Portrait of the Terrorist as a Young Man

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"Mohammed was an incredible human being," says Iman Ismail in a tearful voice. "Maybe I was the closest to him in our class. He could not have a black spot in his character. He was so solid and pure, good to the roots. I feel I have lost a true brother." Ismail could be any middle class Cairene discussing the premature passing of a dear friend from college. But the classmate she is lionizing spent his final moments steering a Boeing 757 into the north tower of the World Trade Center, helping kill some 6,000 people. And leaving his friends and family struggling to get beyond denial: "I could not imagine what could change a person like Mohammed like that," says Ismail. "It is inconceivable. Someone could change after living abroad, but to kill people, out of the question."

Iman Ismail's incredulity at the news of Mohammed Atta's day of infamy is typical among those he left behind in Cairo nine years ago. Although they immediately recognized the face on the mug shot of Atta flashed around the world, they recognized little else about him — not even his name. "Atta" was born Mohammed Mohammed El Amir; Atta had been a disused name on his father's side adopted, possibly, as an alias. Nothing that Ismail and her circle remembered about the shy, sensitive, gentle striver had prepared them to make sense of his horrendous final act.

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Indeed, his father, also Mohammed El Amir, is so deep in denial that he insists that the September 11 attack was carried out by Israel's Mossad spy agency. He even told TIME that he had actually spoken to his son after the atrocity.

And, in exclusive interviews with TIME, some of Atta's close friends from college could not accept that their friend had the capacity for such epic cruelty, while former colleagues ruled out his leadership and technical capability to lead such a complex operation. Says former classmate Osama Abul Enein, "During college Mohammed was very calm, quiet, not very bright. He had no interests nor activities. He was not violent nor hot- tempered, not a trouble maker. He never stood out or was a person that would do something that would be noticed."

And all who knew him in Cairo insist that Atta had shown nothing but disdain for the radical Islamist movement.

His schoolmates remember an average and unremarkable student: polite, introverted, gentle, sensitive; extremely shy about girls; uneasy in male company, too. Ismail recalls his discomfort in a social scene where men could openly flirt with women. If Atta was interested in a woman, she explained, his inclination would be, rather than speak directly to her, to meet her father to discuss marriage.

"His dream girl was an angelic kind of character," says Ahmed Khalifa, the best friend with whom Atta shared confidences, worked night and day on engineering projects and relaxed over movies, outings and listening to romantic ballads belted out by Egyptian crooners. "He never ran after a girl and flirted. He would never point out the physical features of a girl. He would say this is a good girl, would make a good wife. He had some secret crushes in college, but was not in love."

In a "will" discovered by U.S. investigators following the September 11 attack, Atta insists that no women be allowed to attend his funeral or visit his grave site.

Others remember him as unremarkable, a "normal" guy but one who could be easily offended, particularly in the face of ridicule or perceived injustice. "Nothing he did stood out," says Khaled Kattan. "I remember sometimes he was too frank and blunt with people. If he did not like something about someone, he would go up and say it to his face. He was a little bit pure, but he would not bury any grievance in his heart and try and get back at you later. At the same time, he was easygoing and he participated in our group activities, in our games, and had no problem fitting in."

Adds Ibrahim Salah: "He did not have a lot of friends. He would get upset if someone's jokes went too far with him. He was too decent and liked to keep everything in the right place and everyone in his right place. His approach would be, 'Look, I do not know you too well so you should not kid around with me or go too far.' "

His loner tendencies were underlined in a caricature of his college class drawn by Iman Ismail, who depicted Atta standing next to a sign that included a warning posted on Egyptian military perimeter fences: "Coming Near or Taking Photos Prohibited." A speech bubble has Atta saying, "I don't hear, don't see, don't talk."

Yet despite these hints of a prickly personality, the overriding impression is one of a reserved and gentle man driven by a fierce moral code. "(Their) parents brought (Mohammed and his sisters) up on very correct principles, good old-fashioned principles," says Iman Ismail. "Someone like him, even if he tried to be bad, he couldn't. He was decent to the last degree."

Even in his own prosperous family, Atta seemed overshadowed by his lawyer father and the academic success of his two elder sisters, one who lectured at Cairo University and the other who became a doctor. A quiet only son who was strongly attached to his mother, Atta's father nicknamed him "Bolbol" — Arabic for a little bird. Mohammed El Amir recalls his son as a timid boy who avoided fights or squabbles between friends. "In his behavior, my son was almost like an angel," he said. "He is like a virgin girl in his politeness and shyness. Growing up he never got into mischief, he was soft spoken and God blessed him with a beautiful face."

Atta graduated from Cairo University with a degree in architectural engineering in 1990, having, according to his father, mastered both English and German in summer courses. His father was eager to see him emulate his sisters' academic achievements, and pressed him to consider studying in Germany in light of the fierce competition from the favored children of faculty staff for post graduate and academic positions at Cairo University. Despite his reluctance to leave, in 1992 he headed for Hamburg to complete a masters degree in urban planning.

On politics and religion, Atta's opinions had been mainstream Egyptian middle class — strongly critical of Israel, but also strongly critical of the Islamist extremism that had taken hold of sections of Egyptian society over the past two decades. "When students on campus would discuss the activities of the Islamic groups who were active on campus and in the student union," says Khalifa, "he would object to their activities from A-Z. He was against them and what they stood for. He was a person who always held a position in the center. He hated extremism. He knew God, but I never saw him pray once. I never saw him give out money for charity. But he got very affected by bad injustice and bad behavior."

If his religious and political views were mainstream Egyptian middle class, so was his uphill struggle for a good education, a well-paying job and the means to marry and raise a family in one of the world's most overcrowded and impoverished cities. College friends still don't believe that Mohammed El Amir could have committed the atrocity of Sept. 11, but that if he had indeed become Mohammed Atta that would have required significant personality changes or brainwashing during his sojourn in Hamburg.

When Khalifa bumped into his friend by chance on a Cairo street two years ago, he found Mohammed thin and weak, an outward appearance that Khalifa guessed reflected an inner dissatisfaction: "I felt that he was not satisfied, he was fed up with his life there and wanted to return. He was happy at work to a certain degree, but he seemed to regret not having made a family yet. When we met, I had children and he was not yet married. I felt that really bothered him. He appeared sad and when I said good bye to him, I was sad for him."

Of course if Atta had already been drawn into the orbit of the radical networks of Bin Laden or the allied Al Jihad, there may have been other reasons for the signs of stress he exhibited on his final visit to Cairo. But his father concurs that Atta was homesick. "He expressed to his mother that he wanted to return home," El Emir recalls of his son's last visit to Cairo. "He was homesick and said that he had had enough of living abroad."

But the alienation of a lonely Egyptian living in Germany isn't enough explanation for his subsequent actions. "I do not understand what could have happened to him," says Khalifa. "I feel sorry I lost him. I completely disbelieve this story about him. He never let himself reach a state that would make him desperate. I could never imagine him on a plane, threatening people, killing people. He would be scared to death. I cried for him."

The depth of the disbelief among those Mohammed Atta left behind in Cairo signifies the extent of the personality change required to have turned their friend into a mass killer. And yet, all are also aware of the powerful cross currents generated by Egyptian society's precarious perch at the intersection between the harsh and conflicting demands of Western modernity and geopolitics, failed Arab nationalism and Islamic extremism.