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Fouda, Yosri and Nick Fielding Masterminds of Terror: The Truth Behind The Most Devastating Terrorist Attack The World Has Ever Seen. Mainstream Publishing Ltd: Edinburgh. 2003. 208 pages. ISBN 1 84018 724 7.

Reviewed by Rasha El-Ibiary, University of NewcastleUpon Tyne

Masterminds of Terror documents how an Arab television reporter landed interviews with the planners of September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in an excitingly stimulating narrative.

Yosri Fouda, chief investigative reporter with Al Jazeera, and Nick Fielding, senior reporter with the Sunday Times of London, write in a straightforward and strikingly smart journalistic style with strong backgrounds on the persons, places, and events discussed. The result is both informative and entertaining.

From outset to end, the book illustrates the distress and danger faced by a professional investigative journalist, Yosri Fouda, in getting a story with international ramifications. Fouda describes, in a chapter entitled "Invitation to the Unknown," how an Al-Qaeda member mysteriously contacted him in his London office. The initial phone call was followed by a three-page fax suggesting names, locations, and personalities for Fouda's distinctive documentary, Al Jazeera, Top Secret. That fax led him to exclusive interviews with the planners of the September 11 attacks in advance of the event's first anniversary.

Using his journalistic instincts, Fouda takes the reader on a journey into a little known and less understood world of terrorist organizations as he follows the demands and directions dictated by Al-Qaeda members until he reaches his goal-interviews with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, head of Al-Qaeda's military committee, and Ramzi Binalshibh, coordinator of the "Holy Tuesday" operation. Fouda's investigative journey took only 48 hours in Karachi, Pakistan, where the interviews took place.

In "Unlocking the Masterminds," the reader is invited to Fouda's special meeting with Ramzi and Khalid in Karachi, where he receives a detailed account of Al-Qaeda's philosophical interpretation of Islam and the Holy Koran, and how they simulate, in their fake Jihad, the holy wars of the Prophet Muhammad. With his critical journalistic eye, Fouda neatly highlights the differences in their personalities and their desire to draw attention to themselves via the Qatar-based Al Jazeera, while also stressing the inherent contradictions in their philosophy and interpretation of Jihad, negating the essence and meaning of Jihad in Islam.

Fouda describes how Khalid's persona changed when the video camera started to roll. "When the camera was switched on, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's appearance changed. He tried to look like a religious leader or the leader of a political party. But his shallow knowledge of both religion and politics caught up with him. He tried to sound authoritative, but he stumbled in his desperate attempts to compose a couple of decent sentences in classical Arabic." Khalid also intended to use Al Jazeera to send a message to the world that Bin Laden was still alive by frequently mentioning him in the present tense, as "Sheikh Abu Abdullah," "Sheikh Osama," or "the Sheikh" (pp. 116-117). Ramzi Binalshibh, however, was more natural in front of the camera. While Khalid appeared as the "man of action" for the chairman of Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, and the vice-chairman, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Ramzi Binalshibh was to be the active and faithful employee who coordinates all actions and helps out in emergencies.

Along with the story of Fouda's interviews with the masterminds, which in itself is enormously revealing, the full story behind the 9/11 attacks is slowly built with details given to Fouda that create a mosaic to help the reader see the bigger picture. Starting by narrating the biography of several key Al-Qaeda members, the authors tend to emphasize how ordinary persons were easily transformed into members of the most dangerous terrorist organization in the world. They start with Omar Sheikh, drawing some sketches of his peaceful childhood with his Pakistani parents in London, and then showing how at age 20 he joined a Pakistani organization that supported Bin Laden and "dedicated himself to a Jihad against the 'corrupt' West" (p. 56). Then comes Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian who personally undertook one of the September attacks on the World Trade Center. His social and educational apparatus are important gates to describing how he ended up a key member in Al-Qaeda, leading its Hamburg cell one year before the attack. The cell eventually included Ramzi Binalshibh, Ziad Al-Jarrah, Zakari Essaber, Marawan Al-Shehhi, and his Hamburg flatmate, Said Bahaji.

In "The Hour is Night, the Moon is Split," the authors coherently detail the full story behind the attacks, starting with the materialization of Al-Qaeda's Hamburg cell. Atta, Binalshibh, and Al-Shehhi knew each other since 1997, when they were working in a computing service company in Hamburg. Atta, who was studying for his masters degree in Hamburg, disappeared for few months between 1997 and 1998, when he went with Binalshibh to Afghanistan for the first time. By mid-July 1998, Ziad al-Jarrah and Zakariya Essaber started their internships in a Volkswagen plant. In November 1998, Atta, Binalshibh and Bahaji moved into a flat together. Later on, Al-Shehhi and Essaber joined them, while Al-Jarrah stayed with his girlfriend in a separate flat. This apartment was Al-Qaeda's headquarters in Europe. This is where the cell was formed and the 9/11 attacks were planned.

Even though those people were evidently chosen for their "brains," they all had to enroll in the military camp of Afghanistan for training on weapons, explosives, and combat skills. Atta, who in practice led the group, accompanied Al-Shehhi on his first visit to Afghanistan. While Osama bin Laden promised them paradise, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was their military instructor. Atta, who took his masters in architecture, had the task of selecting the targets-the Twin Towers in New York, and the Pentagon and Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. After they completed their training in Afghanistan, they returned to Germany, where they were all issued new passports, cleansed of any "weird" visas.

At the same time, Ramzi Binalshibh was meeting in Malaysia with three of the hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar, Nawaf al-Hazmi, and Salem al-Hazmi, where Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the military commander, was present. Al-Mihdhar and Al-Hazmi went to Los Angeles afterwards, and enrolled in a flight school in San Diego. By that time, Khalid chose Atta to lead the operation, as all the intentions, targets, means, codes, logistics and personnel were evidently crystallized. At the time Atta had already started corresponding with flight schools in the US.

Fifteen months before the operation, Atta and al-Shehhi together and Al-Jarrah on his own arrived in Miami, Florida, pretending not to know each other. While Al-Jarrah started his course in Florida Flight Training Center, Atta and Al-Shehhi went to Hoffman Aviation, Inc. Both Binalshibh and Essaber, however, were denied U.S.visas. Atta and al-Shehhi got their certificates in December 2000, while Al-Jarrah, who did not obtain his pilot's license left for further training near Madrid. Atta and Al-Shehhi also went to North Dakota and Georgia for more training. Hani Hanjour had been in America for some time and was a trained pilot, but at this point there was no communication between him and the Atta team.

The "muscles" of the operation, who totaled 15, arrived in the US individually and in pairs. Their deputy was Nawaf el-Hazmi, who took his flight lessons in southern California, with Al-Mihdhar, gradually improving their skills. Al-Mihdhar first met with Atta and his team in July 2001 in Las Vegas, at a "consultative council" meeting that included the four pilots: Atta, Al-Shehhi, Al-Jarrah and Hanjour, and Atta's deputy, Al-Hazmi. Twenty-five days before the attacks, another meeting took place where Atta divided the roles as follow: Al-Jarrah team, Capitol Hill; Hanjour team, the Pentagon; Al-Shehhi's team, the South Tower of the WTC and Atta's team, the North Tower of the WTC. Atta then decided on the airline companies, United Airline and American Airlines, and picked the largest possible planes, Boeing 757s and 767s. He also chose the longest routes with maximum fuel volume, and, later on, picked the date 9/11. Everything was put in gear and moved toward the fateful date.

All those details, supported by the masterminds' interviews, made fertile ground for Fouda to make the most complete documentary in his career. Unfortunately, by the end of Fouda's interviews, Ramzi insisted on not giving him the tapes until they had edited them, made their own changes, and cut out what they wanted over the next "few weeks," without telling him when, how, and where he would get hold of the material he recorded. Fouda left Karachi thinking he was the only person on earth who knew the complete story behind the September 11 attacks, but lacking the most vital part-the video tapes. He suddenly realized that "he had no material evidence to prove that he had actually met anyone from Al-Qaeda, let alone "the masterminds" (p. 150).

In "Grasping at Shadows," Fouda describes the hassle he had to face, with a gradually approaching deadline, until in the end he was able to get hold of the tapes at the end. Even though there was always the possibility that the tapes would never show up as the weeks passed, Fouda, provided with addresses, names, locations, and contact numbers, decided the documentary would happen. He went to Hamburg to meet with those "members of the Muslim community," whom Ramzi had told him about. He also held interviews with Mohammed Atta's father in Cairo, the family of Ziad el-Jarrah in Beirut, and he went back to Karachi trying to reconstruct the events and film the locations. At this point, Al-Qaeda member Abu Bakr finally contacted him, confirming that he would bring the tapes after Fouda's visit to the US.

After a couple of weeks, during which Fouda was filming in Miami, Venice, Hollywood, New York, Newark, Washington DC, Boston, Portland, and other locations in the US, some members of Al-Qaeda tried to take advantage of the situation and criticize him over the tapes. After Abu Bakr contacted Fouda, he gave him a floppy disk from Ramzi and assured him that he had the tapes but, for security reasons, kept them with a "brother." By midnight, he came back with a handwritten letter asking Fouda to pay US$1 million if he wanted the tapes. Fouda is sure that neither Abu Bakr nor Khalid or Ramzi had anything to do with that issue, as Ramzi's floppy disk letter evidently assumed that Fouda had the tape. Acting as a professional journalist should in such a crisis situation, Fouda went to London and started writing up his script, assuming he would never get the interviews. The second setback happened when Al Jazeera's office in Doha received a phone call from the go-betweens reducing the money demand to US$17,000. Furiously, Fouda sent his reply, "we are not prepared to pay even one penny, and that they can do whatever they please with the tapes" (p. 156).

When Fouda was editing Part I of his documentary "The Road to 11 September," he received a puzzling phone call from Hassan, one of his drivers in Karachi, deeply apologizing for all the mess, and passing along the "brothers'" greetings. A few days later, he received in the post a brown envelope that contained a CD-ROM with an audio copy of his interview with Ramzi and a typed message answering some of his follow-up questions. By then, Fouda began adapting his script of Part II to include Ramzi's voice. At last, Fouda thought he was going to finally get some rest before the program aired. However, Ramzi was captured before watching himself in Part II of Fouda's documentary, and Fouda was soon becoming part of the story.

Fouda faced allegations by the other media outlets. The New York Times and the Washington Post claimed he had hidden useful information from the CIA for more than two months, and suggested he was an Al-Qaeda follower. Cairo's Al-Ahram speculated that he could not have gotten all this information without the help of an unspecified intelligence agency, while the Saudi Al-Yawm claimed the CIA contacted high officials in Al Jazeera after the program was aired because they said Fouda was reluctant to speak publicly about his interviews, a promise he made to his Al-Queda sources. Al-Qaeda issued a statement on the Internet the day after Fouda appeared on Al Jazeera in a program entitled "Al-Qaeda and the Media," where he revealed his arrangement with the Al-Qaeda leaders that bound him to their "special security arrangements." The statement praised Fouda's journalistic integrity.

The book shows the hazards and difficulties an investigative journalist faces in producing a controversial documentary. It highlights the relationship of power between the journalist, as truth investigator, and his most-wanted dangerous sources, where the balance of power favors the criminals, who alone decide what valuable information to leak, and what detail to provide, and then reward the reporter for keeping his word to his sources. The power question, then, keeps arising, and its answer is very relative and uncertain. The book, in addition to revealing answers to many questions, raises questions concerning al-Qaeda, Bin Laden, global terrorism, future possible wars, and many more.

The book also provides the reader with background information on Pakistan and its internal policies towards radical Islamism, which contradict its alliance with the US in its war on terror. The authors also shed some light on Pakistan's ethnic and geographical fragmentations, examining the hidden agenda behind the influx of Islamic militants from Pakistan to Afghanistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union, aided by the flow of petro-dollars coming from several Gulf states, as well as those young Arabs coming form Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Egypt to join the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Those elements were trained in militant madrasas (schools) in Pakistan, paradoxically receiving support from the West, and were sent to Afghanistan afterwards to fight with the Taliban, after the Al-Qaeda organization was established in 1996.

A similar focus was also brought to bear on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is originally from Pakistan, and seems to have dedicated his entire life to Jihad due to his family members' long engagement in fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan. His nephew, Ramzi Yousef, was the planner of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 as well as a number of attempted downings of U.S. commercial aircraft. The authors detail the background of the close relationship between Khalid and Yousef, their dedication to Jihad since childhood, and their fighting with the Arab and Afghani mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s. They also document their history of terrorism in the 1990s and their engagement in many terrorist attacks all over the world, including the 1994 attack on the Israeli embassy in Thailand. Since 1996 onwards, Khalid and Yousef became active central members of Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda organization in Afghanistan, engaging in almost every operation of the organization. TBS

Copyright 2003 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the
Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu