Fearful, chilling, grot-esque – but also very, very odd. If the handwritten, five-page document which the FBI says it found in the baggage of Mohamed Atta, the suicide bomber from Egypt, is genuine, then the men who murdered more than 7,000 innocent people believed in a very exclusive version of Islam – or were surprisingly unfamiliar with their religion.
"The time of Fun and waste is gone,'' Atta, or one of his associates, is reported to have written in the note. "Be optimistic ... Check all your items – your bag, your clothes, your knives, your will, your IDs, your passport ... In the morning, try to pray the morning prayer with an open heart.''
Part theological, part mission statement, the document – extracts from which were published in The Washington Post yesterday – raises more questions than it answers.
Under the heading of "Last Night'' – presumably the night of 10 September – the writer tells his fellow hijackers to "remind yourself that in this night you will face many challenges. But you have to face them and understand it 100 per cent ... Obey God, his messenger, and don't fight among yourself [sic] where [sic] you become weak ... Everybody hates death, fears death ..."
The document begins with the words: "In the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate ... In the name of God, of myself, and of my family.''
The problem is that no Muslim – however ill-taught – would include his family in such a prayer. Indeed, he would mention the Prophet Mohamed immediately after he mentioned God in the first line. Lebanese and Palestinian suicide bombers have never been known to refer to "the time of fun and waste'' – because a true Muslim would not have "wasted'' his time and would regard pleasure as a reward of the after-life.
And what Muslim would urge his fellow believers to recite the morning prayer – and then go on to quote from it? A devout Muslim would not need to be reminded of his duty to say the first of the five prayers of the day – and would certainly not need to be reminded of the text. It is as if a Christian, urging his followers to recite the Lord's Prayer, felt it necessary to read the whole prayer in case they didn't remember it.
American scholars have already raised questions about the use of "100 per cent'' – hardly a theological term to be found in a religious exhortation – and the use of the word "optimistic'' with reference to the Prophet is a decidedly modern word.
However, the full and original Arabic text has not been released by the FBI. The translation, as it stands, suggests an almost Christian view of what the hijackers might have felt – asking to be forgiven their sins, explaining that fear of death is natural, that "a believer is always plagued with problems''.
A Muslim is encouraged not to fear death – it is, after all, the moment when he or she believes they will start a new life – and a believer in the Islamic world is one who is certain of his path, not "plagued with problems''.
There are no references to any of Osama bin Laden's demands – for an American withdrawal from the Gulf, an end to Israeli occupation, the overthrow of pro-American Arab regimes – nor any narrative context for the atrocities about to be committed. If the men had an aspiration – and if the document is above suspicion – then they were sending their message direct to their God.
The prayer/instructions may have been distributed to other hijackers before the massacres occurred – The Washington Post says the FBI found another copy of "essentially the same document'' in the wreckage of the plane which crashed in Pennsylvania. No text of this document has been released.
In the past, CIA translators have turned out to be Lebanese Maronite Christians whose understanding of Islam and its prayers may have led to serious textual errors. Could this be to blame for the weird references in the note found in Atta's baggage? Or is there something more mysterious about the background of those who committed a crime against humanity in New York and Washington, just over two weeks ago?
From the start, the hole in the story has been the reported behaviour of the hijackers. Atta was said to have been a near-alcoholic, while Ziad Jarrahi, the alleged Lebanese hijacker of the plane which crashed in Pennsylvania, had a Turkish girlfriend in Hamburg and enjoyed nightclubs and drinking. Is this why the published text refers to the "forgiveness'' of sin?
The final instruction, "to make sure that you are clean, your clothes are clean, including your shoes,'' may have been intended as a call to purify a "martyr" before death. Equally, it may reflect the thoughts of a truly eccentric – and wicked – mind.
The document found in Atta's baggage ends with a heading: "When you enter the plane". It then urges the hijackers to recite: "Oh God, open all doors for me ... I am asking for your help. I am asking you for forgiveness. I am asking you to lighten my way. I am asking you to lift the burden I feel ...''
Was this an attempt to smother latent feelings of compassion towards the passengers on the hijacked planes – who included children among them – or towards the thousands who would die when the aircraft crashed? Did the 19 suicide bombers say these words to themselves in their last moments?
Or didn't they need to.