October 02, 2006
A VIDEO shows two of the world's most infamous terrorists joking and laughing while filming their 'death wills' at Osama Bin Laden's lair in Afghanistan. The journalist and author Yosri Fouda explains the terrible significance of the new find.
Two bearded young men laugh and joke for the camera. They appear relaxed, well groomed, intelligent; they might be high-achieving students quietly celebrating an exam success. They look at a piece of paper and laugh some more.
What is so funny? Certainly not the piece of paper. There is Arabic script on it. Easily decipherable is the word “al wasiyyah”. This means “the will”.
It is the handwritten last testament of Ziad Jarrah, the lighter-haired and better-looking of the two young men. A well educated, middle-class Lebanese, he has been studying in Germany. So has his dark-haired companion, Mohammed Atta, also middle class and university educated, but born in Egypt. Atta has his will, too. Unsmiling, both men read them to camera.
These images are part of a videotape, nearly an hour long, that was filmed at Osama Bin Laden’s lair in Afghanistan 6½ years ago. They are revealed today for the first time, and they are a missing chapter in the searing story of the attacks on America on September 11, 2001.
Atta led the team of 19 suicide attackers and flew American Airlines flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Jarrah piloted United Airlines flight 93. His assigned target was Capitol Hill, but the plane crashed.
Atta and Jarrah have never been pictured together before. Indeed, a key element of their tradecraft was that they steered clear of each other. They were leading figures in the September 11 story, not only because they flew the planes but also because they apparently had everything to live for. Unlike most of the other hijackers, who were mainly provincial Saudi fundamentalists, Atta and Jarrah fitted easily into western society.
To the Germans who knew them in Hamburg they seemed entirely normal. The tape explains this mistake. It would be hard to look less homicidal — until the camera pulls back and reveals that Atta is sitting next to an AK-47.
So the tape not only fills a gap in the story of September 11 but also provides chilling proof of the difficulty of fighting Islamic terrorism: these two “normal”, happy, unthreatening individuals turned out to have an explosive effect on the history of the 21st century.
The unedited video was passed to The Sunday Times through a previously tested channel. On condition of anonymity, sources from both Al-Qaeda and the United States have confirmed its authenticity. It has no sound — and lip-readers have failed to decipher it, according to a US source — but the images speak loudly for themselves.
The tape not only features Atta and Jarrah. It also gives a rare and intriguing sight of Bin Laden with his inner court.
It opens with 100 or so Al-Qaeda hardcore members sitting on the ground in the open air, obviously expecting something to happen. Among them are several children.
A very tall man surrounded by three armed bodyguards arrives in a sedate, presidential manner. It is Bin Laden, dressed in white from head to toe with an all-enveloping, light brown robe. He looks serene as he makes his way to a makeshift podium and beings to speak into a microphone.
The date recorded on this section of the video is January 8, 2000. That makes the occasion Eid al Fitr, the end of Ramadan.
There are a few recognisable faces among the audience, including Ramzi Binalshibh, Atta’s Hamburg flatmate who was later to become the co-ordinator of the September 11 attacks. And among the bodyguards is Abu Jandal, who was the only one with the authority to put two bullets in Bin Laden’s head if he was about to fall into enemy hands.
In the background are the tall mud-red walls of an impressive compound. It is clear that the location is part of a complex of about 80 buildings called Tarnak Farm in the desert near Kandahar airport. It was Bin Laden’s clan base during his Afghan sojourn — where he lived with his family and the inner core of Al-Qaeda.
American intelligence knew all about Tarnak Farm. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, "CIA officers were able to map the entire site, identifying the houses that belonged to Bin Laden’s wives and the one where he himself was most likely to sleep”.
Less than two years before the video was recorded, the CIA had a plan to work closely with some of the local tribes to grab Bin Laden as he slept. It was a clear-cut, well rehearsed “perfect operation”, according to Michael Scheuer, who ran the CIA Bin Laden unit at the time. But it was never executed and there is still controversy in America about who cancelled it.
Ten days after Bin Laden’s Eid speech, according to the date on the film, Atta and Jarrah read their martyrdom wills to the camera. This proof of their presence in Afghanistan at that time is just about the final main piece of the jigsaw: Atta, the man who decided zero hour on September 11 is for the first time on video, getting ready to record his “martyrdom” will.
Investigators have pieced together most of Atta’s life from his childhood as the son of a lawyer in Giza, northern Egypt, to the moment he boarded flight 11 — except for an unexplained absence from Hamburg in early 2000. The date on the tape perfectly corresponds with this.
Those who have been closely following the story had little doubt where Atta had been. Binalshibh told me, “Afghanistan, what else?” when I asked him during a secret meeting four years ago. But in their painstaking efforts to find the proof that connected the dots, US investigators and, especially, their German counterparts, have struggled with little more than circumstantial evidence and presumed facts.
This played nicely into the hands of conspiracy theorists, both in the Muslim world and in the West. Now the investigators have the proof, and only the flakiest of anti-American fantasists can go on claiming that Bin Laden, Atta, Jarrah and co had no hand in September 11.
We can now even reveal Atta’s itinerary. On November 29, 1999 he boarded Turkish Airlines flight TK1662 from Hamburg to Istanbul, Turkey, where he changed to flight TK1056 bound for Karachi, Pakistan. From there he would have crossed into Afghanistan by road, most probably through Quetta.
On the return journey, he left Karachi on February 24, 2000 by flight TK1057 to Istanbul where he changed to flight TK1661 to Hamburg. Five months later he entered the United States to start flight training.
Unedited, the extraordinary footage also gives us a glimpse into the superficially ordinary character of the man who would later spearhead the devastating terrorist attack.
Wearing western clothes — black trousers and a dark brown, zip-collared sweater with zigzag stripes — Atta appears uncomfortable putting on a typical Pashtun hat.
He gives a how-do-I-look glance at the camera. The hat goes off, on, off and he throws it away with wry smile. Ready now. He crosses his legs and picks up his handwritten will.
Cool, gathered and deliberate, Atta reads to camera for 10 minutes before the tape cuts to a collector’s item: Atta and Jarrah together for the first time on camera.
With his stylish glasses, the handsome Lebanese is wearing a white, Saudi-style robe but appears to have western clothes on underneath.
Smiling, laughing and exchanging remarks, they discuss Jarrah’s will as he holds it — a superb set-up shot. Jarrah then gets his seven-minute exclusive appearance to tell the camera his last words.