Jack Staples-Butler

Sep 11, 2021

16 min read

The Hamburg Cell — 9/11 and a unique, forgotten portrait of fanaticism and modernity

The Hamburg Cell — Channel 4 Television (2004) — Image by Busan International Film Festival 2005

The Hamburg Cell (2004) — Channel 4 Television, CBC
Director: Antonia Bird
Writers: Ronan Bennett, Alice Perman

A bold narrative

The Hamburg Cell (2004) offers, in 106 minutes, what is probably the definitive dramatization of how the September 11th 2001 attacks were planned and perpetrated. Made and broadcast less than 3 years after the attacks took place, the film carries an immediacy of the post-9/11 atmosphere which is now, in the distance of time, muted. In depicting the unvarnished and at times mundane reality of how the hijackers were radicalised, specifically recruited and went about preparations for ‘the planes operation’, the film could have alienated almost every political constituency of the time. Instead, after an initial positive critical reception at the 2004 Edinburgh Film Festival, a UK television broadcast in September 2004 and its U.S. debut on HBO in 2005, the film has become largely obscure and unknown outside of academic libraries and the film screening circuit. One fact which underscores the injustice of the film’s under-appreciation in the years since its broadcast was the untimely 2013 death of director Antonia Bird, a mentor to many in the British film industry, particularly women working in film production.

Whilst United 93 is regarded as the most respectful, nuanced and endearing depiction of the day of 9/11 itself, the closest comparator to The Hamburg Cell since its release is the 2018 Hulu adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower as a 10-part miniseries. The study of pre-9/11 actions of the Al-Qaeda network and those who attempted but ultimately failed to prevent the attacks is a much-studied subject and the adaptation of Wright’s account has many achievements. However, the miniseries’ narrative largely focuses on the intelligence and national security failures prior to the attacks. The protagonists are FBI agents desperately working to prevent the impending atrocity and protect the country from both foreign security threats and domestic institutional failure. With the exception of Mohamed Atta, none of the 9/11 pilot-hijackers are depicted with significant depth or exposition in The Looming Tower. This is where The Hamburg Cell takes a significant and unique departure from the conventions of narrative cinema and television which demand heroic or sympathetic protagonists in most stories about terrorism and atrocity.

A joint co-production of the UK’s Channel 4 and Canada’s CBC, the film takes the genuinely bold position of making the hijackers the main characters — inviting potential outrage and censure from the post-9/11 Right — whilst avoiding any sympathy or indulgence of the hijackers’ grandiose, self-justifying narratives — in turn risking both a dramatically confused film and outrage from the post-9/11 Left, particularly among regular viewers of Channel 4’s factual and current affairs output. The film is neither an anti-Muslim libel or revenge fantasy, nor is it a work of anti-Western revisionist apologetics cribbed from Oliver Stone or John Pilger. Whilst dramatic analysis of the film is handled more effectively by film critics writing both upon its initial broadcast in 2004 and in retrospectives, an audience engaging with the film today would be entitled to know whether the film retains the same power as in the immediate post-9/11 context of its production. The Hamburg Cell is now a primary historical source of the immediate post-9/11 era as much as it is an artistic depiction of the immediate pre-9/11 era which its dramatic subjects brought to an end.

Despite the benefit of an additional 17 years of experience, research material and greater understanding of the long-term effects of the attacks, it is doubtful that a film made in 2021 could provide a more compelling depiction of the 9/11 hijackers and the events which, but for disruption at the right moment, came hauntingly close to failure and consignment to the obscure historical record of non-events. The hijacking of four U.S. commercial airliners in September 2001 may have become ‘just another’ failed attack as later did the 2006 transatlantic bombing plot, or the now-scarcely-remembered 2000 millennium plots. What The Hamburg Cell offers is both a tormenting depiction of this possibility, as well as the compelling reasons why this ultimately did not happen. The boldness of its choice of characters and structure render the film more powerful than most of its cinematic contemporaries.

The mundane and the millenarian

Bookended by immersive shots inside jet-bridge corridors, the Hamburg Cell opens and closes on the morning of September 11th 2001, showing the different teams of hijackers in Boston Logan Airport and Newark International Airport. It is here that Ziad Jarrah makes his final phone call to his Turkish-German fiancé Aysel Şengün (Angi Scott), telling her “I love you” three times without further exposition. Told in flashback, the main body of the film follows the journey of three of the four future 9/11 ‘pilot hijackers’ as they are recruited from the campuses of technical colleges and universities in recently-reunified Germany for the cause of ‘jihad’; here, not an inner spiritual struggle, but holy war, specifically as interpreted through a small Salafist sect living outside mainstream Sunni Islam. For the zealous new members of the Al-Quds Mosque in Hamburg, theirs is initially a quixotic mission aspiring to battlefield jihad in Chechnya or elsewhere before being called to Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, where they are hand-picked for roles more befitting their education. It is here that a small group become members of the titular ‘Cell’, moving to an apartment on Marienstraße, Hamburg, and their role in in the planned hijackings of commercial passenger airlines begins to take shape.

The main protagonist is not the hijackers’ operational leader, the sullen and misanthropic urban planning graduate student Mohamed Atta (Marel Kamel). Instead, the drama focuses on the transformation and the inner conflict of Ziad Jarrah (Karim Saleh), the Lebanese-born student with upper-middle-class origins whose continued attachments outside world suggest — as was determined by the 9/11 Commission — that he was the most likely among the Cell to break with the group and abandon the plot altogether. Jarrah, as the pilot-hijacker of United 93, did indeed fail in his objective to crash the plane into the U.S. Capitol, the hijackers instead being overpowered by passengers of the heroic ‘flight that fought back’, ultimately crashing near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. But Jarrah’s character, background and state of mind as depicted in The Hamburg Cell suggested that the hour of failure could have arrived significantly earlier, and spread to the rest of the 9/11 plot before the operation could even be launched. This tantalising possibility enlivens all of Jarrah’s scenes beyond the point of his radicalisation; the audience knows where his journey will end but Jarrah does not. In the day-to-day progression of the hijacking plot from its inception in Afghanistan to the journey of the Cell members to flight schools in Florida and up to the days before the attack itself, the opportunity for Jarrah to experience a realisation remains close to the surface, without being over-wrought.

The film does not shy from particular scenes that may have outraged the liberal left at a time of significant controversy over asylum seekers and non-EU immigration in the UK. In one scene, Ramzi bin al-Shibh (Omar Berdouni), a major coordinator of the attacks and a so-called ‘20th hijacker’, is denied a U.S. visitor Visa at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. He indignantly denounces the Americans for refusing him entry “because we’re Arabs!”; the audience knows his intentions and may conclude the non-immigrant visa regime should have been even harsher to prevent the other hijackers gaining entry. In fact, bin al-Shibh was was denied a U.S. Visa as he was deemed a likely economic migrant to the U.S., and not due to any national security risks that were identified at the time. Despite the film’s use of voice-overs narrating text from contemporary intelligence reports and cables describing growing evidence of a developing terrorist threat, the U.S. security apparatus being asleep at the wheel runs throughout the film as a counterpoint to the fanaticism and intentionality of the Cell. What they perceive as a personalised, divinely-mandated war against the oppressive forces of the devil is contrasted with the highly impersonal and indifferent attitudes expressed by most representations of America and Western European institutions.

The official, administrative and procedural world of modernity and its many shortcomings is measured in the background of many scenes involving the hijackers’ efforts to enter and navigate the West; first in the brutalist postcommunist landscape of Greifswald, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania; secondly in the neon-lit, sex-shop-lined thoroughfares of Hamburg, then the sun-washed flight schools and vibrant tourist hubs of New York and Florida. This provides an impersonal counterpoint to the Cell’s proclamations of holy war and pledges to end the “humiliation” and slaughter of Muslims. The frustration and anger of the group’s prayer meetings against the “infidel society” they have joined is matched by the disinterest or geniality of most of the Germans and Americans they encounter. The pre-9/11 administrative and security apparatus, from U.S. consular officials to airport staff and flight school instructors, is shown as largely indifferent or oblivious to the Cell’s activities. In a pivotal scene in which Mohamed Atta is detained whilst attempting to enter Miami International Airport using an expired tourist visa, Atta’s palpable stress and fear of the plot being uncovered is alleviated upon seeing the immigration officer in front of him doodling on a notepad whilst nonchalantly speaking to a colleague on the phone. The failures to prevent 9/11 long predated the lapses and shortcomings in airline security policy which allowed the hijackers to bring knives, box-cutters and mace onto U.S. domestic flights.

The film crucially depicts most Muslims from outside the Al-Quds Mosque and the Cell members themselves as either baffled or horrified by their interpretation of Islam and their activities. The theological rigidity and exclusionary character of the mosque is shown to have a deleterious impact of the young immigrants and students it is ostensibly meant to be helping (able to maintain some legal distance from the 9/11 hijackers’ infamy, the real-life Al-Quds Mosque was not closed by German authorities until 2010). One dissenting voice comes from a man named Yasser, who is initially part of the Al-Quds Mosque prayer group and is aggressively confronted when he questions why the desire for “jihad” has rapidly evolved into desire for becoming “Shaheed” or martyrs for the faith. Yasser’s voice, raised in anger as he is violently ejected from the group serves to represent a much wider opinion beyond the confines of the film’s story: “Islam isn’t about killing Christians and Jews! Jews and Christians were all the time tolerated! They were protected!” The dissenter’s expulsion, immediately followed by Jarrah telling Ramzi bin al-Shibh that “I want my life to count for something” is the final catalyst for Ziad Jarrah’s transformation into the mass-murderer who became known on 9/11.

In addition to a faithful rendering of the known events which culminated in 9/11, the film’s focal point is the psychology and motivations of a fanatic. The film almost works as a companion piece to Eric Hoffer’s book The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), although the small sect which surrounds the Hamburg plotters could not be fulsomely described as a ‘mass movement’. The hypocrisy of the zealous convert; Jarrah’s denouncing others for behaviours he himself has only recently and flippantly cast-off; is most apparent when the wider Hamburg group is undergoing the actualisation of their jihadist fantasies. The millenarian contempt for mundane and ordinary life, accompanied by a total absence of self-awareness, is most visible when Jarrah scolds his girlfriend Aysel Şengün for sitting on a bed, reading a women’s magazine: “What are you doing relaxing? Women and children are being slaughtered in Palestine.” In this moment, what Aysel or any person in her position was supposed to be doing otherwise is not made clear, and never could be made clear. In Hoffer’s argument at Section 59 of The True Believer:

“The urge to escape our real self is also an urge to escape the rational and the obvious… There is no hope for the frustrated in the actual and the possible. Salvation can come to them only from the miraculous, which seeps through a crack in the iron wall of inexorable reality.”

Anti-modernism and a loathing for all life outside an idealised, impossible vision of life under the first generations of Islam permeates the radicalisation of the characters; the incongruence between this vision and reality is communicated transparently to the audience. In the film’s characterisation of his transformation within the Cell, Jarrah had become invested in the moral certitude of the unfalsifiable, if only to escape the rational and the obvious. He was not oppressed or deprived, but frustrated and bored with reality. In this state of being he would never be alone, as he would join countless others from non-Muslim causes of fanaticism throughout history.

The escape routes not taken

By the film’s midpoint, Ziad Jarrah has become a convinced and dedicated believer, investing ever more greatly until events have seemingly overtaken the will of any individual hijacker. Whatever doubt exists is to be found by the audience, read with the hope that somehow the fanatical convert will come to his senses in a moment of clarity. That is not to say that the film does not provide Jarrah with many off-ramps and exit points, on which the audience is invited and may feel hope that he will break ranks and escape from the plot. In a scene following Jarrah’s travels with the group to a jihadist training camp in Germany, where he is first introduced and recruited to the ‘planes operation’, he meets with the uncle who first brought him to Germany. If the audience had been led by the multiple scenes of prayer-meetings and recitations to a belief that the Al-Quds group’s radicalism was representative of Islam, Jarrah’s uncle provides a counterpoint; both an escape from any such assumption by the audience, and an escape for Jarrah from the influence of the jihadists:

“Your friends, your so-called ‘brothers’, idiots… The ones who want to drag us back into the dark ages. The ones who despise all things modern. Except guns of course, they love their modern guns…”

In Jarrah’s confrontation with his uncle, a panning shot crosses behind the uncle’s shoulders, the camera focused on Jarrah’s expression and the Janus-like exterior which he must present for the rest of the film. Adapting to the surroundings of America and the official channels of customs and flight schools; keeping his secular family and Aysel satisfied that he will not destroy himself in pursuit of death; maintaining the trust of the Cell and their Al-Qaeda leaders. Whilst denouncing the deceptions and falsehoods of modernity, the Cell members award themselves the right to lie and deceive others, including family members and loved ones, with impunity.

Upon Aysel discovering his applications for flight schools in the USA, Jarrah tells her that he plans to attend a flight school in Florida to help extract himself from the Al-Quds group; “I want to get away from these people. They won’t find me in America.” Although a deceptive statement of track-covering, the line offers the possibility to the audience that such an escape and is consequences could become real. Jarrah may still find the courage and the opportunity to break free of the group’s psychological grasp and even blow the lid on the operation. Indeed, Jarrah’s web of deceit is implied to extend to the group itself; Aysel is a girlfriend whom he wishes to marry, but is referred to by bin al-Shibh as “your wife” before any marriage ceremony has occurred. Though mostly unspoken, the film invites the possibility that Jarrah compromised his loyalties and even deceived Al-Qaeda as to the extent and continuity of his pre-marital relationship with a secular woman. There are frequent moments of mistrust and discord with Mohamed Atta; an argument breaks out on a South Florida beach over Jarrah having consumed “one beer” at a flight school barbecue as part of his efforts to blend in; or else recapture a missed secular life. The film shows Jarrah’s experience of this conflict, never confirming, denying or sympathising with any position he may hold in a given moment.

What The Hamburg Cell further succeeds in depicting, and where other depictions of terrorism and Al-Qaeda in particular often fail, is the unflinching and uncompromised depiction of antisemitism at the very centre of the characters; reasoning and motivations. Al-Qaeda operatives, both on 9/11 and in other attacks preceding and following it, were motivated by the assurance of divine reward, rationalised through an understanding of geopolitics which placed international Jewish conspiracy at the centre of global events. The February 1993 World Trade Centre bombing took place in part because lead perpetrator Ramzi Yousef believed “most of the people who work in the World Trade Centre are Jews” — an earlier version of the plot involved bombing Jewish communities in Crown Heights and Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The beliefs of Al-Qaeda operatives that they were striking a blow against the headquarters of a worldwide Jewish cabal is a belief rarely given space in visual depictions of 9/11. Mohamed Atta was heard expressing belief that “a global Jewish movement centered in New York City that… controlled the financial world and the media” made the city an appropriate target.

In The Hamburg Cell, some of the discussions by members of the Al-Quds Mosque traffic in a synthesis of both Salafist antisemitism and European-originated conspiracy theories about modernity and the Jews. One member of the group announces in cross-talk, “… Madeline Albright, the Secretary of State, they’re all Jews!” Both the wider members of the Al-Quds Mosque and the future hijackers, being non-Germans but newly-exposed to the contours and anxieties of German postwar history and politics, are provided by Mohamed Atta with the following explanation for the world’s apparent subordination to Jewish interests: “The point is not whether it happened. The Point is the Jews ultimately profited from the Second World War.” By the culmination of the film, as Jarrah informs Atta that he has now resolved his internal conflicts and any doubts about proceeding with the attack, Atta contentedly proclaims that “we’re going to slaughter these people in their thousands”. Jarrah replies, committing himself to the fullness of the atrocity, “Jews, infidels, Crusaders. We can rid the Earth of that filth.” Having crossed this Rubicon, the film version of Jarrah has reached the moral and emotional apex of the fanatical antisemite, his rationalisations nevertheless undercut by the irrationality of his vision for the atrocities to come.

Though 9/11 would prove to be a spectacular mass-casualty event, it would not “rid the Earth” of Jews or Christians, and the hijackers’ ultimate goals would be unrealised. Jarrah’s solitary encounter with a Maryland police officer and being issued with a speeding ticket on September 9th 2001, is depicted taking place following his final commitment to the hijacking plot with Atta and the other hijackers. Having pledged to “rid the Earth” of Jews and infidels and rededicated himself to the mission, Jarrah recklessly draws the attention of state police by riving 90 mph in a 65mph zone, and gets himself pulled over, his name and vehicle details recorded and (in real life) captured on a police dashcam video. The question posed would be too obvious if conveyed literally, and is only suggested by the film; was the driving offence a subconscious or even deliberate effort to get himself arrested, thus fatally sabotaging the plot? Opportunities and incentives for Jarrah to exit the hijacking conspiracy were present throughout; the ultimate futility of his role in the operation is an ever-present hubris. The anticipation of such failure might have been the only persuasive force that could have moved Jarrah to withdraw from the operation. His moral intuitions aside (to the extent they were alive at all), the simple fear of failure would have thrown the 9/11 plot off-course had it struck Jarrah or any of the pilot-hijackers. The audience knows that it did not, but The Hamburg Cell maintains composure that it may yet happen in one life or another.

Ziad Jarrah stopped by Maryland State Police on 09/09/2001 — AP

What the film undoubtedly retains, and perhaps does more powerfully with the passage of time, is a suspensive power over the audience. It is the same power as used so effectively in Titanic (1997), which succeeds in sustaining the audience’s interest and investment in a dramatic tension despite the universally-known outcome of both the real-life ship and the main characters’ fates. The ship will strike the iceberg and, despite best efforts, will be sunk with the majority of those aboard perishing. The structural and editorial power of Titanic is to persuade the audience that through the power of the romantic drama or otherwise, this time, the ship might avoid the iceberg, or this time the evacuation will save most of the souls aboard. In a similar exercise, The Hamburg Cell, through its TV film production values, manages to capture a similar audience suspense. Until the last moments before the hijackers board the flights, the potential opportunities to steer the passengers from danger are revealed to the audience; Atta’s real-life delay and late check-in at Boston Logan are accompanied by Jarrah’s last moments of Janus-faced interactions with Aysel by telephone. The potential for what may have transpired with the exhalation of but one word differently is left in the audience’s grasp until the final moments which fade into the real-scenes of the tragedy itself.

The film is not without technical and production-based shortcomings. The US exterior scenes, evidently filmed in a single on-location shoot, were captured during winter months which are ill-fitting to the timeframe of some scenes depicting trips and scouting missions to undertaken prior to the attacks. In the film’s bookending scenes set on September 11th 2001 itself, the famous cloud-free blue sky is not depicted. Budgetary constraints were the most likely cause of these limitations but they do not detract from the overall power of the finished production. The technical achievements of the film, particularly the atmospheric nature of the introductory and climactic return to the morning of September 11th, and the fragmentary nature in which the passage of time through Jarrah’s radicalisation is depicted, far outweigh these minor blemishes. Several major-budget films about 9/11 fall considerably shorter despite their material advantages over Bird’s public-service-broadcaster-funded film.

Marginalised or under-valued in the years since release, rarely if ever scheduled for rebroadcast even around 9/11 anniversaries, The Hamburg Cell provides a dramatic interpretation that is faithful to the historical events it depicts whilst offering a compelling portrait of the human character and motivations which lead to atrocity. If 9/11 was and remains unfathomable, and if the temptation towards belief in conspiracy theories follows from incomprehension or incuriosity about the real-life conspirators themselves, it is this film that illuminates the darkness as does none other made on the subject.

World Trade Centre, Twin Towers, New York, USA — Wikimedia Commons

The Hamburg Cell is available to U.K. viewers via Channel 4 On Demand: https://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-hamburg-cell/on-demand/34046-001