehm disclosed the first hint of a connection only on Friday when he alluded to having a photo showing Jarrah at the 1999 wedding of a fugitive known to espouse fanatic views, Said Bahaji, who once roomed with Atta and Al-Shehhi.
Federal authorities in Germany have withdrawn assertions that Jarrah at one time lived at or frequented the Hamburg apartment rented by the three.
"He never lived with the others. He had three different apartments during his time in Hamburg, but none in common with any of the other suspects," a senior German official told The Times.
"The only information we have connecting the three Hamburg suspects is the FBI's assertion that there is a connection," said a high-ranking police source involved in the investigation, apparently unaware of the wedding photo. "We have come across absolutely no evidence of our own."
While Jarrah overlapped in Hamburg with Atta and Al-Shehhi from 1997 to 1999, he lived and studied in different areas of the city. The University of Applied Sciences, where Jarrah studied aviation construction, is in Hamburg's St. Georg district, a half-hour subway ride from Technical University and the Harburg suburb south of the Elbe River where Atta and Al-Shehhi lived.
The single room Jarrah rented from Rosemarie Canel on Alte Landstrasse would have put him even farther away. He is not known to ever have attended the Steindamm mosque that is the alleged meeting place of the other suspects and their purported associates from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.
Senguen has been in seclusion under a witness protection program since she reported Jarrah missing, and she has not spoken to reporters. But she has been in telephone contact with friends and family to say she didn't believe he was among the plotters.
"She said she'd never heard him mention the name Atta or anyone else" from the list of suspects, Jarrah's uncle, Jamal, remembers of Senguen's call to Beirut. "She knew him best these last years and she, too, says he just couldn't do this."
Canel, Jarrah's Hamburg landlady, remembers him as a quiet and courteous tenant who had few visitors and spent his nights studying or watching TV. On weekends he left to stay with Senguen, first in Greifswald, where they met in 1996, and later in Bochum, where she moved in 1999 to study medicine. She passed her medical school exams at Ruhr University just a few days before Sept. 11.
'Just a lovely, kind young man'
"He was just a lovely, kind young man," says Gudrun Schimpfky of Greifswald's Arndt University, who taught Jarrah to speak German in a program that brought them together six to eight hours a day, five days a week, for the year it took him to complete the college-level proficiency exam in 1997.
Jarrah called his family in Lebanon most weekends and was in touch with Senguen nearly every day, says family friend Mahmoud Ali, a Duesseldorf sports club entrepreneur who last spoke to Jarrah in July.
"There is nothing in his character that would allow him to do this -- not from his past, not from his family, not from his country," Ali said.
Although Jarrah spent his first 14 years in war-torn Beirut, his family insists he was shielded from the hardships and showed no interest in politics. Jarrah attended Christian schools, graduating from a French high school, where he became fluent in French and English.
The Jarrah family is the most influential in Al-Marj, says Ali, and included Jamal, a banker; Nesim, a senior customs officer; and the fathers of Jarrah and cousin Salim -- Samir and Gazi, respectively, high-ranking officials of the Lebanese social security system.
Ali has lived in Germany for 16 years and was already an established businessman in Duesseldorf when Jarrah and his cousin arrived in 1996.
"Samir told me to give them whatever they needed," Ali recalls. Jarrah never asked for money, he says, only Ali's connections with a travel agency that could procure cheap air tickets.
Otherwise, he got by on the $700 a month his parents sent -- a sum they boosted to about $2,000 a month when Jarrah went to Florida last year for flight training.
Jarrah and Senguen began their relationship shortly after he arrived in 1996, and he moved with her to Bochum in late 1999. Still, they took pains to hide their intimacy from her conservative Turkish parents.
Senguen had complained to friends, including Ali, that Jarrah had become more conservative and possessive in recent months. But Ali dismissed a theory among police and the German media that Jarrah had become a religious fundamentalist.
"We Arab men are very jealous about our women, that's all," said Ali. "We try to tell them what to do, and they just ignore us."
Salim Jarrah said he believes his cousin decided to go to flight school because he simply did not want to invest the time required for him to earn a German doctorate in aviation engineering, which could take up to a decade.
From the United States, Jarrah made at least two trips this year to Bochum, which is just outside Duesseldorf, to see Senguen. The first was in late February and early March after he had spent three weeks in Beirut to be with his father, who had suffered a heart attack.
Senguen last saw him in mid-July. He returned to Florida after less than a week, missing the Beirut wedding of his older sister Dania on Aug. 2 because he was scheduled to take his test for a pilot's license, he told Senguen and Ali. Records show Jarrah earned his single-engine certification July 30 after successfully completing more than six months of lessons at the Florida Flight Training Center in Venice.
'He was a friend to all of us'
Those who met Jarrah at the flight school also say they can't see him as a terrorist.
"Our entire staff does not believe that he had bad intentions," says FFTC President Arne Kruithof. "Let's put it this way: Everybody interviewed here on this guy was in shock, because he was a friend to all of us."
"I don't think there's anyone in the time that he was here that could say anything negative about him; on the contrary, he would help everybody," says Kruithof, who insisted that Jarrah's demeanor was "not faked."
Thorsten Biermann, who roomed with Jarrah at the flight school for the first six weeks of training, found him to be "just a normal person, like anyone else."
Biermann says he never saw Jarrah pray in the time they lived together, and Jarrah never had visitors. However, he says his roommate was looking forward to a visit by Senguen that occurred after the German returned home Dec. 13.
Jarrah called his family two days before the terror attacks to confirm that he and Senguen would be in Beirut on Sept. 22 for another family wedding -- this time Salim's younger sister.
Ali, the family friend, said Senguen called him Sept. 11 to tell him that she had just spoken to Jarrah -- about an hour before he boarded United Flight 93. She described the conversation as pleasant and normal, although it is unclear whether she knew he was flying that day.
"We watched the news on television at the racquet club -- all anyone did that day was watch TV," Ali recalled of the first hours after the hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center about 3 p.m. local time. "She was upset like everyone else, and when she didn't hear from him for two whole days when everyone in America was calling to say they were OK, she became really worried."
Ali next heard from Senguen when she called in tears from a Bochum police station, where she was held overnight and interrogated as detectives combed her tiny apartment, impounding a suitcase belonging to Jarrah and personal records such as phone bills and banking statements.
In retrospect, Ali wonders whether Senguen heard something in Jarrah's voice in that last phone conversation that put her on alert and prompted her to declare him missing.
Meanwhile, the tantalizing coincidences pile up.
Three months before the terror strikes, Jarrah traveled to Las Vegas. His uncle in Lebanon describes the trip as a gambling junket, but that June 7-10 sojourn also provides another possible connection with other hijackers. Atta, Al-Shehhi and three other suspects also made trips to Las Vegas between May and August, although none overlapped with Jarrah's.
Like Atta and Al-Shehhi, Jarrah reported his passport lost in late 1999 and obtained a new one from the Lebanese consulate in Bonn. Authorities speculate the men were trying to get rid of visas to Afghanistan or elsewhere, although Salim Jarrah insists his cousin was never unaccounted for in those days.
Although Jarrah paid his expenses in cash from money wired by his parents, U.S. federal investigative documents suggest he had a Visa debit card and that its number was only a few digits off from those used by four other suspects.
Jarrah also moved in April from Venice, Fla., on the west coast to Hollywood, in the east, living separately but in the same city as Atta and Al-Shehhi and spending much of his free time working out and taking self-defense classes at a gym in nearby Dania Beach.
Several of the other suspects also worked diligently at getting themselves in shape, although at different facilities.
Jarrah was also identified by a landlady in Ft. Lauderdale-by-the-Sea as having rented a cottage for a few weeks in late summer with another suspect who died on Flight 93, Ahmed Al Haznawi, someone Jarrah was never previously associated with.
It all leaves those who knew Jarrah wondering.
In one of the last photos taken of him, in Beirut early this year, he wears a jacket and tie and designer eyeglasses, his hair brushed back and an arm lovingly draped around the shoulders of his diminutive mother, Nafisa.
"We were all telling him he should marry Aysel and get themselves out of this little one-room student apartment," says Ali. "But he wanted this too. He really loved her."
Being nagged about living with Senguen was something Jarrah should have been used to.
"I used to criticize him for living with her. By our religion, this living together before marriage is not allowed," recalls Abdullah Al-Makhadi, a classmate of Senguen's at the Greifswald premed program and founder of a rudimentary mosque in the town that hosts more than 500 foreign students from Islamic nations.
Jarrah rarely attended Friday prayers and never prayed five times daily, as do the devout, says Al-Makhadi. "He was a weak Muslim, I must say."
Salim says none of the Jarrahs was raised with much religious conviction. The cousins went to parties and discos, drank alcohol and flirted with women of various ethnicity and religion.
"I remember the first time we went to a disco here, we were laughing at how small and pathetic it was," says the restaurateur. "Back home in Lebanon, discos are much more elegant, sprawling up several floors and much more modern."
That Ziad Jarrah might have become more serious in the last couple of years, when Senguen's 1999 transfer to Bochum ended the pretext for his weekly visits to Greifswald, is something his cousin cannot exclude.
But he says he can "rule out with 100% certainty" that his cousin could have turned into a fanatic.
"We came here to Germany so we could live better, not to die for some insane idea," he says. "We don't know if it was really Ziad on that plane. It seems it was, or he would have come forward by now. But if he died in that crash, he died as a victim like the other passengers."
Los Angeles Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2002, The Los Angeles Times