Prelude to 9/11: A Hijacker’s Love, Lies
Aysel Senguen saw her fiancé fall into radical Islam. She knew something was wrong but had no idea what lay ahead.
By Dirk Laabs and Terry McDermott
Special to The Times
January 27 2003
HAMBURG, Germany — The letter from the dead man did not surface for months after it was sent, after, presumably, Aysel Senguen had enough time to fully absorb the grim deeds and suicide death of her fiancé, Ziad Jarrah.
Ziad sent the letter and a package of personal belongings to Aysel from the United States on Sept. 10, 2001, a day before he and three comrades hijacked United Airlines Flight 93, set it on a heading for Washington, D.C., and, finally, rather than allow a passenger revolt to rescue the airplane, purposely pitched it nose first from 40,000 feet into a pasture in Stony Creek Township, Pa.
By the time the letter was revealed in November 2001, Aysel knew others thought the evidence overwhelming that Ziad had been at the controls of that airliner, that he was a critical component in the deadliest terrorist attack in history. She nonetheless believed, she told investigators, that he was alive; that he would one day come back; that he would, as he had before, show up at her door with gifts and a sheepish grin, telling her not to worry, that there had been problems but now everything was fine and they would have the life they had planned.
There was something about Ziad Jarrah that made a lot of people hope, if not actually conclude, that Aysel was right and the investigators wrong — that some horrible mistake had been made and he wasn’t a mass murderer.
Then came the letter, which postal officials said was misaddressed and lost in the mail for weeks.
“I did not escape from you but I did what I was supposed to do and you should be very proud of me,” Ziad wrote. “Remember always who you are and what you are. Head up. The victors never have their heads down!”
He was gone, he said. “Everyone has his time.”
Ziad apologized for feeding Aysel’s dreams of a wedding and children and a normal life. He called her, as he frequently did in his letters, “chabibi” — darling.
“I am what you wished for,” he said.
For many who held out hope, the letter erased it. Not Aysel. She ignored the dark passages and chose to believe the part where he promised to “always be your man,” the part where he said, “I love you from all my heart. You should not have any doubts about that. I love you and I will always love you, until eternity,” the part where he promised that one day they would live in a place “where there are no problems, and no sorrow, in castles of gold and silver.”
Of course, Aysel didn’t believe the evidence. She believed what lovers always believe: She believed in Ziad.
Aysel Senguen was for five years — almost from the day they met in Germany in the spring of 1996 — in love with Ziad Jarrah. For much of that time, they fought, as lovers will, about their differences, about what she described as his secrets.
Aysel watched as Ziad turned toward a harsh interpretation of Islam and joined a group of like-minded young men in steadfast commitment to wage holy war. She knew that something had gone horribly wrong. And she was hardly alone.
Evidence now being used to prosecute a member of the Hamburg group that produced three of the Sept. 11 suicide pilots makes clear that the views of Jarrah and the group were well known to relatives, friends, casual acquaintances and, notably, to police and intelligence officials.
The evidence, much of it not previously disclosed, includes interviews with close associates of the hijackers, wiretaps, extensive correspondence between Aysel and Ziad, correspondence among other hijackers and between them and friends, financial records and eyewitness accounts from informants in Germany and at Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. The accounts and quotations in this report, unless otherwise attributed, are derived from that evidence.
The evidence presents a new view of the Hamburg cell. So public were the beliefs of the hijackers and their associates that the often stated notion that they were a cell of secret “sleeper agents” of the Al Qaeda terrorist network seems almost opposite the truth.
The group was far larger than previously described, including at least several dozen men. Almost everyone who had significant contact with them knew that the men professed a personal commitment to holy war and spent years trying to determine how best to wage it. Casual acquaintances were sometimes frightened by the group’s beliefs. A member of the congregation at the Al Quds mosque in Hamburg brought his father to a worship service, and the older man was so unnerved by what was a routine day at the mosque that he warned his son never to return. Others fled town to avoid the group.
Members of the group hectored acquaintances to join the cause, at one point physically beating one man because they declared him insufficiently devout. They pressured other men to grow beards, to dress in a prescribed manner and to make their wives convert to Islam.
Intelligence officials from the United States and Germany were well aware of the radical nature of the group. A CIA agent was so agitated about the group’s activities that German authorities at one point told him that they would throw him out of the country if he continued to make a nuisance of himself by demanding the Germans do something.
Members of the group and others they were in frequent contact with were under regular surveillance. Some of them, including the man suspected of bringing the group into contact with Al Qaeda, had been watched since at least 1998.
Jarrah, for example, was in regular contact with at least five people who were being watched by intelligence organizations. Jarrah himself was interrogated in January 2000 in the United Arab Emirates because he had copied a page from the Koran into his passport.
Many people suspected that something was seriously wrong. They saw much — and did nothing. No one saw more than Aysel.
Ziad Jarrah was the middle child and only son in a prosperous, industrious family in Beirut. His parents drove fashionable Mercedes automobiles, owned a condominium in Beirut and a vacation home in Lebanon’s countryside. The family was secular Muslim, and Ziad attended private Christian schools — a mark of affluence, not religious inclination.
He had a tough time in school, at one point apparently flunking out of high school. He was, according to some published reports, more interested in girls than studies. He eventually earned a high school diploma and was given the choice of attending university abroad in two places the Jarrahs had relatives — Toronto, or Greifswald, Germany, a tiny northeastern backwater on the Baltic coast.
Going to Canada would have required Ziad to marry a cousin as part of the deal. He chose Germany. He and another cousin, Salim, arrived in Greifswald in the spring of 1996, not long after a vivacious young woman named Aysel Senguen enrolled there in the college of dental medicine.
They met within a month of Ziad’s arrival, on the day he moved into his student quarters at the University of Greifswald. Aysel lived just down the hall. She was the daughter of conservative, working-class Turkish immigrants to southern Germany and had been in Greifswald for a semester.
She already had a boyfriend, but Ziad must have seemed an answer to many dreams: a big-city boy with an easy smile, like her a moderate Muslim who enjoyed a good time. She wondered about potential problems, confiding to her sister that Arab men could be domineering, but she took the leap.
She dumped the boyfriend. She and Ziad became a couple. They cooked meals together; she helped him learn German. Bleary-eyed photographs from the time — including one of Ziad lighting a water pipe — indicate that they did their share of partying.
Not everybody joined in. One man Ziad later grew close to, Abdulrachman Makhadi, one of Aysel’s fellow dentistry students, must have frowned on their behavior. Makhadi, a Yemeni, was known around campus as the self-appointed enforcer of Muslim doctrine; he governed — harshly, some say — from a small concrete-block mosque that locals referred to as “the Box.” Inside it, Makhadi preached a strict interpretation of Islam and collected money for the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Ziad went home for the winter holiday after his first semester and upon his return seemed changed from the happy-go-lucky playboy. His cousin, Salim, noticed that he began reading radical Islamist publications.
A friend of Aysel’s told investigators that in early 1997, Ziad talked about being “dissatisfied with his life up till now.” The friend said Ziad wanted to make a mark in life and “didn’t want to leave Earth in a natural way.”
There is no indication of what lay behind the change. Salim Jarrah said once that his cousin was like a tree without roots; Greifswald was not a place for an Arab to grow them. The city is a dim, almost medieval place that seems decades behind the rest of Germany. Fashions in clothing, even today, seem stuck in 1987, and the city has for years had a large population of neo-Nazi skinheads. It is not exactly a welcoming place for foreigners.
Makhadi, who disclaims anything but the slightest acquaintance with Ziad Jarrah, seems the likeliest candidate to have influenced him. Investigators about that time had begun monitoring Makhadi, whom they classified as “an endangerer” of other Muslims, but they say they have no real idea what, if anything, happened.
Ziad’s new piety caused problems with Aysel almost immediately. He criticized her choice of friends, the way she dressed and what she drank.
Aysel and Ziad were in many ways dissimilar. He was quiet and withdrawn. She talked all the time about everything to whomever would listen. “That’s my way. That’s how I am. I tackle problems through conversations,” she said later.
Throughout the relationship, according to their correspondence, she railed at Ziad for not telling her more, for not sharing more of himself. Ziad responded that he told her what he felt she needed to know.
At some level, she must have understood what Ziad was going through. She had earlier experienced an identity crisis of her own. She told investigators that after high school her parents had sent her to Turkey, apparently an attempt to ground her in her heritage. It backfired. She attempted suicide. “I was in a cultural conflict,” she said.
“When he asked me to change, I sometimes said, ‘OK, you are right,’ but I didn’t do anything. I know that kind of culture — that’s not so different with Turks.”
One thing they agreed on 100% was getting out of Greifswald. Ziad had upon his arrival enrolled, as foreign students are required to do, in preparatory German classes. He was due to complete those within the year, and in the spring of 1997 he began to apply for regular university admission. He wanted to study dental medicine like Aysel and he applied at medical schools around the country.
Later, out of the blue, she said, he also applied to the biochemistry program at Greifswald, probably as a fallback position, and to study aeronautical engineering in Hamburg. She told investigators that he went to Hamburg because it was the only place he was accepted.
Maybe this is what Ziad told her, but according to records, it was untrue. He was accepted into a medical school in western Germany, the science program in Greifswald and at Hamburg, which is the one he chose.
Ziad moved to Hamburg and enrolled at the University of Applied Sciences, which was then home to a group of young, tough Moroccan students who were regarded as the hardest of the hard-core Islamists at the city’s radical Al Quds mosque. Ziad quickly befriended the group.
The Moroccans, many of whom worked together at an outdoor supply shop, always sat in the same place at Al Quds, in a corner on the right side. They monitored relationships of their friends. One man told investigators that he was called repeatedly by one of the Moroccans, Zakariya Essabar, who just months before had been the best man at his wedding.
Essabar asks: When will your German wife convert to Islam?
Never, the man says.
Essabar calls to ask the same question again and again. Then, after a period of months without contact, they talk.
Essabar asks: What about your wife? Did she convert?
No, the man says. Where can I reach you?
Essabar replies: You can’t reach me anymore.
In the beginning, Ziad returned to Greifswald every other weekend. He sometimes rode the train with Makhadi, who had an internship in Hamburg. They had earlier made other trips from Greifswald, including at least one to the western town of Aachen, which for more than a decade had been a center of radical Islam in Europe. Ziad befriended the second in command at the Muenster Islamic Center, which was run by a man who had fled Egypt under suspicion of a political murder.
Ziad also met a Yemeni named Ramzi Binalshibh, a regular at Al Quds, and through him a group of multinational Arab men just then beginning to figure out how they could contribute to the jihad. This group was based across town at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg. A series of apartments shared by the Harburg men became a kind of floating headquarters for young jihadis.
The Harburg group was connected to others of similar intent throughout Europe and the Middle East. They had access to criminal enterprises that could and did furnish false identification for some group members.
The man chiefly responsible for making connections among this mosaic of activists, militants and sympathizers was Binalshibh, now suspected of being a field coordinator of the Sept. 11 plot. Binalshibh traveled constantly, meeting fellow believers from the Netherlands, Kosovo, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.
At trial and in other interrogations, witnesses repeatedly described Binalshibh — not Mohamed Atta — as the group’s most respected and charismatic figure.
Atta has typically been described as the leader of the group. Part of the reason authorities first thought that Atta was the leader stems from early confusion about Atta’s name. He rarely used his full name, which includes seven distinct components of which Atta is the last. He never used Atta except on official documents. He was known by almost everyone as Mohamed el-Amir, or simply El-Amir, which means “leader” in Arabic. Investigators apparently mistook these references as an indication of respect.
Some members of the group barely knew Atta; all knew Binalshibh, who worked nearly full time on his religious-political activities. He had lived in Germany since at least 1995 and never held a regular job or attended school more than a couple of days at a time. He seldom had a fixed address. All he needed, a friend said, was a mattress and a corner in which to put it.
Binalshibh and Atta regularly lectured and recruited at several mosques in Hamburg, although not always with great success. Atta, in particular, had such a stern vision of Islam that he drove people away. One young recruit described attending Atta’s study group for two years. Over time, it included dozens of members, but by the time Atta left town for good in 2000, the recruit said, the group had dwindled to the point that Atta “was sitting there almost alone.”
Binalshibh was dreamily romantic about jihad. “It is the highest thing to do, to die for the jihad,” he told friends. “The moujahedeen die peacefully. They die with a smile on their lips, their dead bodies are soft, while the bodies of the killed infidels are stiff.”
A spirit of easy brotherhood prevailed within the Harburg group. However extreme its aims, it was a kindred community. The men shared apartments, bank accounts and cars. The group members strictly observed the tenets of their religion: They prayed five times a day, maintained strict Islamic diets and even debated the proper length of their beards. They talked endlessly about the damage done by Jews, including their assumption that Israel had conspired with Monica Lewinsky to bring down President Clinton. For entertainment, they watched battlefield videos and sang songs about martyrdom.
Ziad’s family members in Lebanon grew concerned about him. They sent emissaries to talk to him, threatened to cut off his monthly stipend, and, according to investigators, his father once feigned a heart attack in hopes that Ziad would come home. It didn’t work. He grew more and more involved with his new friends.
He saw Aysel less. She visited Hamburg a few times but felt unwelcome; on at least one occasion, Ziad abandoned her in his room to spend time with his friends, whom she never met. She was angry, but Ziad said that where he went, women were not allowed.
Aysel later told investigators that she first heard Ziad talk about jihad just after he moved to Hamburg in late 1997.
“I didn’t know what it means,” she said. “I asked Arab friends about the meaning. Somebody explained to me that the word ‘jihad’ in the softer form means to write books, tell people about Islam. But Ziad’s own jihad was more aggressive, the fighting kind, giving oneself up for the religion.”
The couple broke up and reconciled over and over. Aysel became pregnant.
She aborted the pregnancy, she told investigators, because of the uncertainty of their relationship. She later apologized to Ziad by mail:
“I had to think about our baby today,” she wrote. “I am sorry about everything I did to you.”
Around that time, Aysel told a friend: “I don’t want to be left behind with the children, because my husband moved into a fanatic war.” Aysel at one point contemplated moving back with her parents in Stuttgart. She transferred instead to Bochum, in coal country near Düesseldorf. Theoretically, it was more convenient to Hamburg, but Ziad’s visits remained irregular. Aysel would be beside herself with loneliness and her inability to track him down. Once, in desperation, Aysel wrote him:
“Again you haven’t been reachable. I left a message for you to call me back. Since you haven’t done so, I assume you haven’t been home at all. I couldn’t sleep last night and I thought for a long, long time. What is love for you? … I want to tell you what love is for me: To take the other as he is, to share everything with him you have (mentally and physically, materially, in all areas of life), to do something for the other you wouldn’t do for yourself, to be there for the other (especially in bad times).
“I will fight for you. I am willing to live with you in Lebanon even if you say you wouldn’t live in Turkey, because it isn’t your home, and I don’t accept the point of view ‘the wife has to live where the man wants her to, because he is responsible,’ because this is written nowhere in the Koran, that this has to be that way, and I don’t believe that God made this religion for men. I think in the Koran everything is taken care of for marriage and it’s not in the hand of the man. Islam offers equal rights for men and women, maybe it grants even more rights to the women than you know.”
Once, she said later, she told Ziad, “I do not cover myself for you; if I choose to do so myself it’s for God or for my faith.”
When Ziad was out of touch, Aysel would try to track him down, calling all the numbers she had for friends in Hamburg. When that produced nothing, she combed through old telephone bills for calls Ziad made from her flat when he visited. She called every number she didn’t know, demanding that someone tell her where he was.
It was a fruitless battle. For the first two years in Hamburg, Ziad maintained nominal commitment to Aysel and studied in school. Gradually, Ziad drifted further away from her and deeper into his own war.
He told her that he was ashamed of her. Aysel’s roommates say the criticism sometimes grew violent. Once, she told them, he hit her; another time, she said, he threatened her with much worse: “Today I am sitting here with you and tomorrow I will kill you.”
Talks Heating Up
As time went on, discussions in the Harburg group intensified although, witnesses said later, they were unfocused. One week the members were intent on fighting in Kosovo, the next in Chechnya. They wanted to fight; they didn’t know which war.
In 1998, Binalshibh, Atta and a newcomer, Marwan Al-Shehhi, became the first of the group to take concrete action toward joining the jihad. They quietly left Hamburg, apparently for the Afghan training camps. When they returned, they were more fervent than ever and encouraged others to follow their example.
The pace had quickened in the broader jihad community too. That spring, Osama bin Laden had issued his call for direct action against the United States. In the summer, two American embassies in East Africa were attacked with truck bombs. It was as if a battle horn had sounded. The war was on.
Everything seemed to take on a new urgency. The group members moved in and out of flats. They began physical fitness training. One of them, Said Bahaji, joined the German army, then left after completing his basic combat training. He could have avoided service altogether, but he apparently wanted the training.
Atta, for one, had executed a last will years earlier. Others downloaded templates for jihad wills from the Internet and followed suit. One man instructed his survivors to pay all his debts to Muslims but withhold all money from Christians and Jews.
Their living arrangements became increasingly fluid. One insider later told investigators that the group members always looked as if they were ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
They tidied up personal affairs, assigning power of attorney and control of bank accounts to friends. They rushed to finish school courses or gave up all pretense of trying. Three members of the group married in a period of six months.
They included Ziad Jarrah, who married Aysel in a spring 1999 ceremony at a mosque in Hamburg. It must have been a desultory affair, done to appease Ziad’s friends. It was never registered with the state, and Aysel said later that she never considered it a real wedding. Aysel did, however, insist on a contract before the wedding that specified she could continue her studies. Ziad later sought to renege on this and asked her to quit, but she appealed to the imam who performed their wedding ceremony and he upheld her position.
In any event, they broke up again within weeks of the wedding, and then, as usual, made up.
In May, after they reunited, Ziad wrote this e-mail: “It’s me again. How is my darling? All I can say for me is I miss you very very much. Meow. I want to cuddle. I love you.”
By summer, they were apart again.
“I thought it is forever, and he probably, too, but we got back together on the telephone after two weeks,” she said.
Back in Bochum that fall, a friend called Aysel, warning that Ziad was up to something, that he might be headed for Afghanistan. The friend said Ziad’s family in Beirut was frantic. Where was Ziad?
Aysel visited him in Hamburg. Ziad had been talking lately about Chechnya, she said. He seemed weighed down; she suspected he was about to make a decision. He quit going to classes. He told her that he was going home to Lebanon for a while, clear his head and figure out what to do with his life. He was even more withdrawn than usual. “That scared me,” she said.
Notes in Ziad’s handwriting, dated just before Aysel’s visit and later discovered by investigators, gave an indication of what was on his mind: One entry read: “The morning will come. The victors will come, will come. We swear to beat you. The earth will shake underneath your feet.” And a week later: “I came to you with men who love the death just as you love life…. The moujahedeen give their money for the weapons, food and journeys to win and to die for Allah’s cause but the unhappy ones will be killed. Oh, the smell of paradise is rising.”
When Ziad took Aysel to catch the train back to Bochum, she was filled with dread.
Aysel knew that wherever he was going, it probably wasn’t Lebanon, the destination he had given her. She repeatedly called Hamburg trying to find out where he was. This must have set off alarms in the network.
Mounir Motassadeq, a Moroccan now on trial in Hamburg for allegedly providing logistical support for the Sept. 11 plotters, testified that he was contacted by Binalshibh, who asked him to call Aysel and calm her down. Motassadeq did as he was asked. A couple of weeks later, a letter for Aysel arrived with a Yemeni postmark and a stranger’s handwriting on the envelope. Inside was a letter from Ziad.
The letter, she said later, advised her that he was well. It said that “I shouldn’t worry and that he wants to have a child. The special thing about the word ‘child’ was that he wrote it in several different languages. He also wrote that he missed me.”
“I was incredibly happy with that letter because now I knew he was alive. I told his parents at once. I had received a sign of life.”
A week later, Ziad called.
“He told me he would be home soon. But I can’t recall the exact content of the conversation because I was so excited,” she said.
Then one day in February 2000, there he was, Aysel said, standing at her door: Cleanshaven, neatly dressed — the Ziad she knew from the first weeks in Greifswald, the man she fell in love in. He has jewelry, honey, shoes, a skirt for her.
“And of course I asked the question, ‘Where have you been?’ And I did not ask it once. I asked it a lot of times. The only answer I got was, ‘Don’t ask me.’ Later he would say, ‘Don’t ask me, it’s better for you.’ That sort of irritated me, so I asked, ‘Why was it better for me?’ I would not receive an answer.
“At some point, I just told myself, ‘It’s OK,’ and I was content with the situation. Basically I was happy that he was here and that his Sturm und Drang — that’s how I interpreted this time — was over.”
That night, as Ziad slept in her bed, Aysel lifted the blankets and carefully examined his body, looking for bruises or scars. There were none. He looked fit, athletic. He’s OK, Aysel thought. He’s back, and everything is going to be like it was in the beginning.
For a while, it was. Ziad seemed more relaxed about his religion, more moderate. He spoke a little of Pakistan, but mainly about the landscape and how differently and simply people lived. He never said a word about being in Afghanistan or what he’d done there. He told Aysel that he had decided what to do with his life: He wanted to become a pilot.
Immediately, Aysel began making plans, imagining their life: Another year in Germany for training, then children, some time in Turkey. If Ziad wanted to leave Germany, he could work for the Turkish airlines and she could work as a dentist. Then they could move on to Beirut if he wanted.
The two of them together, plotting and dreaming just as they had in Greifswald, only now instead of universities they were looking for flight schools. They contacted those schools near Bochum. But Ziad took off on his own some days. He went to Hamburg, Berlin. He visited a cousin he hadn’t seen in years who worked as an engineer at a nuclear power plant. And one day, while he was gone, Aysel came home to find a message on the answering machine, indicating that Ziad had contacted a flight school in Florida.
Aysel was furious. This was more like the old Ziad than she had bargained for — lying, hiding information. When he came home, he had an explanation, as usual: It’s the best training and, more to the point, the fastest. He can earn his license faster in the U.S. than anywhere else. Besides, he said, I have to get away from my old friends. This is the only way to do it.
Aysel put her doubts aside. She acquiesced. Not long after, she e-mailed a friend: “I know he did some bull …. I know more than he thinks I know.”
What Aysel didn’t know was that some of Ziad’s old friends would be in the U.S. with him, or that he had told a cousin he thought it would be great to be a Muslim martyr and a plot had been set in motion to achieve that end.
Jarrah, Atta and Al-Shehhi arrived in Florida in the summer of 2000. Binalshibh and Essabar tried to join them but repeatedly failed to obtain visas. Binalshibh became the key contact between the pilots — the hit teams, as they called them — and the plot’s principal planner, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and the rest of the Al Qaeda hierarchy.
During the next year, Aysel and Ziad replayed their relationship. Aysel was inquisitive. Ziad was evasive. She couldn’t find him. They fought. They made up. He came to visit. He left. In total, he returned to Germany six times while he was in the U.S. She visited him once in Florida. He flew her down to the Keys and showed her how he trained in a Boeing simulator.
He told her not to tell friends where he was. She agreed, but when asked, she said, “of course I never stick to that. If somebody called and asked his whereabouts, I give them an answer. I told him too, and he is very angry.”
They talked or e-mailed almost every day.
Aysel wrote Ziad in late October:
“Please, I ask you please call me. Just give me a short call so I know that you’re all right. I’m angry that you don’t think about me and that I wait for a message here and have to think about you all the time. Can you think about me once and try to pretend to be me. You’re taking so many risks and I know a lot even though you don’t tell it. It’s no surprise that I’m afraid for you, right?
“I love you.
“I arrived well. I’m sorry I haven’t sent you a message for a long time. I did get your letter and I found it super sweet. And full of understanding and compassion. It’s not about trust. I love you, Aysel, and don’t worry.”
Ziad’s father had a heart bypass operation a month later, in February 2001. Ziad went home to Beirut for a month to be with him. He stopped in Bochum on his way back to the U.S.
He seemed to recommit himself, Aysel said later.
“He was really moved, and said, he, Ziad, wants [us] to have children soon, so his father could see them before he dies.”
Later, after Ziad returned to the U.S. and still couldn’t set a date for when his training would end, Aysel grew angry again because she didn’t see “any progress.” Ziad, as always, had an excuse. Aysel, as always, accepted it. In part, their relationship was constructed on her capacity to believe Ziad’s lies, even those that seemed preposterous.
Once, Ziad showed her a picture of him on one of his trips in a commercial airliner. She asked why he was sitting in business class. The flight attendant made me, he said, because I am Lebanese, and they wanted me where they could keep an eye on me.
This seems close to what Aysel had wanted too — Ziad in a place where she could keep an eye on him. But even when he was within sight — in the same room or the same bed — Aysel saw only so far. Ziad made it hard to look too deeply, but Aysel seemed to blind herself too.
She saw Ziad descend almost every step of the way into the Sept. 11 plot. Even today she can recount the steps, but, she says, she still doesn’t know quite where he was going.
Ziad’s quick training course in the U.S. stretched out beyond a year. Every time he came home, Aysel thought it was for good. She booked his flights home and unless told otherwise booked one-way fares. Then he’d show up carrying only hand luggage, and she would know that he wasn’t staying this time, either.
Finally, on Sept. 10, 2001, Ziad packed up his things, wrote Aysel the final letter declaring his pride and devotion and dreams of castles in the sky and put them all in the mail.
The next morning, very early his time, he called her. She had complained often that even when he did call, the conversations were brief, sometimes cut off when his prepaid calling cards ran out of time. This conversation was abrupt even by those standards.
Three times, quickly, he told her he loved her. Then Ziad told Aysel goodbye.