More often than not, in places such as Karachi in Pakistan, he was waiting for someone with ties to or information about terrorism.
“And at some point you look at the guy with you and say: ‘What are we doing here? What if he really does come home?’
“You’re trying to find people that if they know anything they are probably people you don’t want to find,” he said.
After the Sept. 11 attacks five years ago, McDermott, a Los Angeles Times’ staff reporter who specializes in lengthy projects, was sent abroad to find out more about Mohamed el-Amir Atta, the Egyptian-born leader of the hijack teams.
His managing editor’s orders were simple: stay on to get the real story after everyone else had gone home. The Iowa-born McDermott believes that a personality trait made him ideal for the assignment. It’s a family trait, his brother has argued.
“We’re stubborn,” the 56-year-old L.A. Times reporter said, laughing. “I’m a very obsessive person: once I get involved with something, I don’t want to stop.”
The initial result was an eight-page feature about the 9/11 hijackers in the L.A. Times in late 2002. He continued to research and interview for another two years for his book, “Perfect Soldiers,” which has just been issued in paperback. When it appeared in hardcover last summer, it was described by the Washington Post as the “definitive” work on those who carried out the suicide attacks. The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh said it was “journalism at its best” and that McDermott “has come as close to anyone has — and perhaps ever will — to explaining how 19 zealots came to the place they did.”
McDermott, who is married and has three daughters, called it the “most difficult reporting project I’d ever done, without anything being close.”
It was also the most dangerous. He arrived in Pakistan soon after the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
“When Danny Pearl got killed, I remember thinking to myself and saying to others: ‘It’s really horrible, but he didn’t seem to know what he was doing and he took chances he shouldn’t have.’
“Then I’m in Karachi and two weeks after, I’m starting to do the same stupid things. You get desperate; you’re not making any progress,” he recalled.
His main quarry there was information about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.
Mohammed grew up in Kuwait, though his parents were from Baluchistan, a Pakistani province. As the son of foreigners, he wasn’t entitled to a college scholarship in the Kuwaiti system and was sent abroad to study for an engineering degree in North Carolina.
His first-hand experience with a Western culture is said to have changed him, like many radical Islamists. But his anti-Americanism was probably formed by failure of the U.S. to install an Islamic government in Afghanistan after the war against the Soviets. Several members of his family were involved in the resistance to Moscow’s troops, including a brother who was killed in the fighting.
However, his sister’s son Abdul Basit, just three years Mohammed’s junior, was the first family member to be viewed as an enemy rather than an ally of America. He’s better known as Ramzi Yousef, the planner of the first World Trade Center attack, in 1993.
McDermott wasn’t surprised by Pakistani links to the July 7 bombings in London last year and the recent foiled plot.
“There’s something deeply wrong in Pakistan, that we don’t have a clue about,” he said.
The roots of it, he argued, go as far back to the creation of the country in the late 1940s as a religious homeland for Muslims separate from Hindu-dominated India.
“The Shia/Sunni rivalry there is ferocious,” McDermott said. “And deadly beyond belief.
“Pakistan is crucial to what’s going on in radical Islam,” he added. “I don’t pretend to understand it.”
He experienced something of a culture shock when he began his research abroad. “The thing that surprised me the most in the reporting was the degree to which people within, not just radical Islam, but within much of the Muslim world, particularly the Arabic Muslim world, live in a pre-rational culture.
“Every other day, someone would ask me: ‘Terry, why didn’t the Jews go to work that day?’
“Reasonable, bright, well-educated people believe, maybe still do, this could not possibly have happened without either or both the Mossad or the CIA running it. You would read that in the most respectable newspapers in the Arab world on a weekly basis.
“At first it’s just pathetic. But then it gets scary,” he said. “It’s shocking.”
Nonetheless, McDermott believes that only mainstream Islam, pre-rational or not, can ultimately defeat the radical interpretation of its faith.
“I think you’re not going to win this until it’s fought at the mosque level, at the community level,” he said.
As for the West’s approach, he said: “You have to respond to it, you can’t ignore it and wish it away — it’s not going away.
“One way not to respond to it is to invade Arab countries,” he added. “I think it’s pretty clear at this point that we’ve created more terrorists than we’ve killed in the last three years.”
How Atta and two of the other pilots, the Lebanese Ziad Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi, a native of the United Arab Emirates, were transformed into terrorists when they lived in Hamburg, Germany, forms the core of his book’s narrative.
“What happened to these guys; how could this happen — that’s what I was trying to get at: what occurs?”
He found out where it occurred. Within a day of their arrival in the German city, all young Arab men would have heard of Al Quds Mosque, one of the few Islamic places of worship there not dominated by Turks. For that reason alone, it was a welcoming place.
“But many were repelled,” McDermott said. “A lot of them saw what it was and ran as fast as they could and as far as they could.”
Through interviews and his study of German security and trial documents, tens of thousands of pages (he learnt to read the language), he was able to draw a picture of the men who became “perfect soldiers.”
The term comes from a thoroughly un-Islamic source, indeed someone who might have supported the Soviets in Afghanistan had he lived that long, Dashiell Hammett: “”He was the perfect soldier: he went where you sent him, stayed where you put him, and had no idea of his own to keep him from doing exactly what you told him.”
Atta comes across in McDermott’s book, as in most other accounts, as a strange individual, but the L.A. Times reporter also found that he was a “pretty normal kid — a slightly unusual family situation but not off the charts. Just one of the guys.
“It wasn’t until he went abroad that he dove into this interpretation of Islam, which I think was a very isolating thing,” he said.
“You put these guys together in a pot, and you turn up the heat. It cooks down to a pretty frightening sauce.
“They clearly did a horrid, wretched, evil thing, but they did other things in their lives that were normal,” McDermott said.
Jarrad, for instance, was in love with his German-Turkish girlfriend, Aysel Senguin, and she with him.
And he, like another of the key plotters, was a favorite uncle to nieces and nephews back home, the one who took them for ice cream.
“They have their own internal system: this thing seems perfectly sane to them and clear,” he said. “And the whole notion of killing innocents – they’ve worked all that out. Nobody’s innocent and if you are then you’ll go to paradise that much faster.
“They’ve got it all worked out in a way that protects them from the consequences in their heads,” McDermott said. “The thought of committing suicide on behalf of this – I don’t think was a big stretch for some of these guys.” Indeed, if anything, they saw as an “affirmation” of their lives, the author said.
“This fundamentalist interpretation of Islam is the core of the problem,” McDermott said. “So as long as it’s gaining adherents not losing them, we’re going backwards not forwards.”