Though investigators are still excavating the hidden trails that led to Sept. 11, many point to Atta as the linchpin of the 19-man hijacking gang. From Hamburg, Germany, to South Florida to Las Vegas, Atta crossed paths with at least seven other hijackers. While some of these terrorists were barely out of their teens, Atta turned 33 days before the attacks. He seems to have been the center of gravity, the dour and meticulous ringleader. This is the story of how his malevolence was unleashed.
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In Egypt, where Atta grew up, his family and friends describe a shy, unassuming young man who struggled to make his mark. They say he must have undergone a stark personality change to become the terrorist who supervised Sept. 11. Born in Kafr El Sheikh, a city on the Nile delta, Mohamed was the son of a lawyer and a homemaker. As a kid, his father says, he liked to play chess and disliked violent games. He was a scrawny youth--only 5 ft. 7 in. and until recently quite thin. (His dad called him "Bolbol," Arabic slang for a little singing bird.) Atta seemed overshadowed by his two sisters, who rose to become a zoology professor and a medical doctor. Atta graduated from Cairo University with a degree in architectural engineering and was an average student, according to his peers.
Atta made a few friends in school, but he was such a loner that when a classmate, Iman Ismail, drew a caricature of their class, she depicted Mohamed standing next to a sign posted on Egyptian military fences: COMING NEAR OR TAKING PHOTOS PROHIBITED. When it came to politics and religion, topics no Egyptian can avoid, he offered mainstream opinions. His friends don't remember ever seeing him pray, and they recall his harsh words for Islamic terrorists--"brainless, irresponsible people."
Which is why several of his Egyptian classmates could not accept his guilt in interviews with TIME. "I could never imagine him on a plane threatening people, killing people," says Ahmed Khalifa, 33, Atta's best friend at Cairo University. "He would be scared to death... He was not a leader. He had his opinion, but he was modest in everything. His emotions were steady, and he was not easily influenced or swayed. Mohamed was well liked because he never offended or bothered anyone." Says Ismail: "He was good to the roots."
But he had what could be interpreted as some ominous undercurrents. Atta could get exercised by the world's shortcomings, big and small. He spoke out impulsively against injustice. He was so sensitive that he could become emotional if an insect was killed. "He was a little bit pure," says Khaled Kattan, another classmate. "If he thought that I said or did something wrong, then he would say that in front of anybody."
Atta's father could be quite strict, according to friends. In interviews since Sept. 11, Mohammed El Amir, has denied that his son was involved in the attacks. "He is a moderate in his adherence to his faith like me and his mother," El Amir has said. But El Amir's politics suggest that Atta learned a few things about the world from his father. In a press conference last week, El Amir heatedly blamed the Israelis for the attacks and called the U.S. "the root of terrorism."
Cairo is one of the world's most crowded, impoverished cities, and by the early '90s, Atta felt the intense pressures on middle-class Egyptians not to slip in social rank. His friend Khalifa says Atta grew frustrated because he was unable to fulfill his academic ambitions in his homeland. He believed that political favoritism at Egyptian universities would keep him from the top spots.
So in autumn 1992, Atta enrolled at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg, in a sleepy corner of northern Germany. He hoped to earn a degree in urban planning and then return to Egypt. In 1993, he befriended fellow student Volker Hauth, and the two often traveled and studied together in the next few years. Hauth liked Atta but sensed a rigidity in his friend. "I knew Mohamed as a guy searching for justice," Hauth told the Los Angeles Times. "He felt offended by this broad wrong direction the world was taking."
In the mid-'90s, Atta began disappearing from school for extended periods. He would tell his thesis adviser that he was going to Aleppo, Syria, to work on his thesis. (It explored the conflict between Islam and modernity as reflected in the city's planning, and it won high marks when completed in August 1999.) Atta was away from his job at a Hamburg consultancy for months in 1995; he reportedly said he had gone on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Co-workers recall him condemning terrorist attacks on tourists in Egypt. But he also bemoaned Western influence--specifically, the rise of skyscrapers--in Arab cities.