Analyzing the Handwriting of 2 Terrorists
Ed Lake
Posted August 6, 2006

While Zacarias Moussaoui was in jail and Marwan Al-Shehhi was dead in the ruins of the World Trade Center at the time of the anthrax attacks, some people still believe it's possible that someone from that al Qaeda 9/11 group wrote the anthrax letters.  While it may be "possible", it certainly isn't likely.

But, it doesn't hurt to examine evidence.  We now have handwriting samples from Moussaoui and Al-Shehhi in the form of two Western Union money transfers evidently obtained via Freedom Of Information Act requests: 

Some people look at these samples and hunt for individual characters which they can say appear to match the handwriting on the anthrax samples.  They see every matching character as proof that the handwriting is from the same person.  If there are differences, they believe the differences are the result of an attempt by the writer to disguise his handwriting.

But, if we look at these samples objectively, looking objectively at both similarities and differences, they can tell us a lot about analyzing handwriting in general.  A key part of analyzing handwriting is looking at individual pen strokes.  As an illustration of how individual pen stokes are drawn, here's how the anthrax writer drew the letter W with 4 strokes.  I've changed each stroke to a different color, and I'll also do that in other illustrations.

Before comparing the terrorists handwriting to the anthrax samples, we should examine how the block letter handwriting of the two terrorists differ from each other

The first thing I noticed is that Moussaoui draws a line through is 7's and Al-Shehhi does not. 

Next, I noticed that Moussaoui draws his 9's very different from Al-Shehhi. 
They also draw 2's, 3's, 4's, 5's and 6's somewhat differently.  Only their 1's and 8's are similar.

The difference between their zeroes and O's is very hard to describe.  Both sometimes draw lines which are longer than needed to complete the circle (Moussaoui more often than Al-Shehhi), but the excess seems to be at the end of Moussaoui's circles, while the excess is at the beginning of Al-Shehhi's circles.  Or one draws circles clockwise and the other counter-clockwise.

Al-Shehhi draws very narrow A's which are often somewhat rounded.  Moussaoui's A's are "normal".  (It's possible that Al-Shehhi only wrote his A's that way on this one sample because he had to fit the A's between the marks on the form.)
Al-Shehhi draws his B's without connecting the two loops of the B to the middle of the vertical line.  Moussaoui's B's are "normal".
Al-Shehhi seems to draw his E's with three strokes, while Moussaoui uses 4.
Strangely, both are inconsistent in the way they draw I's but consistent with each other.  They are inconsistent in that sometimes they use serifs and sometimes they don't.  Moussaoui put no serifs on the I in his first name but included serifs on the I in his last name.  Al-Shehhi puts no serifs in the I's in "NOKOMIS" and "BIN ALSIBAH" but, like Moussaoui, uses serifs on the last letter of his last name. 

They draw K's very differently, but there's only one example, so we can't be certain it isn't just this one instance where they are so different. 

The one L from Moussaoui's sample looks almost like a C, while Al-Shehhi's L's are normally long vertically and unusually short horizontally.

Moussaoui draws his N's with 2 stokes, with the second stroke more like a U than a V.  Al-Shehhi draws N's with either 3 strokes or a very sharp V for the second stroke.
Their R's are very different, with Moussaoui drawing the extender away from the vertical line (public school style) and Al-Shehhi connecting the extender to the vertical line (Catholic school style).  (It's quite possible that both draw their R's with 2 stokes.  The samples aren't very clear on that.)
Their S's are also different, with Moussaoui's having typical deep curves and Al-Shehhi's having very shallow curves.
The characters not mentioned are those for which there are no comparable examples of block lettering (C, F, G, J, P, Q, T, V, W, X, Y, Z) and those where the differences are unclear or nearly non-existant (D, H, M).

How do these samples compare to the writing on the anthrax letters and envelopes?  They are very different.  Beyond any reasonable doubt, neither of these people wrote the anthrax letters or addressed the envelopes.  Here are the anthrax handwriting samples:

There's little point in going over all the differences and similarities, but there are a few differences which really stand out:

The anthrax writer uses serifs on his number 1's.  Neither terrorist does.

The anthrax writer draws his M's with 4 distinct strokes, all of which connect to the baseline.  The terrorists' M's both have shortened center V's and right vertical lines apparently written with a single stroke.

The anthrax writer draws very precise 4's which are closed.  Al-Shehhi draws his 4's with an open top.  The only example of a 4 written by Moussaoui (Area Code 405) shows a 4 open on the side. 
Nevertheless, someone determined to see similarities between the handwriting of these two terrorists and the handwriting on the anthrax letters can certainly find similarities.  But you can also find similarities in handwriting samples from almost anyone.  As a case in point, early this year my e-mail inbox was filled with letters from someone who felt that similarities in individual characters written on the pavement by civil engineers indicated that someone in California wrote the anthrax letters.  Here are some of the examples he provided: 

Yes, you can go through these pavement samples and find individual characters in the anthrax examples which seem to be a "match".  But what does it prove?  It proves nothing.  You can do that with almost anyone's handwriting when they write in block letters!

You have to look at differences, too.  You have to look at the entire sample.  And it's critical to notice how an individual's own handwriting varies, since we never draw a single character exactly the same way twice, yet you can usually see that a thousand minor variations on the letter R or M or K or A were all from the same hand and that there was no attempt to disguise the handwriting.

Handwriting analysis is more of an art than a science.

Copyright 2006
by Ed Lake
All Rights Reserved