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|Stunned into disbelief as their 'normal' son is blame|
|09/15/01 at 19:47:37|
|Stunned into disbelief as their 'normal' son is blame|
Robert Fisk in Almarj, Lebanon, meets the family of Ziad Jarrah, who died trying to destroy the White House
16 September 2001
When Ziad Jarrah climbed aboard United Airlines flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco, was he planning to holiday in California or to destroy the White House? The United States says the latter. His family begs visitors and friends to believe in his innocence. His father Samir sat beside me yesterday afternoon and opened his palms in that gesture of innocence which is also a form of special pleading.
"He called just two days before the plane crashed to tell me he'd received the $2,000 [£1,400] I'd sent him,'' Samir Jarrah said. Still recovering from open-heart surgery, he sat, half slumped, sick and traumatised, in a green plastic chair beneath the vines of his garden. "Ziad said it was for his aeronautical course. He had told me last year that he had a choice of courses in France or in America and it was me who told him to go to the States. But there are lots of Ziads. Maybe it wasn't him? He was a good, kind boy...''
At which point Samir leaned forward, brought his hands to his face and broke down in tears.
Around us, a clutch of middle-aged men sat on identical chairs beneath the vines, most of them members of the extended Jarrah family, all Sunni Muslims, all appalled that a crime against humanity should stain this tiny but wealthy village in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. A massive new village mosque I've never seen so big a mosque in so small a town stood scarcely 200 metres from the front door, but both friends of the family and Ziad Jarrah's uncle insisted that he was neither religious nor political. "He was a normal person, Jamal Harrah said. "He drank alcohol, he had girlfriends. Only last August, his Turkish girlfriend, Asle, came to meet our family here because she wanted to meet her future in-laws. He wasn't able to come with her because he said he was too busy with his studies.''
Too busy to bring his fiancιe to meet his family? Busy doing what? And what was the $2,000 for? To continue studies at his Miami aeronautical school? Or to buy air tickets for the Boeing 757 flight to California, for him perhaps and maybe for the other men named as hijackers by the US government. It was Ziad Jarrah's flight that plunged to the ground in Pennsylvania, apparently en route to self-destruction on the White House, its passengers apparently wrestling with the hijackers, perhaps with Ziad as he gripped the aircraft controls.
Asle was in Germany, freely giving evidence to the Bochum city police who had just searched her apartment, discovering "aircraft-related documents'' in a suitcase belonging to one of three men named by Washington as hijackers. All of them something the Jarrah family could not explain and would not believe lived together in Hamburg.
Asle had already reported Ziad missing, just as she had 18 months ago when he disappeared for up to five weeks. And what she told the Jarrah family over the telephone then gave them their first suspicion that something was terribly wrong with their only son.
For according to a family friend, Asle told the Jarrahs that her fiancι, who would visit her each weekend from his university in Hamburg, might have gone to Afghanistan. Jamal Jarrah confirmed to me that this is what Asle had feared. "But it turned out that he had been moving from his first university in Greifswald to his new courses in Hamburg and had not been in contact with Asle during that time.'' Five weeks to change universities? Without telling his fiancιe? Jamal hinted at some problems between the couple at that time. But even so, would he not have told his girlfriend his whereabouts?
The details of Ziad's life are as simple or so the family say as his death is obscure. Three other men have been named as hijackers of Flight UA93 Ahmed Alhaznawi, Ahmed Alnami and Saeed Alghamdi and if two of them lived with Ziad in Germany, his guilt seemed even more certain when it was revealed that one of his fellow students was Mohamad Atta, the Egyptian-born pilot who crashed American Airlines flight AA11 into the World Trade Centre on Tuesday morning. "You cannot choose your fellow students," Jamal Jarrah said. "He wouldn't have known his fellow students before he turned up at the university.'' Or would he?
Ziad was 26, born according to his Lebanese identity documents on 11 May 1975, a village boy from a wealthy family. His father is a civil servant in the Beirut department of social security, his mother a schoolteacher. Ziad attended the evangelical school in the Christian town of Zahle about 12 miles from his home and Samir paid thousands to put his son through university. Ziad travelled to Hamburg on a student visa four years ago, later attending the city's technical university. He went missing 18 months ago, just before setting off for the United States on his father's advice. "Whenever he asked for money, I would send it,'' Samir said. "He needed money he had a home in Germany and a girlfriend to look after. He had to fund his studies.''
Last February, Ziad returned toLebanon for the last time to be present during his father's open-heart surgery. "He looked after his dad and went to the hospital every day," Jamal, the uncle, told me. "He was so normal. His personality and his life bore no relation to the kind of things that happened. He led a very normal life. He had girlfriends, he went to nightclubs, he went dancing sometimes."
And that, as they say, is the hole in the story. Everyone I spoke to in Almarj told me that Ziad was a happy, secular youth, that he never showed any interest in religion and never visited the mosque for prayers, that he liked women even if he was at times reserved and shy.
Mohamad Atta, his friend or fellow murderer was also known to knock back five stiff drinks in an evening. If they were Osama bin Laden's boys, they didn't behave like it. Bin Laden would not let his men smoke cigarettes, and drinking alcohol would have led to banishment from the ranks of his Al Qa'ida movement. Or was this an attempt to blind any American intelligence agencies which might be watching the men? Who would believe that a young man drinking in a bar with a Turkish girlfriend back in Germany with whom he'd been living would be planning to crash an airliner on to the White House with 49 passengers aboard?
But if the Americans got it right, then Samir's son boarded the plane with a knife and a box cutter a woman's last phone call revealed that these were the hijackers' only weapons and the intention to kill himself along with the passengers, crew and entire staff of the White House. What, then, did he learn at his Zahle school and the Christian Patriarchate college where he also studied in Beirut? He was only seven when the Israeli army surrounded him and tens of thousands of other Lebanese civilians in the siege of Beirut in 1982. He was never involved in the war, the neighbours told, never interested in the militias.
"We are ready to co-operate with the authorities," Jamal Jarrah said wearily. "We all regard what happened in America as a terrorist act. It's a tragedy for Americans, for us, for all people in the world."
There's just one small question. Jamal denied that Ziad had ever visited Afghanistan. But when they heard from Asle that she feared he had gone there, the family contacted friends in Peshawar on the Pakistani-Afghan frontier and implored them to get Samir's son to leave. Untrue, says Samir. And he says it again. "My boy was just a normal person. He would never do this. Why, there may have been another Ziad Jarrah on the plane."
It's true that the Americans spelled his name wrongly they called him Jarrahi but the men and women gathering at the family home yesterday were wearing, most of them, black.
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