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Reading into the mind of a terrorist

A document carefully crafted for the 9-11 hijackers may be a template for terrorism, say some academics.

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While most of a stunned world was still asking "why" after the world's deadliest terrorist attack destroyed New York's World Trade Center, Juan Cole was asking "how?"

What Dr. Cole, a scholar of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan, wanted to know wasn't how the airliners were hijacked or the plot concocted. Instead, he wondered how the hijackers had prepared mentally for certain death - and to kill themselves and civilians despite the Koran's injunctions against suicide and murder.

Since the events of 9/11, Cole and other academics have invested many research hours in answering such questions. What they have uncovered has to some degree defied conventional wisdom.

A careful study of the five-page hand-written document - or "doomsday letter" - found in Mohammed Atta's luggage has led Cole and others to conclude that blind rage and fanatical hatred of the values symbolized by the US did not alone motivate the hijackers.

Instead, they may have been manipulated by sophisticated psychological methods involving repetitive readings of selective passages of the Koran along with mesmeric techniques of Islamic mysticism.

On Sept. 27, 2001, the FBI released four of the five pages of text and a translation of the letter found in Atta's suitcase. In the burst of coverage that followed, news media variously dubbed the document a checklist, a manual, a prayer guide, a spiritual exhortation - even a suicide note. Yet the text defied easy classification.

Embedded in the document were subtle clues tantalizing to researchers with a deep knowledge of Arabic and Arab society.

Fluent in Urdu, Farsi, and Arabic, Cole had spent 10 years in the Muslim world. When the FBI posted the document on its website, he immediately logged on.


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