A Fanatic's Quiet Path to Terror
Rage Was Born in Egypt, Nurtured in Germany, Inflicted on U.S.
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 22, 2001; Page A01
HAMBURG, Germany -- In 1995, shortly before a three-month trip to Egypt, the country of his birth and upbringing, Mohamed Atta grew a beard. A beard is traditionally a sign of a devout Muslim man, but in this case it was also a defiantly political gesture, chosen to register disgust at the secular elite that ruled his homeland.
The Egyptian government was cracking down viciously on Islamic fundamentalists at the time. But Atta informed two German traveling companions that he would not be cowed by the country's "fat cats," who he believed were criminalizing religious traditionalists while bowing shamefully to the West in foreign and economic policies.
The beard "was a reaction," recalled Volker Hauth, a fellow student at Hamburg's Technical University, who traveled to Cairo with Atta in August 1995. "He was saying, 'I'm willing to show my religious convictions.' . . . He talked openly about the internal political situation in Egypt. That was his main topic."
As investigators around the world piece together the mechanics of the attacks on New York and Washington, they are expanding the known biography of one key suspect, Mohamed Atta, the alleged pilot of the first plane to slam into the World Trade Center.
In the details of his life are clues, tentative to be sure, about the making of a suicidal fanatic -- a devout, highly intelligent and diligent student who lived and moved easily within Western society while secretly hating it.
Acquaintances say the locus of Atta's rage, the subject that most animated him, was Egypt and the tension between its Western-oriented government and its Islamic fundamentalists. But at some point that appears to have expanded into anger about the United States' power in the world, anger strong enough, it seems, to have placed him at the controls of the jet.
The Sept. 11 attacks have laid bare the existence of a cadre of young men like Atta, ready to plot their own deaths years in advance to serve a cause, and normal enough on the outside to attract no special attention from neighbors and colleagues. No one knows how many there are, but initial investigations suggest that they come from many places -- Egypt, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and the Arab diaspora community in Hamburg.
Identifying them and understanding their motivation and psychological development will be a key task in the war that the Bush administration has declared on terrorism.
Born 33 years ago in the town of Kafr el Sheikh, Atta grew up the son of a middle-class lawyer. The family, including Atta's three sisters, moved to Cairo where Atta's 65-year-old father still practices. The family was comfortable and able to afford a getaway home on the Mediterranean coast.
In 1985, Atta entered the architecture school in the engineering department at Cairo University. The Muslim Brotherhood and other religion-based political organizations are banned in Egypt, but the beliefs they represent show up in many seemingly unlikely institutions. One of them was the engineering department.
In 1990, after finishing his studies in architecture, Atta joined what is called an "engineering syndicate," a professional or trade group. Like the school that trained many of its engineers, the syndicate was an unofficial base for the Muslim Brotherhood, where it recruited and propagated its ideas, including the demonization of the United States.
In an interview this week with the Egyptian newspaper Al Hayat, Atta's father said that despite a politicized environment in study and work, his son was not political. The slight, short young man, he said, was in fact "soft as a breeze."
"The police never knocked on our door to question Mohamed's activities or to warn him," the father said, referring to a common practice by Egyptian police who warn parents about activist children.
Despite the disavowal of politics, Atta's father's language, in a brief interview with The Washington Post, was stridently political. "Egypt is a hypocrite and the U.S. is a hypocrite," he said before slamming his front door. "We are people who don't have hypocrisy. Oil companies rule the U.S. with power and [are] killing people." He didn't say who he meant by "we."
After finishing his studies in 1990 -- it is unclear if he obtained an architecture degree -- Atta worked for a couple of years with a German company in Cairo before obtaining a visa to study urban planning at the Technical University in Hamburg, beginning in October 1992.
That same year, an Islamic campaign to overthrow the government in Egypt intensified, sparking harsh repression by the political leaders. Atta discussed his country's problems, but with no more fervor than other students, colleagues in Germany recall.
Smart and hard-working, he settled on an academic specialty of the preservation of the Islamic quarters of old cities, particularly Aleppo in Syria. Later Aleppo would become the subject of his thesis.
In December 1992, Atta began working up to 19 hours a week at Plankontor, an urban planning firm in Hamburg, earning around $850 a month.
"He was very, very religious," said Joerg Lewin, one of the firm's partners, who noted that Atta regularly prayed on the floor of the office by a large draftsman's table. "My impression is that he became more and more intense."
Atta, Lewin said, wouldn't eat cookies laid out for people in the office without studying the contents label to make sure there was no pork-based gelatin in the ingredients, which would violate Islamic strictures against eating pork.
Matthias Frinken, another Plankontor partner, noted that "he was very critical of capitalistic Western development schemes." And Lewin said that unlike other foreign students, Atta said he had no desire to stay in Germany but wanted to return to Egypt with new skills.
He appears to have had a sometimes ascetic existence. Nothing has come to light to suggest that he had a romantic life. He took multiple jobs, working for a cleaning firm, and buying and selling cars part time to earn extra cash.
In 1995, Atta took six months off from Plankontor. Half of that period, Atta told his office mates, he would use for a pilgrimage to Mecca, which every Muslim is expected to make once in a lifetime. It's unclear if he actually did it.
The other half was for a three-month study trip to Cairo, sponsored by the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, the equivalent of the U.S. Agency for International Development. In his application for a coveted place in the program, Atta wrote that he was interested in the relationship of Third World countries to First World countries, according to an official at CDS International, which supervises such study trips for the government.
Hauth and another German student, Ralph Bodenstein, went along on the trip. Atta was still a member of the engineering syndicate and he took the two Germans to its eating club. Hauth recalled in an interview that Atta did nothing during the trip that suggested he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but the group's influence in the club was obvious even to the German.
The talk about government oppression left the fellow students feeling that Atta "was searching for justice," Hauth said. Hauth now theorizes that Atta had reached a line in his political and religious development.
"It's a line that can be crossed" into terrorism, he said.
Hauth noted that the quiet student he knew in Germany was vastly more at home in Cairo. "His communication abilities awoke, with children, with old men, with professors, with people in government," Hauth said.
Upon his return, Atta spent six months, along with Hauth and Bodenstein, preparing a report, which focused on urban development in Egypt. The report was deemed "excellent" by CDS.
By this time, 1996, the various men who German police say would form a terrorist cell in Hamburg and share an apartment were beginning to appear in that city and others in Germany. Atta and others rented a walk-up apartment on Marien Street in Hamburg. Neighbors recall constant gatherings of men there in the evenings.
In the summer of 1997, after leaving Plankontor, Atta apparently dropped out of school for 15 months, a gap that remains unexplained. When he reappeared in October 1998, his mustache-less beard had become thick and long. He founded an Islamic prayer and study group at the university in January 1999; its computers have now been seized by police.
And he seemed more serious and aloof to those who had known him before.
"I thought it was because he was working hard on his thesis," said Professor Dittmar Machule, Atta's academic supervisor. "It could be, though, that he was not the same. He studied very quickly and very rigorously. He gave the impression that he wanted to get his work over and done with."
Other evidence has surfaced to suggest something big was being planned. German media have reported that Atta and two other Hamburg plotters reported their passports lost or stolen within two months of one another in 1999. German police speculate that they may have wanted new documents, without entry and exit stamps from countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan, before applying for U.S. visas in 2000.
Between June and August 1999, Atta worked with university architect Chrilla Wendt at the suggestion of Machule to improve the German in his thesis; although Atta's spoken German was good, it was far from perfect, and his written German was flawed.
"He was a very tight person," said Wendt, who worked with him side by side two hours a week that summer. "I cannot remember him smiling."
On the front of his thesis, when it was finally ready, Atta included a quote from the Koran: "My Prayer and my sacrifice and my life and my death belong to Allah, the Lord of the worlds."
The presentation of the thesis in October 1999 was followed by an oral examination by Machule and an independent assessor, who happened to be a woman. After deciding to award Atta his degree, the equivalent of a master's with highest honors, both academics congratulated him, extending their hands. Atta took Machule's hand but declined to shake the woman's.
Hauth recalled that the only time he saw Atta show any interest in a woman was in Aleppo, where the pair met a self-assured and beautiful Palestinian working in a planning office. Atta, with clear regret, told Hauth back at their hotel that she wouldn't be suitable because she was too emancipated.
By May 2000, his new Egyptian passport containing a U.S. visa obtained in Berlin, the beard he grew for religious reasons shaved off, and flush with money beyond his known means, Atta was ready to move.
He traveled to Prague in the Czech Republic in early June and 24 hours later took a flight to Newark. In the next year, he learned how to fly aircraft in Florida. But during this period, he returned to Europe twice.
The first time was in January 2001 when he flew from Miami to Madrid. He returned to the United States six days later, apparently with a new visa despite having overstayed by one month on his previous trip. On July 7 he flew to Spain again for 12 days, renting a car and visiting the northeastern Catalan resort of Salou. Spanish press reports say he left the hotel where he first checked in, trading it for a more modest hostel, whose room he inspected before deciding to stay.
Atta flew back to the United States on July 19. His time in Europe was over.
The Friday night before the attacks, Atta and two other men -- one of them another suspected hijacker, Marwan Al-Shehhi -- spent 3 1/2 hours at a sports bar in Hollywood, Fla., called Shuckums. Atta played video games, a pursuit out of line with fundamentalist beliefs. But the manager on duty that night has said that he doesn't recall seeing Atta drink alcohol.
Correspondent Howard Schneider in Cairo, staff writer Amy Goldstein in Washington and special correspondents Shannon Smiley in Hamburg and Pamela Rolfe in Madrid contributed to this report.