Atta Skillfully Evaded Authorities in the U.S.
Terrorist Ringleader Did 'Everything Right' In His Dealings With INS and Other Entities
By George Lardner Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 20, 2001; Page A03
Mohamed Atta, the suspected ringleader in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, clearly knew how to steer his way past U.S. authorities.
He had all the answers when confronted by immigration inspectors. He shrugged off the official indignation that followed his abandonment of a disabled plane on a runway at Miami International Airport. He even seems to have known he could skip a court appearance on a traffic ticket without being arrested.
Atta's closest call may have come on Jan. 10, when he landed at Miami International Airport on his return from a trip to Madrid. He had a tourist visa but told immigration officials that he had started taking flying lessons in the United States. To do that, he needed to apply for "M-1 status," the proper category for a student seeking vocational training.
An inspector for the Immigration and Naturalization Service took Atta aside and sent him to a colleague for what is called a "secondary inspection," which consists of more extensive questioning and record checks.
Atta, as it turned out, had done "everything right," INS spokesman Russ Bergeron said yesterday. He had already started pilot training at a flight school in Venice, Fla., in July 2000, but he had also applied for a change of status so he could stay in the United States as a student.
"Published reports that Immigration officers improperly allowed terrorist Mohamed Atta to enter the United States at Miami International Airport are factually incorrect," the INS said in a statement yesterday. The agency was reacting to a report in the Miami Herald that the INS had missed a chance to stop the 33-year-old Egyptian before last month's hijackings.
INS records show that Atta first entered the United States with a tourist visa at Newark International Airport on June 3, 2000. That day, an immigration inspector who questioned him about the purpose of his visit authorized him to stay until Dec. 2.
The INS said Atta formally applied for a change of status, from visitor to student, in September 2000. His request was still pending when he returned from Madrid in January. It finally was approved in July, the agency said.
"It routinely takes that long," said Bergeron, noting that many thousands of such changes are approved each year.
Although Atta's tourist visa required him to leave the country by last Dec. 2, Bergeron said the filing for a change of status automatically extended his visit "until such time as a decision is made on the request."
During the prolonged inspection on Jan. 10, Bergeron said, the INS questioned Atta more closely and determined that he had "a valid, pending, legal request to change status." Inspectors also checked a computer database, the Interagency Border Inspection System, to see if there was any indication that Atta had a criminal history or known association with terrorist groups. The INS said no one in the agency, including its inspectors in Miami, had any such indication.
Atta flew to Spain again this past summer for a 12-day visit, returning July 19 at Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, where an INS inspector said he could stay until Nov. 12.
The terrorist leader had two other brushes with authority. The first took place last December, when he and fellow hijacker Marwan Al-Shehhi flew one of their flight school's Cherokee Warrior planes to Miami International and stalled the aircraft's engine on a runway after landing. Instead of contacting the control tower for instructions, they got out of the plane and walked off the tarmac.
The flight school, Huffman Aviation, learned of the incident from an angry telephone call by the control tower chief. But apparently the only action the school took was to post a notice warning students, as one of them recalled, that "under no circumstances are any aircraft to be taken to Miami."
Atta also got a traffic ticket in Broward County last spring for driving without a license. He was ordered to appear in court on May 28. When he didn't show up, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest. But like thousands of such warrants in many jurisdictions, it never caught up with him.