A journey to Gaza, Cairo and Hamburg in search of what really made Sept. 11 possible.
"Whoever kills himself with an iron weapon, then the iron weapon will remain in his hand, and he will continuously stab himself in his belly with it in the Fire of Hell eternally, forever and ever."
A few days after Sept. 11, that quotation from a sacred Muslim commentary turned up on an English-language Web site called www.fatwa-online.com. There it was brandished by a Muslim scholar who argued that Islam could never, under any circumstances, justify the practice known in the West as ''suicide bombing.'' Suicide bombers, he seemed to be warning, would blow themselves up through eternity. It was, in its way, a comforting thought, but there was no assurance that this learned discussion on the Internet was being followed in Arab centers where the bombers were found and recruited. In the days after Sept. 11, it also became clear that there was no Arab leadership with the inclination or stature to call a jihad against suicide bombings and the latter-day cult of martyrdom that may date from the Iran-Iraq war, in which Iranian teenagers, sent out by the thousands to be human minefield sweepers, were given keys to wear around their necks. Those keys, they were promised, would open the doors of paradise.
Necrophiliac fervor at first seemed confined to Shiites (not just Iranians but the Lebanese factions that drove vehicles laden with explosives into the American Embassy and marine headquarters in Beirut in 1983). How suicide bombing then got adopted as a weapon by the Sunni Muslims of Palestine and the Arabian Peninsula -- and then by a multinational consortium drawing in Egyptians, Algerians, Moroccans and Kenyans that found its prime targets on American soil -- is a tangled question for scholars. All that happened when we were looking the other way. We ticked off the bombings but didn't pay close attention when, three years ago, Osama bin Laden (news - web sites) declared ''war'' on the United States. Other things -- like a White House sex scandal and the Nasdaq -- preoccupied us when he called us ''the most filthy sort of human beings'' and a ''lowly people.'' It didn't register when he said it was a sacred duty for Muslims to kill American civilians or praised young bombers for giving their lives to this ''killing and neck smiting.'' And beyond the caves of Afghanistan (news - web sites), few seemed to be listening anyhow -- as far as we knew or cared.
Wondering in the days after Sept. 11 how self-annihilation had gone from being a tactic for spreading gory mayhem on a local scale to a weapon of mass destruction, I started reading up on kamikazes and the Black Tigers of the Tamil movement in Sri Lanka. It seemed useful to recall that it wasn't only extremist Muslims who blew themselves up to inflict damage on an enemy. But the World Trade Center and Pentagon (news - web sites) bombers still seemed to me different from any precursors: in their self-discipline, their ability to coordinate their efforts over long distances and many months, in the cold power they silently lorded over their fellow passengers as they waited to blow them -- and themselves -- to bits. They weren't around to be asked about their apocalyptic vision and motives, but they had plenty of contemporaries. As a reborn reporter, my instinct was to visit several Muslim centers -- Gaza, Cairo, Hamburg -- throwing myself into as many intense conversations as I could on the subject of suicide bombings, martyrdom and Sept. 11, especially with men in their 20's and 30's who might have given some thought to what moved their generational cohorts to take this path and stay on it till its calamitous end. I did not realize how different the perspectives could be in each place.
I picked Gaza as a place to start for the simple reason that it has a well-established production line for suicide bombers (though, conspicuously, there were no Palestinians on the Sept. 11 death flights). But I wasn't prepared for what I encountered there. In Gaza, feelings about suicide bombing turned out to be not very different from what feelings about capital punishment have been in this country for most of the last two decades. I'm not drawing an analogy between judicial execution and terrorism. I'm merely pointing to a climate of opinion. In Gaza, a poll taken in June that Palestinian and Israeli analysts both respect found that 78 percent of the population approved of the attacks carried out in their name in Israel or on its frontiers -- more by a long shot than presently approve of peace negotiations. In Gaza, in other words, support for bombings staged in support of the Palestinian cause has become a cultural norm.
Only, since it's universally accepted that suicide is contrary to the teachings of the Prophet, they are hardly ever called ''suicide bombings.'' That term -- our term -- can be translated into Arabic but seldom is. Those we call suicide bombers are called shaheed, or martyrs, which is how bin Laden has urged the entire Muslim world to view 19 hijackers who extinguished more lives in an hour and a half on a golden American morning than all those killed over the years, on both sides, in two intifadas and nearly five dozen suicide bombings launched by Palestinian groups -- three times more, in fact.
It's one thing to study a poll that says 78 percent of the people in Gaza support suicide bombing, another to visit a family in which the eldest son and brother has recently achieved martyrdom by obliterating his earthly existence. You might expect to see some small hint of demurral, and occasionally, I'm pleased to report, you do. But I could detect nothing of the kind at the spanking new apartment of a solemnly prideful Bashir al-Masawabi, whose 23-year-old son, Ismail, had blown himself to bits along with two Israeli Army sergeants on June 22, several days before his scheduled graduation from a local university.
The family had been living in a refugee-camp hovel when Ismail became a secret candidate for martyrdom. Now the circumstances of their lives had completely changed. The apartment, spacious by Gaza standards, had plastic grapevines running along the top of tiled walls. Everything in it looked new -- the appliances, rugs and stuffed furniture, the gaudy wall clocks, even the bracelet and rings Ismail's mother was wearing -- all made possible by supporters of Hamas, the organization that recruited Ismail. His father, a glazier, had a haunted look as he told how the community had turned out to congratulate him on his son's advent in paradise. His wife, completely covered except for her hands and her resolutely cheerful countenance, betrayed not a hint of sadness as she spoke of her departed son. ''I was very happy when I heard,'' she said. ''To be a martyr, that's something. Very few people can do it. I prayed to thank God. In the Koran it's said that a martyr does not die. I know my son is close to me. It is our belief.''
Next it was time to view Ismail's farewell video, the ritualistic last testament that the bombers' recruiters shoot hours before the attack, a key stage in the psychological prepping that deepens the candidate's conviction that he is about to perform a great deed for his family, his people and his faith, that he has reached a point of no return. Ismail was shown in the standard mise-en-scene, with his Kalashnikov and his Koran, declaring that his salvation was at hand. Then, all smiles, he was shown dismounting from a jeep. The next scene, taken from Israeli TV, showed ambulances at the scene of his attack. Usually, this would have been the end, but the video now continued with interviews with the young martyr's parents, next to whom I was now standing. As they voiced their pride, the camera panned the new apartment, lingering on the armchairs and the plastic grapevines.
What we were seeing had been broadcast just the day before on Al Manaar, a satellite TV station based in Lebanon that now reaches households throughout the Middle East, despite Israeli attempts to knock it out. Ismail's farewell video, it seemed plain, had been lengthened and re-edited into a recruiting advertisement. It seemed to say: Your family can live like this too.
Gaza's embrace of martyrdom was site specific. It was meant for its own sons, who were seen as acting in history to gain their state, one that could offer livelihoods to young Palestinians like themselves. Against all earthly odds, with last year's peace effort dying a violent death before their eyes, the residents of Gaza wanted to believe that the sacrifice of the martyrs would help end the strife it was actually sure to increase.
But Gaza's embrace of martyrdom did not automatically extend to the Sept. 11 bombers, whose apocalyptic urge to bring America low was a way of cleansing and uniting the whole Arab world. The Palestinians weren't looking to merge into something larger. They just wanted their state. From the perspective of Gaza, there were then two kinds of suicide bombing: those that advanced its cause and those that did not. Or to put it another way: those that could be justified and those that could not.
When I asked about Sept. 11, what I heard at first in Gaza mixed sympathy over the mammoth scale of the carnage in New York with a reluctance to believe that Muslims could have been responsible. The fact that they were suspected, whatever the evidence, became yet another grievance, another proof of ''bias'' on the part of the American authorities who, I was invariably reminded, supplied Israel's sophisticated weaponry.
In two hours of conversation in a coffee shop with five students from the Islamic University -- polite, soft-spoken young men, each of whom said he had actually known someone who had achieved martyrdom by blowing himself up -- all agreed that someone who ended his life on their land in order to gain rights for his people was a martyr. If civilians then died, it was in justified retaliation for the killing of Muslim civilians or for the theft of their land. ''If public opinion all over the world says they are not martyrs, then I agree to be called a terrorist,'' a 22-year-old engineering student named Monzer said heatedly.
True martyrs, all agreed, were not people with psychological problems. They were not desperate people. Going ''all the way,'' they proved themselves to be selfless and brave. ''His life is not cheap because he's a Muslim,'' said Hani, another engineering student. ''He offers the most precious thing he has.''
An hour into the conversation, I presented some hypothetical questions in order to cut through the conspiracy theories that turned Sept. 11 into an attack on Arabs rather than Americans. What if the hijackers really were Muslims? I asked. It was still wrong, they all said. Someone who flew a plane into an office tower killing thousands got no blessing, no pass to paradise. ''It wasn't a civilized thing to do,'' said Ibrahim, a 21-year-old education student. ''I felt very sorry about it.''
What if bin Laden really was behind the attacks, aiming to expel American forces from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf? Still wrong because of the death of civilians (unless, interjected Ibrahim, the shy smile returning, he was really doing it for Palestine). What if, contrary to the known facts, it had been Palestinians acting, in their own minds, on behalf of Palestinians? Still wrong, three of the students said but with less firmness, I thought, than before. Monzer, looking suddenly flushed, said he'd rather not express an opinion. Ibrahim, who earlier had said the attacks had been uncivilized, was the last to speak. ''Then it would have been justified,'' he said, smiling still. ''Then they would be martyrs.''
Gentle Ibrahim, wavering between his several views of the situation, seemed to me in that week before the start of the American attacks in Afghanistan to crystallize the cross-currents blowing through Gaza. Palestinians at that juncture did not want to join in a ''war'' against America because, even when they convicted it in their minds of double standards and hypocrisy on what mattered most to them, America still represented a kind of hope. Only America, after all, had the power, they still believed, to impose a settlement of their conflict on Ariel Sharon (news - web sites).
In Israel, conversations about the motivation of suicide bombers -- the blight of Israeli malls, checkpoints, bus stops, pizza parlors and dreams -- usually start with the ''72 black-eyed virgins'' who are supposed to await the martyrs in paradise. When non-Muslims talk about the virgins, they tend to leer a little, as if young men were blowing themselves up in order to have sex. More basic for these Muslims is the omnibus promise of divine favor rewarding them for righteous deeds. The would-be martyrs are also told that they will experience no pain after the first drop of their blood has been shed; that they will escape the tortures of the grave and judgment day, going straight to heaven; that relatives and friends of their choosing will surround them forevermore. A pious double-think is involved: since they do not die, the martyrs cannot be suicides. (In truth, the vast majority of suicides do not appear to be suicidal in any clinical sense, those who knew them and those who labor afterward to fathom them almost always agree.)
The death of a martyr is routinely announced in the Palestinian press not as an obituary but as a wedding. ''The Wedding of the Martyr Ali Khadr Al-Yassini to the Black-Eyed in Eternal Paradise,'' said an invitation carried a few weeks ago in lieu of a death notice in Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, an Arafat-controlled paper. The same nuptial theme emerges in the eve-of-battle instructions presumed to have been written by Mohamed Atta, a supposed leader of the Sept. 11 attacks. ''You should feel complete tranquillity, because the time between you and your marriage in heaven is very short,'' Atta assured his accomplices.
Israel's most experienced students of terrorism don't make the theological distinctions Palestinians can draw between suicide bombers who are truly martyrs and bombers whose acts cannot be justified and who therefore were wrong to imagine that they would be martyrs. The point, the Israeli experts say, is that the promises of paradise, wedding and all, are taken literally, not metaphorically, by those who surrender their lives to jihad. Miss that point and you miss the overarching fact that it really is a holy war, they say, a clash of cultures that cannot be resolved by a negotiated agreement, in Israel or elsewhere.
The only thing doubtful about this one-size-fits-all interpretation, it seemed, was that it could lead you to get ahead of reality and imagine an alliance among all Muslim movements that was still a bin Laden pipe dream. Palestinian shaheed and the Sept. 11 attackers may seek the same para-dise, but the movements that mobilize them still have different earthly ends.
If Israelis and Westerners want to understand suicide bombing, said Yigal Carmon, a former counterterrorism adviser to Yitzhak Rabin (news - web sites), they should dwell a little on their own religiously motivated killers: Baruch Goldstein, for instance, the Brooklyn-born doctor who gunned down 29 Muslims at prayer in the mosque in Hebron, or Yigal Amir, Rabin's assassin, each of whom found defenders on the religious fringe. Jews needed to reflect on their own mishegoss, or madness, Carmon said.
But if you spent too much time trying to find the rationale of craziness, of worrying about the motives of individual bombers, you missed the crucial point, argued Ariel Merari, a professor at Tel Aviv University. ''It's not a phenomenon of individual psychology,'' he said. ''It's an organizational phenomenon.'' What we needed to understand was not why bombers did it but how they were recruited and trained. The bombers themselves were weapons. In times of turmoil, they were available to skillful and compelling recruiters who, acting like le Carre spymasters, knew how to weave interpretations of history, religion and present injustice, personal or national, into a tactical imperative. This seemed to fit with what I had absorbed about the kamikazes of World War II and the Black Tigers of Sri Lanka. At first the kamikazes volunteered to die for the emperor, under the impression that their hopeless missions could turn the tide of battle in the Pacific and save Japan from invasion. Off Okinawa in 1945, more than 1,000 dived to their deaths over 10 weeks, taking with them some 5,000 American sailors (a toll roughly equivalent to that taken by the two airliners in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11). As it became clear that the war had been lost, the Japanese command continued to make suicide its tactic of last resort, sometimes telling young recruits being trained to serve as human guidance systems on bombs and torpedoes little more than that their missions might be ''dangerous.''
In the widely overlooked struggle of the Tamil minority for an independent homeland in Sri Lanka, the role of Hirohito is played by the movement's shadowy leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, who has dispatched more suicide missions than anyone else now on earth. The leader offers an ethos of sacrifice rather than a promise of heavenly rewards, stressing the suffering of the Tamils and the oppression of the majority Sinhalese when he dines with Black Tigers -- those Tamil Tigers who have volunteered to die -- before sending them off on missions from which there can be no return. Like them, he is said to wear a cyanide capsule around his neck to avert capture and torture by government forces. In the best of times, Tamils have a high suicide rate, unlike Palestinians (whose suicide rate is well below that of Israelis, or ours). But Tigers who appear to be unstable or depressed don't get taken into the elite Black Tigers units whose members are convinced, it seems, that they can do something really useful with their lives by ending them. Often they operate as squads, one bomber following another in order to hit the emergency forces that rush to the scene of the first bombing. It's doubtless just an odd coincidence but striking, nevertheless, that in the mid-1990's Prabhakaran's suicide bombers hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Colombo. Yet, in September, the Tamil Tigers branded the attack in New York ''a colossal human tragedy'' and ''brutal crime.'' They then launched one of their patented seaborne suicide attacks on a troop carrier.
The world views of the Japanese, Tamil and Palestinian suicide bombers were as distinct as the contexts in which they operated. But if I understood the professor's point correctly, their recruiters had much in common. Each found ways of commanding the loyalty of young people only to persuade them that a meaningful death would be better than a pointless life.
Everyone talks about the ''sophistication'' of the Sept. 11 operation, as if the hardware-store box cutters were laser-guided. In Merari's view, what was really sophisticated was the psychological preparation of the hijack teams. ''The main difference,'' he said, ''was that this was done on a very long leash. I always thought that suicidal attacks had to be conducted on a short leash because you cannot be sure the guy will go through with it.'' Since September, Merari had been thinking about soldiers climbing out of their trenches in World War I on the heels of the mowed-down previous rank, knowing they faced certain death; or Bobby Sands, the I.R.A. prisoner who starved himself to death in a Northern Ireland prison in 1981, followed by nine of his comrades who did the same. ''It's a group contract,'' he theorized. ''Once one is dead there is no one to release the others.'' Maybe it was something like that.
My last conversation in Tel Aviv, in a corner of a cavernous hotel lobby, was with a security official who can't be otherwise identified. How, I asked, could the Americans fight terrorism without creating a whole generation of new suicide bombers? ''You can't,'' he said pleasantly, speaking from the Israeli experience. ''You all the time create new generations. These days they don't have any problem to recruit suicides. For every suicide they want, they have 5, 7, 10 volunteers!''
As I flew into Cairo, my next stop, I realized that I was losing interest in the motives of suicide bombers. If the supply was larger than it needed to be for the purposes of the networks that recruited them, what did it matter that this one wanted revenge for the killing of a brother, that one had problems with his father and another had failed to get a degree? The more telling question, it now seemed to me, was whether approval of the Sept. 11 attacks had any potential to become a cultural norm in the Arab world: specifically, whether Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian fingered as leader of the attacks, could ever be embraced in his own country the way Palestinians had come to embrace their own suicide bombers as martyrs transported to eternal bliss. If they could accept the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon as a righteous blow for Islam, then we'd be in for something even worse than a struggle with a shadowy network. It was one thing to be angry with America, another to be angry with America and support bin Laden.
The signals were mixed. In Gaza, neighbors rushed to congratulate the parents of a newly canonized -- and disintegrated -- martyr. In Cairo, no one congratulated Atta's overbearing father, a lawyer who called a news conference to assert that he had heard from his son after Sept. 11 and then, not very consistently, that the Zionists must have kidnapped him in order to steal his identity and make the mask that the agent carrying Mohamed's passport could then wear onto the plane.
This was before bin Laden himself had proclaimed, ''God has blessed a group of vanguard Muslims, the forefront of
Islam, to destroy America,'' making it a little harder for Egyptians to sustain their denial that Muslims could have had anything to do with the attacks, their insouciant insistence that it had to be a conspiracy of Jews or the American right to undermine Islam (if not, as a satellite TV report from Amman had it, retaliation for Hiroshima by the Red Army, the Japanese terrorist group).
Many Egyptians, I soon learned, had a willed desire to live with contradiction, a stance encouraged by a docile and compromised press given liberty only to fulminate on matters remote from the governance of its own country by the president of two decades, Hosni Mubarak (news - web sites). I arrived in Egypt three weeks after the attacks. No newspaper had bothered as yet to assign a reporter to delve into the life of a suddenly infamous Egyptian, Mohamed Atta, or examine the evidence being raked over in the West. No newspaper had bothered to ask whether there was a factual basis for the leading conspiracy theory: the one about the 4,000 Jews who had been tipped off to stay away from work at the World Trade Center and the Jewish film crew that had advance notice to be on the scene to film the planes plowing into the towers. How attacking America could have served the purposes of Mossad, the Israeli spy agency that had become the usual villain, was one of many obvious questions that didn't get raised.
It was a Zionist plot, yet the opposition press was full of commentaries expressing deep, even gleeful, satisfaction that someone had finally punished the Americans for their self-serving and hypocritical stance on Palestine and Iraq and all that mattered most to Arabs.
Here's but a sample, from a columnist in Al Arabi, a weekly that speaks for the remnant of the old Arab nationalists: ''I cannot restrain my joy. For the first time in my life, I witness with my own eyes the defeat of American arrogance, tyranny, conceit and evil.'' What was done was well done, it seemed, but still there was no talk of martyrs.
Conversations with actual Egyptians proved to be a lot less fierce, even when they ran the same course. In the basement of the Al Nour mosque, a large sanctuary near the center of Cairo, I met with a class of about 45 student imams who were learning the techniques of preaching. We agreed that according to Islam, killing civilians was wrong. Then we agreed that suicide bombings that killed civilians were wrong. Finally, I was instructed that suicide bombers who killed Israelis were indeed martyrs.We love all humanity but we hate America for its support of the criminals in Palestine,'' said Ali, a burly fellow with a clipped reddish beard and a wandering left eye, who showed himself to be a star pupil as he practiced his preaching on me. The words were angry, but the man was not. After listening to a round of passionate opening statements, I got my own turn to practice, using the hypothetical questions I had tried out in Gaza. When I got to the question of how they would feel if they became convinced that the attackers had been Muslims, no one came close to arguing that their deeds could then have been sanctioned by Islam. In that case, I asked, should the attackers be viewed as Muslims who were simply misguided or as the ''evildoers'' portrayed by President Bush (news - web sites)?
This brought Ali back to his feet: ''Those who did this had to be convinced they were right.'' he declared.
With as much mildness as I could muster, I said that was not really an answer to the question. Ali sparred, fighting against the terms I'd offered, but finally was willing to allow that if the attackers were Muslims, ''They were misguided people who did evil.''
Later, I chatted with four businessmen, managers in multinational companies who had studied and worked in the United States, just one or two degrees of separation from the World Trade Center themselves. I was struck by the way the clash of cultures seemed to be contained within them. The Western news media were deliberately stereotyping Muslims, they said, making ''fundamentalist'' synonymous with ''fanatic'' and dwelling on pictures of aroused mobs.
What happened on Sept. 11, said Omar Shelbaya, an importer, could only be seen as ''an extremely insane act,'' but the United States had to take ''75 percent of the blame'' for not having resolved the Palestinian question. ''The United States placed the Arab world in a corner,'' he said, ''and some fanatics had to act.'' The attackers were probably illiterates, obviously ''brainwashed,'' the businessmen agreed. But how could Bush say that if you're not with us, you're against us? Did Bush stand with the Arabs? Why divide the world?
The businessmen took a break in order to pray. Then we discussed the ethics of suicide bombings. They reached a quick consensus that accorded the status of martyr only to Palestinians and only to those Palestinians who blew up Israeli combatants, not to those who set themselves off near discos or pizzerias. Shelbaya showed instant empathy for Israeli parents who lost children. ''I would go mad if something like that happened to a child of mine,'' he said.
Two of bin Laden's closest associates, the ones held to be most likely to have engineered the Sept. 11 attacks, were Egyptians: Ayman al-Zawahiri, a founder of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and Muhammad Atef, formerly of the national police. The attacks may have been led by an Egyptian. But in Egypt -- where more than 15,000 extremists were in jail, where scores had been executed -- an extremely tough regime had the lid on tight when it came to internal threats. All it lacked was popular support. So it would let opinion drift rather than make itself a target by declaring out loud that it was the Americans who had been injured in this instance, not the Arabs, and that it might not have been their own fault; that, after all, from the available evidence, Arabs extremists were to blame. Hoping to get a sense of where the drift of opinion might lead, I dropped by a small weekly that appears to be aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, the nation's oldest and strongest movement by most accounts, though it exists in political twilight, allowed to function only so long as it refrains from organizing under its own name. I was drawn to the weekly, Afaq Arabiya, by columns I'd seen in translation that, far from condemning what happened on Sept. 11, hailed the attacks as divine intervention.
''Allah decreed the vengeance against you,'' one thundered. ''Muslims see what happened as divine retribution, carried out under the supervision of Allah by unknown soldiers,'' said another. In odd counterpoint, the big headline on the current issue revealed that the hijackers had been American, a scoop attributed to Iranian intelligence.
The editor, Badr Mohamed, didn't thunder, didn't talk about Allah. Instead, in measured but hard-line terms, he talked about the need for the United States to pressure Israel. ''Lots of people believe the U.S. and Israel are one country,'' he said. ''We see the killing of civilians on TV every day.''
That was the big difference between now and the Persian Gulf war 10 years ago. Then, the Egyptian authorities could ration the images their people got to see. Now, thanks to satellite TV, the country was flooded day and night with images of suffering Muslims, from Afghanistan and the dismal refugee camps of Pakistan as well as Gaza and the West Bank, making it hard to fasten onto the idea that nearly 5,000 bodies were still missing in Manhattan under the rubble.
Opinion in Cairo was likely to swirl instead of drift, but there was not the slightest sign that Mohamed Atta, still a nonentity in his hometown, would ever be put on a pedestal there. Plenty of people thought the Americans had it coming, some were even glad to see them bleed, but in hours and hours of conversation in Gaza and Cairo not a single person said the Sept. 11 suicide bombers -- as distinct from the Palestinians -- had earned their way to paradise. Osama bin Laden would not become a hero for calling for the ''neck smiting'' of Americans. If he became a hero, it would be because the Americans were seeking to silence him on satellite TV and because he was defiant in the face of their bombing. And because no Egyptian wanted or dared to take him on in the name of Islam.
I'd understood that the perspective of an Arab in Hamburg in the aftermath of a plot that appears to have been hatched in Hamburg could be different from that of an Arab in Gaza or Cairo; that a Hamburg Arab who had yet to put down roots, who was living as a member of a minority for the first time in his life, might be open to all sorts of contentions about the collision of cultures. But I hadn't imagined that Sept. 11 could be more of a live wire in Hamburg than it had been on my first two stops.
Now I was walking the same streets Mohamed Atta walked -- past the seedy downtown sex shops near the railway station to the Al Quds mosque, located over a bodybuilding salon and a Vietnamese food shop; past the billiards parlor where he hung out in a leafy working-class district heavily populated with Muslim immigrants, to the Technical University where he studied and gathered his prayer group, then on to the narrow sloping street where he roomed with two Arabs who wound up in America on separate flights that crashed in the same hour as his did.
Of course, I couldn't know what had been in his mind, but being there, it was easy to fantasize. There is no touch of opulence, but Harburg, as the district is named, can be seen as a minor triumph of urban planning, with its open pedestrian malls and the encircling low-slung brick structures that form the district's center. Yet how alien and unsettling it must have seemed to an apprentice urban planner on a winter evening when the dark came early and chill winds blew off the North Sea, alien enough to make the whole enterprise of urban planning seem soulless and, therefore, his whole existence there without purpose.
End of fantasy. Now many of Hamburg's 120,000 Muslims -- among whom Arabs may represent no more than 10 percent -- suddenly feel themselves to be on shaky ground, too. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Germans are not always very good at drawing distinctions between those who have lived among them all their lives and recent arrivals. ''These attacks were not only against America but against Muslims living here,'' said Ramazan Ucar, an imam of Turkish background at one of the older mosques. ''They ruined our peaceful life as well. They roused suspicions so normal German society now believes that every mosque probably has a few schl* fer,'' or sleepers. The imam was nonplused by a regulatory change in the aftermath of Sept. 11 that gave the authorities power to shut a mosque deemed to be inciting terrorism. But haunted by its own past, the new Germany hesitates to wield arbitrary power, so the mosques Mohamed Atta frequented were still open.
I spent some time outside the tiny Altauhid mosque, the one closest to Atta's Marienstrasse home in Harburg, in mutually cagey conversation with the imam, Ahmad Eman, another Egyptian who was only too glad to decry the wickedness of the American superpower and the ''terrorism'' of the Jews (to whom, as I was no longer surprised to hear, he attributed the Sept. 11 attacks). Americans needed to look to the future and reconsider their position in the world, he said.
Eventually, after I pressed him to introduce me to some of those who had gathered for prayers, he led out a lean, 30-ish Egyptian and introduced the man anonymously as an itinerant laborer who hadn't been in the country long enough to learn German.
He wore a faded green work shirt over jeans with black boots that were once stylish and had a cool, self-contained look that was not without signs, in the laugh lines at the corners of his eyes, that he found it amusing to be sparring with an American journalist through two interpreters (the imam interpreting his Arabic into German, so a colleague could render it to me). Whose words I was actually getting -- the imam's or the younger man's -- was mostly anyone's guess. But, somehow, I didn't think he was Charlie McCarthy.
It seemed to be from the laborer that I got the least evasive reply I'd heard to my overused hypothetical about what could be said if the bombers were Muslims. The answer that came back through the two interpreters seemed to place him squarely on the hijackers' side.
''It's a sign of people who want to demonstrate to the world they still have pride, that they don't want to give up and that they are able to resist violence,'' the man in the green work shirt said. Would sane people fly a plane into a building? I asked, seeking to provoke. They were definitely sane, came the answer. ''Crazy not at all,'' the imam added sharply, speaking for himself.
The young man, taking his turn to provoke, asked if I knew why he loved Germany and Japan. I ventured the obvious guess: ''Because they fought America.'' He gave me a delighted thumbs up and sauntered off, laughing.
I tried once more with the imam, asking what he thought of bin Laden's assertion that Muslims had a duty to kill American civilians and whether it could be justified by Islam. He said he didn't want to comment on the religious point but went on, ''It is true that they decide who's president and they pay taxes.''
Even if it was wrong from a strictly religious standpoint, I then suggested in an attempt to parse his words, the imam seemed to be saying that bin Laden was right politically. ''Yes, he was right politically,'' the imam said, ''and I think that was the way he meant it. But will you put that in your paper? I know it is controlled by Jews.''
The conversation felt different from any I'd had in the Middle East. It was hard to know how much was banter and how much serious. I'll just say that although we were standing in a hot sun that Saturday afternoon, I felt a distinct chill down my spine. The two Egyptians had brought me as close as I was going to get to the worldview of the suicide attackers who had set out from Hamburg. War on America, as far as I could tell, made perfect sense to them.
After that, it was a relief to find myself an hour later sitting at the back of a low-ceilinged but spacious mosque in a St. Georg district basement as the faithful gathered for prayers, chatting with a sweet-natured Libyan named Salam Muktar, who said he had become more open to religious feeling in Hamburg than he had been in Tripoli. In his view, suicide bombing was suicide and therefore forbidden by Islam wherever and however it was carried out. The four or five men listening in nodded gravely in seeming assent.
One by one, more worshipers started tumbling in for evening prayers -- some looking a little scruffy as if they had just come from work, others arriving in smart leather jackets with cellphones on their belts. There was a mellow sense of fellowship as the muezzin sang out his call to prayer and they gathered in ranks, about 120 of them, in the front of the hall. Still sitting against the rear wall, with two colleagues, I felt myself unwinding after a long day.
Suddenly there was shouting, shouting at us. ''Get out of here immediately!'' cried a chunky young man in German, striding in our direction. ''What do you think you're doing here?''
The prayer ranks broke and soon he was surrounded, a small spot of fury in a sea of shushing. As the prayers resumed, Muktar urged us to stay exactly where we were. The young man, he explained before resuming his own place up front, was an Algerian from another mosque that seems to have been under official surveillance. He'd taken refuge in this mosque just a few weeks ago. He hadn't caught its spirit yet.
Prayers ended, and the confrontation resumed. The Algerian charged again, and this time he seemed to have picked up a few supporters. I told Muktar we didn't want to cause dissension in the mosque and would now leave. ''No,'' he said, taking me by the hand as if I were a child and leading me to a distant corner of the room where our discussion group gathered again, kneeling or sitting cross-legged. ''If you leave, he wins,'' Muktar said.
So I stayed, tossing out my hypotheticals about suicide bombings. The range of opinion was wide, with Muktar at one pole and another Libyan, an excitable man in a checked jacket who had an obvious taste for taunting, at the other. ''Sept. 11 was the happiest day of my life,'' the second Libyan said.
Then, as if signaled by a bell, Round 3 started. The mellow mood of evening prayers was now completely shot. Loud arguing, followed by some shoving, seemed to promise mayhem. Quickly my colleagues and I were hustled to an office off the main hall by a small group that seemed to represent the leadership of the mosque -- serious men, pillars of the community, now intent on averting an incident that could bring the police.
We explained ourselves. They explained themselves. We explained ourselves again. With great courtesy on both sides, we apologized to one another. Then when enough time had passed, it was agreed that we could take our leave.
Outside a crowd of maybe 40 men stood warily in the shadows, just beyond a pool of yellow light cast by a street lamp. They didn't seem hostile, just watchful, but this time there was no one to guide us through except the second Libyan, who gave me a friendly slap on the back and said again with a huge chortle, ''I will always celebrate my birthday on Sept. 11!''
I imagined myself looking at the scene through the eyes of a recruiter. This guy was too excitable, I thought. I wouldn't touch him, but there were several more serious, younger men who had hovered intently around the discussion in the mosque, saying little, whom I would now want to know better.
The wake-up call that broke this reverie came from a teenager who was gleefully waving his cellphone in my face. He pressed a button and it lighted up, pressed it again and it showed a now familiar face under a turban, pressed it again and the Osama icon vanished, only to be replaced by two towers, toward which two tiny airplane icons were now moving. Again and again and again.
The scene in the mosque had offered a topographical map of an Islam that was placid, for the most part, serious-minded about its precepts and etiquette but easily rocked by turbulence. The scene outside was edgier. Though it was Hamburg, it was also what they call the Arab street.
Then it dawned on me that the Middle East might not be the immediate sphere of contention. Gaza had its own battle. Cairo was full of emotion but basically sidelined, and Operation Enduring Freedom notwithstanding, remote Afghanistan had just been a refuge. If we were talking about preventing further attacks, the field of battle had moved to Europe and America. A looming question, I was coming to believe as I walked around Hamburg, was how you smash terrorist networks in conditions of an open society, which allow them to operate on our ground far more confidently than they ever could on their own.
Egypt's security service, uninhibited by constitutional restraints or finickiness, faces no language or cultural barriers when it seeks to penetrate an underground network. For the security services of the West, everything is reversed: they have legal restraints, few if any Arabic speakers and no cultural feel. If I had tried looking at the scene outside the last mosque through the eyes of a German investigator, I'd have been full of suspicion and full of doubt that I could ever know what was going on. If there were operatives at hand, they would not be flashing cellphones with telltale icons on them. They would behave with their own kind of rationality. Moving freely in our midst, they would seek to carry out their missions.
Back in Tel Aviv, a security official I met ended our discussion by saying that the West might have to review the ''methods'' it used to fight terrorism. If it was serious about this war, he said, it might have to use ''other methods.'' Years ago, in other places, I'd engaged in the same line of discussion with other security men, so I thought I could guess what he meant -- how long a suspect can be held without being charged, when he gets to be told his rights, what happens in the interrogation room in the meantime. He asked me what the American authorities would do if they had reason to believe that a bomb was being smuggled into one of their cities and that someone they already held might be able to identify the bomber and his target.
Using the Socratic method, the Israeli was tacitly suggesting that our constitutional protections might now be an obstacle. (''After they confess,'' he said, ''we tell them their rights.'') He was a serious man with large responsibilities who showed every sign of wishing there were a way out.
I had taken in a lot in Gaza and Cairo, but it was in Hamburg where I really got a jolt, a feeling in my own bones the temptations our protectors could face if this ''war'' runs on inconclusively -- and how much then could really be put at risk.