First Atta, then Marwan Al-Shehhi, Ahmed Alghamdi and Fayez Rashid Ahmed Hassan al Qadi Banihammad, all of whom died in the September attacks, tried to get loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Johnelle Bryant told ABCNEWS, speaking out to the public for the first time.
It was Atta who was the most persistent, and the most frightening, Bryant said in an exclusive, extensive interview in which she recounted how Atta railed against her when the loan was denied, asking her how she would like to see the destruction of Washington, D.C., and monuments there, which he observed in a picture on the wall of her Florida office.
Bryant recalled how Atta sat across from her with his "very scary" black eyes for more than an hour.
"His eyes, he had very scary-looking eyes. His eyes were black," she remembered. "How could somebody be that evil, be that close to me, and I didn't recognize it?"
Only after seeing Atta's picture in the newspaper did she realize who the man sitting inches away from her was, and alert the FBI of the interaction.
"I think it's very vital that the Americans realize that when these people come to the United States, they don't have a big 'T' on their forehead," she said, telling her story to ABCNEWS in defiance of direct orders from the USDA's Washington headquarters.
"They don't look like what you think a terrorist would look like," said Bryant.
"I had terrorists in my office, and I helped them," she said. "I gave them information unknowingly
And I'm afraid that there probably will be a next time, unless it's stopped from the ground-floor level by an American."
Financing for an Immigrant's Dream
According to Bryant, who has worked at the government agency for 16 years, Atta arrived in her office sometime between the end of April and the middle of May 2000, inquiring about a loan to finance an aircraft.
"At first, he refused to speak with me," said Bryant, remembering that Atta called her "but a female." Bryant explained that she was the manager, but he still refused to conduct business with her. Ultimately, she said, "I told him that if he was interested in getting a farm-service agency loan in my servicing area, then he would need to deal with me."
Throughout the interview, he continued to refer to Bryant as "but a female," and Bryant said, "He would say it with disgust."
During the initial applicant interview, Bryant was taking notes. "I wrote his name down, and I spelled it A-T-T-A-H, and he told me, 'No, A-T-T-A, as in Atta boy!' "
He said he had just arrived in the United States from Afghanistan "to start his dream, which was to go flight school and get his pilot's license, and work both as a charter pilot and a crop duster too," she said. He was seeking $650,000 for a crop-dusting business.
"He wanted to finance a twin-engine six-passenger aircraft
and remove the seats," said Bryant. "He said he was an engineer, and he wanted to build a chemical tank that would fit inside the aircraft and take up every available square inch of the aircraft except for where the pilot would be sitting."
When Bryant explained that there was an application process, Atta became "very agitated." He thought the loan would be in cash, and that he would have no trouble obtaining it to purchase an aircraft.
He also remarked about the lack of security in the building, pointing specifically to a safe behind Bryant's desk. "He asked me what would prevent him from going behind my desk and cutting my throat and making off with the millions of dollars in that safe," said Bryant, who explained that there was no money in the safe because loans are never given in cash, and also that she was trained in karate.
"He wanted to know how, once he became settled down in the United States, how he could take that kind of training," she says.
Bryant turned him down for the loan because as a non-U.S. citizen he did not meet the basic eligibility requirements and because the program is intended for actual farming purposes. But she referred him to other government agencies and to a bank downstairs.
He asked questions about whether his plans to be out of the country for a few weeks would interfere with his eligibility for a loan. "I think he said he needed to go to Madrid, and somewhere in Germany, and then there was a third country," said Bryant.
Being turned down for the loan altered the hijackers' plans. According to law enforcement officials, packing twin-engine planes with explosive chemicals, making it a flying bomb, had been the terrorists' plan since the mid-1990s. When Atta reported to his group that he could not get a loan to buy smaller planes, the plan was switched to hijacking passenger jets, according to what Abu Zabaydah, a top lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, has told American interrogators since his capture.
So in the fall of 2000, the hijackers who had been learning to fly small planes began to seek simulator training in the large jets they would fly into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Familiar Places, Unfamiliar Names
Before leaving Bryant's office, Atta became fixated with an aerial photo of Washington that was hanging on her office wall.
"He just said that it was one of the prettiest, the best he'd ever seen of Washington," she said, remembering that he was impressed with the panoramic view that captured all the monuments and buildings in one photograph, pointing specifically to the Pentagon and the White House.
"He pulled out a wad of cash," she said, "and started throwing money on my desk. He wanted that picture really bad."
Bryant indicated that the picture was not for sale, and he threw more money down.
"His look on his face became very bitter at that point," Bryant remembers. "I believe he said, 'How would America like it if another country destroyed that city and some of the monuments in it,' like the cities in his country had been destroyed?"
Atta also expressed an interest in visiting New York, specifically the World Trade Center, and asked Bryant about security there. He inquired about other American cities, including Phoenix, Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago. Prompted by a souvenir she had on her desk, he also expressed interest in the Dallas Cowboys' football stadium, mentioning that the team was "America's team" and the stadium had a "hole in the roof."
Atta also talked about life in his country. "He mentioned al Qaeda, he mentioned Osama bin Laden," said Bryant. "I didn't know who Osama bin Laden was
He could have been a character on Star Wars for all I knew."
He boasted about the role that they would one day play. "He said this man would someday be known as the world's greatest leader," she said.
Bryant and Atta shook hands on his way out. "I told him I wished him luck with his endeavor," remembered Bryant.
How Could I Have Known?
Bryant never thought to report her strange encounter because she thought she was just helping a new immigrant learn about the country.
"I felt that he was trying to make the cultural leap from the country that he came from, with all the violence, as compared to the United States," she says. "I was attempting, in every manner I could, to help him make his relocation into our country as easy for him as I could make it."
His questions about American cities, she assumed, were because he had moved to a new country and he wanted to find out about the major cities.
"How could I have known? I couldn't have known, prior to Sept. 11. I don't think anyone else would have either, if they'd been in my shoes that day," she says. "Should I have picked up the telephone and called someone? You can't ask me that more often than I have asked myself that
I don't know how I could possibly expect myself to have recognized what that man was. And yet sometimes I haven't forgiven myself."
But that wasn't the only time she saw Atta. He returned again, slightly disguised with glasses. He claimed to be an accountant for Marwan Al-Shehhi, who was with him, and said he wanted $500,000 to buy land for a sugar-cane farm.
Ahmed Alghamdi and Fayez Rashid Ahmed Hassan al Qadi Banihammad also came separately seeking loans, but were less successful in speaking with people.
Bryant hopes her story will serve as a warning to all Americans.
"The American people, the public, need to be aware that if these men can walk into my office, they can walk into your office, they can walk into anyone's office," she says.
"If they watch this interview and they see the type of questions that Atta asked me on my first encounter with that man, and then someone walks into another American's office and behaves in the same manner, then perhaps they will recognize a terrorist, and perhaps they will pick up the phone and make the call that I didn't make."