September 15, 2001
An Unobtrusive Man's Odyssey: Polite Student to Suicide Hijacker
By STEVEN ERLANGER
AMBURG, Germany, Sept. 14 - He was diligent. He was polite. He had, until quite recently, a taste for black jeans and a liking for a hangout here called Sharky's Billiard Bar, which calls itself "The Bar With Mega-Possibilities."
But Mohammed Atta, 33, was not what he long appeared to his teachers at the Technical University in this elegant port city: an unobtrusive man leading an unobtrusive life.
For at least the last 14 months, he had embarked on an international odyssey that led him, the F.B.I. says, to the hijacking of the first plane to smash into the World Trade Center. He is one of 19 people the Justice Department has identified as carrying out the suicide missions on Tuesday.
The forces or ideas that transformed Mr. Atta are not clear. What is clear, however, is that two years ago his habits began to change. He requested a prayer room at the university for himself and 20 other Arab students. He grew a beard. He listed himself at the university under a different family name, el-Amirals.
And in July 2000, during a visit to Florida, he began the pilot training that, according to the F.B.I., he later put to use on American Airlines Flight 11 on its deadly flight.
Mr. Atta, who was registered in Germany as a native of the United Arab Emirates but appears on other documents as an Egyptian, was for most of his years in Germany an apparently secular man. Then "something changed in him," said one of his teachers, Alptekin Ozdemir, a Turk who has lectured at the university for 15 years and helps advise the foreign students there. Perhaps 40 to 50 of them are Arabs, out of a student body of 3,600.
It was this change, it seems, that led Mr. Atta to the Huffman Aviation International Flight School in Venice, Fla. There he wrote a check for $10,000 for four months of pilot training on small planes, which ended last November.
The school's owner, Rudi Dekkers, described Mr. Atta an an eager student, though not well-liked, whose reluctance to engage in conversation with others was sometimes resented.
A month after leaving Huffman, Mr. Atta was expanding his aviation skills at another school: He took three hours of training on a flight simulator for a Boeing 727 jet at SimCenter Inc., a school near Miami, paying a total $1,500.
Henry George, an instructor, said Mr. Atta "got a good feel for maneuvering the airplane around, basically turning the airplane left and right, climbing and descending."
He added that, in retrospect, this amounted to a "mini-mini-introduction" for what Mr. Atta needed to maneuver a passenger jet into the heart of a tower.
The experiences of Mr. Atta over the past two years - journeying back and forth between Hamburg and the United States, living discreetly in a variety of places, apparently preparing for a long-term objective with funds he did not previously have - suggest that at some point during his time in Germany, he joined a network of Islamic radicals that would direct his movements.
When exactly, and why he did this, are not clear.
Local and federal investigators and police have been poring over Mr. Atta's traces in Hamburg since the Federal Bureau of Investigation told them that Mr. Atta and two other Arab men in his circle were among the suspected hijackers.
The prayer room Mr. Atta was granted at the university has been searched and sealed. Investigators say they do not exclude the idea that Mr. Atta used the prayer group to attract and recruit other Arabs.
His apartment, in a moldy yellow building at Marienstrasse 54, has been vacant since February. It has been repainted and stands empty, though the rent of 916.75 marks was paid each month, usually in cash.
Torsten Albrecht, the building's administrator, says Mr. Atta was "a nice tenant."
Neighbors say he was polite but kept to himself, that up to five other Arabs lived with him at different times and that they always left their shoes neatly outside the door.
One of the occasional tenants was Marwan Yusef Mohammed al- Shehhi, 23, who accompanied Mr. Atta on his flight-training courses in Florida. The F.B.I. has said Mr. al- Shehhi was aboard the second plane to hit the World Trade Center, United Airlines Flight 175.
"These were not people who made themselves conspicuous," said Hannelore Haase, who owns a nearby kiosk where she sells newspapers and snacks. "Their neighbors said they were very quiet and polite.
Mr. Ozdemir, the teacher, remembers Mr. Atta as polite and friendly, but distant, a man who kept to himself. He was a good and regular student, he said.
"I remember vividly that he said he studied civil engineering." he continued. "He must have spent seven years in our faculty, as most of the engineering students do.
"And he must have been good with computers, because I hardly remember him asking for help. Only once, when he forgot his password, and we renewed it."
Mr. Ozdemir, interviewed by telephone and again in his kitchen, said he saw no signs that Mr. Atta was "a fanatical Muslim." The faculty tries to look out for such people.
What struck Mr. Ozdemir most were Mr. Atta's good manners and respect. Some Arab students looked down on the teacher as a secular Turk.
"There were some Arabic students who acted loud and went around in large crowds," Mr. Ozdemir added, "but Mohammed was always on his own when I saw him."
He believes Mr. Atta graduated in 2000 but remained around Hamburg. When they met once in a shopping district, Mr. Atta said he was working on his thesis.
In fact, by then, he was working on his second life as future terrorist.
Where exactly Mr. Atta and Mr. al- Shehhi were between completing their second flight-training course in December and May this year, when they rented an apartment in Hollywood, Fla., is not clear. But it appears they spent some time in Hamburg.
One acquaintance here, who has spoken with the police, says he thinks something happened to change Mr. Atta's life. "When he was studying, he was fine," the acquaintance said. "But I have the idea some pressure was put on him. He seemed to me like someone more likely to integrate in this country than to commit such an appalling crime."
Near Mr. Atta's apartment is the Islamic Cultural Center, a one-room mosque in a former fitness studio where Mr. Atta and Mr. al-Shehhi sometimes prayed. This evening, some 30 men were at prayer. Mehmut Kolcer, a member of the assocation that runs the mosque and an associated grocery, said the police had come to ask about the men.
"But we don't remember them," Mr. Kolcer said. "We probably have 300 people here on a given day. Some are Turkish, some are Tunisian. But there are a lot of students from other places. They come here to pray and we welcome them as human beings and Muslims, but we never noticed these people. This has all been very bad for us."
After the gap in the first months of this year, investigators pick up the trail of Mr. Atta on May 2, when he entered the United States using a visa issued in Hamburg. Within two weeks, he had rented the apartment in Hollywood and begun sharpening his flying skills on a single-engine that he rented for $88 an hour in Palm Beach County.
He appeared with an unidentified friend and said he wanted to increase his flying hours. He apparently convinced the flight instructors that he was already a certified commercial pilot with 300 hours of flying time.
"He was not working toward another license," said Andrew Law, a flight instructor at the school. "He was just practicing, showing his friend the airplane and what to expect."
The purpose of this practice became clear within three months. According to an F.B.I. document obtained by the magazine Der Spiegel and shown to The New York Times, Mr. Atta emerged on Aug. 28 to book a reservation for a one-way ticket for Sept. 11 on American Airlines Flight 11. He bought his ticket on the American Airlines Web site and used his mileage card: AAdvantage Profile #6H26L04, which had been established only three days before, on Aug. 25. To pay, he used a Visa card.
He also paid for the ticket of Abdulrahman Alomari, who traveled on the same flight. Six of the suspected hijackers used the same contact telephone number as Mr. Atta, (915) 815- 3004, suggesting that the reclusive engineering student had taken on a central role in organizing an elaborate and painstakingly prepared plot.
Mr. Atta traveled to Boston on a commuter airline from Portland, Me., with Mr. Alomari. Mr. Alomari was assigned seat 3C; Mr. Atta, seat 8D.
One of Mr. Atta's bags did not make Flight 11. It contained airline uniforms, a video on commercial aircraft and, the F.B.I. says, a suicide note.