Robin Ashenden

What fiction can teach us about terrorism

Inside the minds of killers

  • From Spectator Life
The Baader-Meinhof Complex, 2008 (Alamy)

The first decade of this century, following Al Qaeda’s attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in September 2001, was something of a golden age for films about terrorism, a spate of them following in quick succession. In the light of Hamas’s 7 October mass-killing of innocent Israelis, it’s interesting and informative to watch one or two again – and see how the nature of terrorism changes little.

We get the terrorist as preening popstar, surrounded by women, whose every act of violence is like the release of a new album

A good place to start is Antonia Bird’s The Hamburg Cell (2004), which tells the story of the terrorists who flew the planes that day and had made the west German city their base. Centre stage is the character of Ziad Jarrah – the Lebanon national who hijacked United Airlines 93 (and was ultimately forced by passengers to crash it into a Pittsburgh field). When we first meet Jarrah in Germany, he’s young, smiley and unguarded, interested in ‘cars and planes and pretty Turkish girls.’

Yet invited to a local mosque – one he starts attending regularly – Jarrah is steadily radicalised, sucked into a group of young men cut adrift by what the West has to offer. ‘There’s no God in this modern world,’ says one of them. ‘It’s brutal, it’s schizophrenic, it’s totally chaotic.’ Instead, fundamentalist Islam offers them an austere sense of belonging and its own distinct lifestyle: praying sessions in darkened rooms, endless cups of tea, Quran readings and furious debates about Jihad – leading step by step to 9/11.

Palestine – initially of little interest to him – begins to occupy a central position in Jarrah’s thoughts and is part of his radicalisation. Money is collected routinely for ‘our Palestinian brothers’ at prayer meetings, and the sufferings of the displaced are used to build a sense of grievance and routine anti-Semitism, both of which are channelled later on.

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