February 7, 2002
Hijacker eluded security net
Atta entered U.S. even though government listed him as threat
Published September 16, 2001
WASHINGTON -- Early on a warm New England September day, Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi walked into the small Portland International Jetport in Maine, boarded a flight to Boston and departed the fiction they had created.
By any measure, Atta should not have been in the country. Suspected by German authorities of plotting attacks against American targets, Atta was on a U.S. government watch list of known terrorists for his association with the Egyptian Jihad, a violent group linked with exiled Saudi Arabian millionaire Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization.
Before the day was out, U.S. authorities would know far more about Atta and, soon afterward, about 18 other Arabic men the FBI describes as suicide hijackers and their conspiracy to carry out the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history.
Nearly a week after two jetliners plowed into New York's World Trade Center, a third struck the Pentagon and a fourth crashed in western Pennsylvania, federal investigators are tracking Atta's trail between the Middle East, Germany and the United States. They are working to determine whether he and his suspected accomplices worked at the behest of bin Laden, another terrorist organization, a hostile nation or some combination of the three.
As they piece together the story of Atta and the other hijacking suspects, officials are finding disturbing answers to their questions about how a group of radical zealots steeped in rage were able to navigate America's open society and exploit modern technology, from the Internet to jumbo-jet flight simulators, all the while living quiet suburban lives.
Records and interviews show that Tuesday's devastating attacks were not a product of recent, angry haste, but a patient scheme paced over several years and tailored to fit in with workaday America. Though the hijackers carried small knives and box cutters, their best weapon may have been the freedom and anonymity that American life offered.
Most of the hijackers who learned how to fly airplanes lived in Florida at some point. Some shared addresses, or trained to fly airplanes in close proximity to each other. The flight schools they chose were not always elite, even though the men portrayed themselves as prospective airline pilots in their home countries.
Atta and the others kept up the pretense until Tuesday, when they converged on airports in Boston, Newark, N.J., and suburban Washington, banding into teams of four to five but looking to all the world like the other sleepyheads who were filing onto four early flights to California.
Some had business-class tickets, expensive seats reportedly purchased on the Internet that allowed them to board first and sit within easy reach of the cockpit. Others sat nearby, in the front part of the coach section, prepared to overpower the cabin crew and anyone else who might get in their way.
They calculated their odds, revealing careful study of the airline industry. The flights all were transcontinental, brimming with fuel. Their on-time records were among the best in the industry. The early hour on a weekday after the end of most Americans' vacations ensured there would be relatively few passengers. And they chose a day when the weather was magnificent, with clear skies promising relatively smooth flights that would not disrupt their chilling plans.
Roots as early as '93
The first elements of their plot, public records suggest, may have begun as early as the fall of 1993, when a handsome, polite young man named Waleed Al Shehri, named by the FBI as one of the hijackers, arrived in Daytona Beach, Fla., to learn how to fly an airplane.
Just 18, Al Shehri enrolled in Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and began coursework to become a commercial pilot capable of flying small twin-engine planes. He lived in the nearby Anatole apartments and graduated four years later with a degree in aeronautical science.
For about six months in 1999, he established a new address with several other Arabic-speaking men in the Washington suburb of Vienna, Va., according to the house's owner.
He left for Saudi Arabia abruptly in October 1999, telling neighbors that he was returning with his father, whom he claimed was a businessman and diplomat. Al Shehri, the FBI now says, was one of two rogue pilots who helped fly an American Airlines Boeing 767 into the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:45 a.m. Tuesday.
Al Shehri's story appears to have been repeated in one form or another by four other of the eight pilots who became hijackers, and another suspected accomplice.
Vero Beach flight school
The FBI says that Saeed Alghamdi was aboard United Airlines Flight 93, the Boeing 757 that crashed in a western Pennsylvania field. Alghamdi listed his address as the apartments located on the complex of Flight Safety International's Vero Beach, Fla., facility.
Abdul Alomari, who was on American Flight 11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center, also trained at Flight Safety in Vero Beach. His wife and four children lived with him.
Other students remember the hijackers during their training at Flight Safety. Alexander Burik said they arrived in June and he started in November of 2000. He had an apartment near a room where the Saudi pilots had established a small mosque. Prayers were said five times a day.
"It seemed like a very spiritual group," said Burik, a former flight safety student. "I quite vividly remember them being there and training with them."
Atta, a taut-faced Egyptian national, was another of the hijackers who chose South Florida as his proving ground. He had been living in Hamburg, Germany, attending Hamburg Technical University and, according to a German media report, leading a 20-member Islamic student group.
But his arrival in the United States hints at a significant intelligence failure, given Atta's presence on the government watch list of known terrorists, maintained by the Justice Department.
Atta was hardly hiding out. Beginning in July 2000, he lived in an apartment in Venice, Fla., and later moved to Coral Springs, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, under his own name. He held a state driver's license and drove a red 1986 Pontiac Grand Prix.
Late one night last April, he was issued a traffic ticket in Broward County for driving without a license. He failed to appear for his May 28 court date, but there were no repercussions. No one, it seems, realized that Atta had a history.
A few people, however, realized that Atta was someone with an attitude. At two Florida flight schools, Atta and his close companion--Marwan Al-Shehhi, who later would be on the second plane that flew into the World Trade Center--made waves.
"We told them we wouldn't teach them anymore," said Gary Jones, vice president of the Sarasota, Fla., flight school that bears his name. "We told them, one, they couldn't speak English and, two, they had bad attitudes. They wouldn't listen to what the instructors had to instruct."
Atta and Al-Shehhi completed about 20 hours of flying time each at Jones in small Cessna 172s and Piper Warrior single-engine airplanes. Once dismissed, they moved down the coast to Huffman Aviation International in Venice, Fla., where they each flew another 250 hours and ended up earning their commercial pilot licenses in just a few months, no small feat. The paid $18,700 for the privilege, but didn't hold steady jobs
Even if Atta's flight skills improved, his attitude apparently didn't.
"I talked to Atta a few times," said Rudi Dekkers, the flight school's owner. "There was not too much contact with these two. They didn't speak to anybody. They didn't joke around with the boys or go out for a beer or anything like that."
A taste for vodka
That's not to say Atta didn't drink. Despite the Muslim ban against alcohol, Atta apparently liked his vodka, downing it at Shuckums bar in Hollywood, Fla.
After the attacks, Kay Nehm, Germany's chief federal prosecutor, said Al-Shehhi belonged to a terror group formed "with the aim of carrying out a series of crimes together with other Islamic fundamentalist groups abroad, to attack the United States in a spectacular way through the destruction of symbolic buildings."
Sometime before the attack, Atta, perhaps accompanied by Al-Shehhi, made his way up the Eastern Seaboard. After Tuesday's attack, police found Atta's Grand Prix in the parking lot of Boston's Logan International Airport.
A trip to Maine
But that's not where Atta boarded his first flight on Sept. 11. The day before, he rented a Nissan Altima at Logan and drove north, to Maine. In Maine, investigators believe that Atta and Al-Shehhi met up with other hijackers who came into the United States from across the Canadian border.
Canadian authorities are working with the FBI to examine passenger manifests of the ferry that runs between Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and Portland. They believe some of the hijackers made their way into the U.S. on the ferry, just a day or two before the attack.
The morning of the assaults, Portland airport security cameras clearly captured Atta and Al-Shehhi passing through the security check, according to police. Each carried a shoulder bag. They boarded a 6 a.m. U.S. Airways flight to Boston, and would not have to pass through security again.
After the attacks, police found Atta's red Grand Prix in the parking lot of Logan Airport and the rented Altima in Portland. They also found Atta's bag, which was checked in Portland but didn't make it onto the suicide flight. The bag contained a suicide note and a videotape on how to fly the Boeing 767.
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