Book review: A Terrorist’s World by James Reston, Jr. 

By Stephen Brooks

They change our lives. They die by suicide or go to jail or are never caught. Some live a world away. Others live close to us. But who are they, those few who commit acts of political violence.

In his new book, “The 19th Hijacker,” James Reston, Jr. confronts this question directly. The story follows Sami Haddad, the fictionalized pilot who hijacks United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001 and crashes the plane in Shanksville, Pennsylvania before he can fulfill his mission to destroy the U.S. Capitol building.

Reston’s is a work of historical fiction. Having almost no official records to rely on — many government documents remain highly classified — Reston reconstructs the aimless and ultimately tragic life of Haddad in logical, convincing detail.

Reston published the book after his longtime friend, Congressman Lee Hamilton, co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, described the hijacker as a man “from a fine middle-class family, handsome and smart,” a man whose “options were open to him in life.” (Hamilton’s report also noted that the real-life hijacker nearly abandoned the mission a month before Sept. 11 because of a romantic relationship with a Turkish-German woman.)

We all know Sami Haddad. He is “the spoiled kid from the well-off family, the below-average student who always needed extra help. The bumbler who could never seem to complete any large task, the charmer who covered up his deficiencies with his pretty smile, the dreamer who was always waiting for the chance to show everyone there was more to him than they had come to expect.” 

And there’s something else: he loves airplanes and yearns to fly.

Haddad finds purpose and perhaps religious affirmation in the 9/11 suicide plot. But as Reston writes him, he also wrestles with uncertainty. We are left with the question: if the real-life Haddad had acted differently, could he have changed the course of history? Can any single person change the course of history?

“The 19th Hijacker” is not a comfortable read. Not because it lacks intrigue (or vivid descriptions of a terrorist cell in Germany and an Al-Qaeda training camp in the Middle East) but because we know that Sami Haddad is doomed and his romantic partner consigned to a life haunted by painful memories. We also know that the plot hatched by Haddad and his accomplices leaves some 3,000 dead and more than 25,000 injured, changing the lives of millions more.

Reston tells Haddad’s story principally through his girlfriend as she prepares for a career in dentistry and through the German officer who oversaw the post-9/11 terrorist investigation in Hamburg. Moving in and out of the narrative are Haddad’s Islamic mentors and manipulators in Germany, the Middle East and the United States.  

The book is well worth reading. It helps its reader to understand the events of 9/11 and also offers a glimpse into the minds of men like Haddad, who commit acts of terrorism because they are compelled by political or religious conviction, perceived injustice, and sometimes even the belief that they are paving the way to a better world.

James Reston, Jr. is the author of 19 books. He lives in northern Fauquier County. The publisher and reviewer live in Rappahannock County.

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