ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, HarperCollins Publishers, 10 E. 53rd St., 7th Fl., New York, NY 10022.
AWARDS, HONORS: Several journalism awards.
Perfect Soldiers: The Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.
SIDELIGHTS: After the tragedy of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, many people wondered who the airline hijackers were and what motivated them to kill themselves and so many other people. Journalist Terry McDermott attempts to answer these questions in his first book, Perfect Soldiers: The Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It. Because much of the information about the attacks gathered by federal agencies is classified, the author faced considerable roadblocks in discovering who the hijackers were. Nevertheless, he discovered some revealing facts. In all, nineteen people were involved in the hijackings, coming from various Arabic nations, including Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Yemen. Conducting research in Egypt, Germany, and elsewhere, McDermott focuses on the individuals about whom he discovered the most, including Muhammad el-Amir Atta, one of the leaders of the orchestrated crime. Drawing on recorded testimony from the 9/11 Commission, Federal Bureau of Investigation files, and interviews with those who knew the hijackers, he learned that they were not uneducated, easily deceived, poor, politically radical young men; rather, many received a good education and came from families who were well off. They met at a mosque in Germany, where they began to discuss Islam and their jihadist philosophy took shape.
As he explains the story behind the hijacking, McDermott also provides some background history, including the origins of Al Qaeda during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and notes the lapses in both U.S. and German intelligence and security agencies that allowed the hijacks to occur. "McDermott did not learn everything he had hoped," noted Steve Weinberg in the Houston Chronicle. "Thirteen of the 19 hijackers remain ciphers despite the 300-plus pages of narrative…. But the six whose existences could be documented nearly leap off the pages." Although McDermott "never really fulfills the promise of his subtitle to explain why they did it," according to a Kirkus Reviews critic, Perfect Soldiers still offers lessons for the reader. Aside from problems within governmental agencies that may have allowed the terrorist strikes to occur, what is chilling about McDermott's contentions, commented several reviewers, is the theme that ordinary people could be become suicidal killers. As David J. Garrow put it in his Wilson Quarterly review, "it's the life stories McDermott recounts, rather than the conclusions he draws from them, that make Perfect Soldiers such a memorable book." Reviewers also complimented McDermott for his objectivity regarding Islam and its radical elements. The author "neither idicts Islam nor excuses the terrorists' crimes," observed Francine Prose in O, "but draws a chilling, clear, and cautionary map of the small, fateful steps with which ordinary men cross the dangerous line between faith and fanaticism."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Houston Chronicle, April 29, 2005, Steve Weinberg, "Ordinary Monsters the Scariest," review of Perfect Soldiers: The Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2005, review of Perfect Soldiers, p. 278.
Library Journal, April 1, 2005, Sarah Jent, review of Perfect Soldiers, p. 111.
O, May, 2005, Francine Prose, "The Heart of a Destroyer: Why Did They Do It?," review of Perfect Soldiers, p. 240.
Publishers Weekly, February 14, 2005, review of Perfect Soldiers, p. 60.
Washington Post Book World, May 1, 2005, Jonathan Yardley, "The 9/11 Hijackers," review of Perfect Soldiers, p. 2.
Wilson Quarterly, summer, 2005, David J. Garrow, review of Perfect Soldiers, p. 119.