Aug 20, 2004

Review of “Hamburg Cell” film

The 9/11 terrorist outrage started with a group of al-Qaida plotters holed up together in a German flat. Peter Bergen reports on a new film that attempts to understand their motives . Friday August 20, 2004 The Guardian We all know how the tragic story of Hamburg Cell will end, but the question that Channel 4's new film tries to answer is: how did the 9/11 plot first take shape? Hamburg Cell focuses on a group of young Middle Easterners who arrived in Germany during the 1990s, and their unlikely transformation from nondescript students to key players in the 9/11 conspiracy. As the final report of the 9/11 commission pointed out last month, Osama bin Laden initially conceived of using more established members of al-Qaida to execute the attacks on Washington and New York, but decided instead to use the "Hamburg group [who] added the enormous advantages of fluency in English and familiarity with life in the west" - attributes that were necessary to learn how to fly at technically demanding American flight schools, and for the meticulous planning of the 9/11 operation. Two of the 9/11 pilots are the central focus here: the lead hijacker, Egyptian Muhammad Atta, and Zaid Jarrah, a gregarious Lebanese party boy who would go on to crash United Airlines flight 93 in Pennsylvania. In an implicit recognition that efforts to describe a typical "terrorist personality" are inherently futile, Hamburg Cell shows that Atta and Jarrah could not have been more different. Atta is portrayed as a priggish, prickly fanatic, whose misogyny extended to instructions in his will that no women should visit his grave. How Atta developed this persona is something of a mystery, although the film-makers suggest one possibility: on his return to his native Cairo after years of study in Germany, Atta is confronted by his father, an unyielding martinet, who coldly demands that he continue his studies in Hamburg. Atta's rigid personality may simply have been a family trait. Jarrah is a complete contrast: the good-looking scion of a wealthy Lebanese family, the one person in the Hamburg cell who was most likely to abandon a life of jihadist terrorism for a conventional existence, Jarrah even has a lover, Aysel Senguen, the attractive daughter of Turkish immigrants, for whom he cooks elaborate, alcohol-fuelled meals. The story of Hamburg Cell largely traces Jarrah's metamorphosis from a wine-quaffing medical student to an Islamist zealot intent on mass murder. The film nicely captures how Jarrah, newly arrived in a relentlessly grey, rainy Germany, naturally gravitated to the local mosque, where he could find companionship. Jarrah tells the imam of the mosque that his family isn't religious, to which the cleric replies, "Here, we are your brothers. We can help you." Over time Jarrah becomes more observant, attending the al-Quds mosque in Hamburg, which would become a hub for the 9/11 plotters. Jarrah grows a beard and his relationship with his girlfriend Aysel becomes increasingly contentious. At one point Aysel asks him: "What is more important to you - jihad or marrying me? Why would I marry a man who will be dead in two years?" While such conversations appear to be the reconstruction of the filmmakers, they have the ring of truth as Aysel would testify in a later terrorism trial that she progressively lost Jarrah to the influence of his jihadist friends. We also see that discussions at the mosque were as much political as religious. In one scene, a bearded elder tells Jarrah and his fellow worshippers that the Serbs instigated a Muslim holocaust in Yugoslavia during the early 1990s, a holocaust that is being repeated in places like Chechnya, Indonesia and Kashmir, and that they must therefore "train for jihad". And so, in 1999 Atta and Jarrah resolved to go to fight jihad in Chechnya. What would take them instead to Afghanistan were not contacts in the al-Quds mosque, but a chance encounter on a German train with an Islamic radical who provided them with introductions to al-Qaida. This episode is not recounted in the film, as it only became public in July. This encounter changes much of our understanding of the Hamburg cell who, it turns out, had no intention of attacking the US until they had travelled to Afghanistan, a trip that hinged on a simple quirk of fate. Of such contingencies history is made. In Afghanistan Atta and Jarrah train to become members of al-Qaida in a sequence that exactly mirrors an actual al-Qaida training tape. Atta and Jarrah are then approached by al-Qaida's military commander Khalid Sheik Mohammed who tasks them with the plan to attack the US using planes. (In reality, according to the 9/11 commission, Atta met with bin Laden himself to discuss "a preliminary list of approved targets: the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and the US Capitol".) On his return to Germany, Jarrah is contacted by members of his worried family who tell him that he must abandon his obsession with jihad. Jarrah placates his family and Aysel, by now his wife, by saying that he is going to leave Hamburg for Florida to learn how to become a pilot, far from the influence of his jihadist buddies. In fact, it is in Florida where the key 9/11 plotters would all meet up. And yet, even as the planning for the operations against Washington and New York is in its final stages, still Jarrah feels the pull of the temptations of the west, downing a beer at a barbecue. When Atta later smells the alcohol on Jarrah's breath he denounces him. Indeed, according to the 9/11 commission, simmering tensions between Atta and Jarrah were a concern to al-Qaida's leaders, because they threatened to sabotage the entire plan. As the 9/11 plot moves into high gear, Aysel visits her beloved husband in Florida for what is, unbeknown to her, their final carefree moment together. Jarrah even takes her to one of his flying lessons, a chilling scene that takes place inside a passenger jet flight simulator. At the controls of the simulator Jarrah turns to Aysel saying: "Soon I'll be doing this for real." Of course, the only time Jarrah will fly a passenger jet for real will be his first, and only, flight. The film ends, as it begins, with Jarrah in the departure lounge at Newark airport before he boards his flight to Los Angeles placing a final call to Aysel leaving her a message of love. That love will not stop Jarrah from killing himself and 43 others on the plane that he will soon crash into a field in Pennsylvania. As Osama bin Laden has said about members of al-Qaida: "We love death more than you love life." Ultimately, why that should be the case is not something that Hamburg Cell can adequately explain, probably because the explication of such beliefs lies more in the realm of theology than film-making. Hamburg Cell is screened at the Edinburgh film festival on August 25 and 26, and will be shown on Channel 4 in September. Peter Bergen is the author of Holy War, Inc: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden