Four Corners follows the life of Mohamed Atta, from the beginning in Egypt to the end in New York, seeking out from those who knew him best what lay behind his deliberate decision to embark on a mission to die for.
Transmit of Broadcast 12 November 2001 "A Mission to Die For"
Reporter: Liz Jackson
Producer: Quentin McDermott
Researcher: Sally Virgoe
LIZ JACKSON: Here, in New York City, the army now patrols the streets, guarding the still-smoking ruins of the World Trade Centre towers. Deep in the rubble, thousands of the dead still lie buried, two months after the terrorist attack. Somewhere here too, lie the remains of the hijackers who chose to die in carrying out their murderous mission, for reasons that even those who were close to the man held to be their ringleader struggle to comprehend.
The Mohamed he knew is Mohamed Atta, captured here by a security video camera taking a connecting flight to board the first plane that slammed into the side of the World Trade Centre.
ANNE GREAVES: The thing that struck me was that he had a terribly set expression on his face ? totally unemotionless. Um ? cold eyes.
RUDY DEKKERS: Did I have an impression that he was a terrorist or to become a terrorist? Of course not. Because if that was the case, as I have stated all over the world, I would kill him with my own bare hands. But he was just an asshole, first-class.
LIZ JACKSON: In younger days, Mohamed Atta was a university student ? to those who met him then, a normal, intelligent young man.
DR JERROLD M. POST: The question of how an individual who is normal can carry out an act of inexplicable evil to the rest of us is ? is the question of the moment.
MOHAMED SID-AHMED: It’s him, but there’s many others as well. We’ve had, for the first time, a collective act of suicide, of terrorism. We’ve had, for the first time, people engineering their own death. We’ve had something very frightening when it comes to this.
LIZ JACKSON: Tonight on Four Corners, we follow the life of Mohamed Atta, from the beginning in Egypt to the end in New York, seeking out from those who knew him best what lay behind his deliberate decision to embark on a mission to die for.
Mohamed Atta was born 33 years ago in small village in Northern Egypt, but his family moved here, to the Cairo suburb of Abdeen, when he was 10. His father was a lawyer and his mother, who doted on her only son, was also an educated woman. Once a wealthy, elegant area, the suburb has long been in decline.
Over the past 20 years, people here have seen their living standards plummet, their neighbourhood slump into shabby disrepair. Mohamed Atta’s neighbour showed us the flat where his family lived. Mohamed had two sisters, both university educated as well.
Arabi runs a car repair shop around the corner and lived downstairs from Mohamed Atta’s family for 13 years. They moved away in 1991. The family, he says, was not particularly religious. His sisters didn’t wear the veil.
Arabi said that the Atta’s didn’t mix much with their neighbours and Mohamed never brought friends home from school. While we were chatting, some other neighbours gathered around. They were angry with the amount of attention being given to the attack on September 11.
MAN: You ask about Mohamed Atta? I will tell you something. Did you go to Palestine and photograph the soldier of Israel who killed the Palestinian?
LIZ JACKSON: Well, the media have covered that story, yes. They have been there. The ABC has done that story, yes.
MAN: The Israelis kill the children of Palestinians every day, every day! What happened in America? Two building! Two buildings bombed ? OK. What does America do? They want to hit all the world. For what? Two buildings.
LIZ JACKSON: But did you know the family here yourself?
MAN: I know them, I know them.
LIZ JACKSON: So you know the family Mohamed Atta?
MAN: Yes, I live here.
LIZ JACKSON: Yeah. And his dad. You knew them, yes?
MAN: I know him.
LIZ JACKSON: And did you ever think that he might do something like this?
MAN: No one can tell you anything about him.
LIZ JACKSON: Why is that? Why?
MAN: He was a normal one.
LIZ JACKSON: A normal boy?
MAN: Like any other.
LIZ JACKSON: Like any Egyptian boy? But he did something that no other Egyptian boy has done.
MAN: You are sure?
LIZ JACKSON: Do you believe he did?
MAN: I don’t believe.
LIZ JACKSON: Our translator Hanadi and I met up with one of Atta’s schoolmates in a cafe nearby. He recalls him as a studious teenager with no really close friends and not interested in girls.
ATTA’S SCHOOLMATE: He’d just come to school go back home and study. That’s how he was. He used to ask questions in class and go up to the teacher afterwards to ask more questions. While we would wait impatiently for the bell to ring to go home. His only goal was to succeed and be top of the class.
LIZ JACKSON: When we approached Mohamed Atta’s father, he was angry and fed up with the media. He said he’d only talk if we paid US$25,000 to the Palestinian intifada. Without that, if we continued filming, he’d break the camera.
He insists that his son was not involved in the terrorist attack and has told the media he believes the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad was behind it. The week we arrived in Cairo was the same week the United States commenced the bombing of Afghanistan.
At the El-Azhar mosque, the Friday prayers go quietly. But at the end, the anger erupts.
CROWD SHOUTS: There is only one God. Zionists are the enemy of God. Down with America!
MAN 2: This is the only way to express our feelings towards what’s going on all over the world. It is a war against Islam and Bush expressed that. When he said it’s going to be a new crusade, it is a war against Islam.
LIZ JACKSON: Inside, the crowd is being addressed by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and largest Islamist group in Egypt.
BROTHERHOOD MEMBER: Jihad is our path and death in the name of God is our destiny. There is no other way.
LIZ JACKSON: The banner reads, "Osama bin Laden protects the weak." The Muslim Brothers have a history of terrorism but in recent decades, they have consistently denounced the use of violence. They remain a potent force in the revival of Islamic activism and for that, the organisation has been banned.
But individual Muslim brothers, like Esam El Arian, can speak their mind up to a point.
DR ESAM EL ARIAN, MUSLIM BROTHER: ” and to declare our anger at American sanctions and continuous aggression. The message is, "Stop this war. "President Bush, stop this crazy war." That is the main message.
LIZ JACKSON: But your government supports this war.
DR ESAM EL ARIAN: No, it is under pressure. Our government and Arab governments and Islamic governments are under American pressure.
LIZ JACKSON: Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Muslim Brothers made a major push into the universities. One of their strongholds was the engineering faculty of Cairo University. In 1985, Mohamed Atta enrolled as a student.
DR ROBERT SPRINGBORG, DIRECTOR, AMERICAN RESEARCH CENTER, EGYPT: And so Mohamed Atta grew up in an environment on the campus, Cairo University, where the Islamic activists really held sway in political organisations. And, no doubt, much of his political maturation, er, occurred during that time.
LIZ JACKSON: Mohamed Atta’s classmates remember him arriving at Cairo University, naive and keen to study architecture in the faculty of engineering. There was no hint of the radical politics that would lead him to become a man who would kill and die for Islam. Do you remember the first time that you met him?
MOHAMED MOKHTAR EL RAFEI: The first time was the first day of university. And he was excited. We were, very pleasant because we ? we entered our dream university and our dream faculty. Faculty of engineering is the top-ranked faculty here. Cairo University is the top-ranked university here in Egypt. We were excited. That’s it. By the way, Mohamed ? I remember him completely in the form of child. He has a child ? child feelings. Er, innocent. Er, virgin. Smiling and laughing and he ? he likes life. He’s a very delicate person. Sorry, I’m going to cry about him. He was a very nice person. Really. This is Mohammed what I knew.
Walid Khairy was also an architecture student. He was the photographer in their group.
LIZ JACKSON:This is a class photo, is it?
WALID KHAIRY: When we all reach ? arrived to Cairo. There’s Mohamed there.
LIZ JACKSON: Mohammed Atta was not a close friend. Mohamed joined in when the group had parties ? this one, a fancy dress. Everyone came as a prisoner with numbers on their chests. Mohamed was religious but no more than others in the class.
MOHAMED MOKHTAR EL RAFEI: He were praying with us. Keeping to pray in Friday. As normal as any other person.
LIZ JACKSON: Atta was a good, hardworking student but not outstanding. His colleagues say they were all far too busy studying to get involved in the Islamist revival that surrounded them at the time. Many of those who were have since been arrested. So you heard about it but you didn’t want to be part of it or ?
MOHAMED MOKHTAR EL RAFEI: Yes, just heard. I remember we saw demonstration moving from the university. And all what we did, that we moved to the window sill, and we sit for a few minutes to watch. Only watch. We were completely being under pressure from duties, tasks, homeworks.
LIZ JACKSON: At the end of their degrees, the students went on field trips together. But once they graduated in 1990, his former classmates saw little of Mohamed. There were impressed to hear in 1992 that he was going to study in Germany.
MOHAMED MOKHTAR EL RAFEI: Well, good. Bravo. Any chance for any person all over the world, if there is any chance to develop his career, to develop his academic background, I should shake his hand and say, "Bravo".
DR ROBERT SPRINGBORG: Well, Mohamed Atta did very well for himself, as a matter of fact. He was a high-performance student, he was given a scholarship. He was able to study in Germany. This is the dream of so many young Egyptians. There are so many talented ones for whom this dream is only that, and he realised it.
LIZ JACKSON: Mohamed Atta left Cairo in 1992, aged 24. He would never return here to live. Something would radically change him in Hamburg. It’s the beginning of the new semester at the Technical University of Hamburg.
The university has organised a function to welcome the latest batch of foreign students to the campus. One in four of their students come from overseas. The university is hoping that September 11 will not make a dent in their enrolments because this is the university where Mohamed Atta came to study urban planning in the engineering faculty.
PROF. DITTMAR MACHULE, DEAN, FACULTY OF ENGINEERING: He was in a simple way a very normal foreign student. But the special thing was he was very polite, very interested, very intellectual. He argumented very well, and he was interested in all things. And the difference to other students from foreign countries, to other Muslim students was that he was very religious. He prayed as it was necessary and he interrupted discussion to pray in the corner, and this was, let me say, the only special thing. He was a normal student, smiling sometimes, not laughing very much.Was somewhat serious. Somewhat serious.
VOLKER HAUTH: It was a strange world for him, a strange language, strange daily life for a religious-orientated person.
LIZ JACKSON: Volker Hauth is a Christian. He’s one of the very few German students who got to know Mohamed Atta well. They met in 1993 and kept in touch over the next three years. Did you feel close to him?
VOLKER HAUTH: Yes.
LIZ JACKSON: What do you think was the bond? What was it that made you feel close to him?
VOLKER HAUTH: My religious orientation is not as strict as his orientation, his religious orientation was. But, I think .the interest in religious ideas, my interest in religious ideas, was some kind of bridge, to his religious opinions and to his religious practice.
LIZ JACKSON: While Mohamed was interested in his studies, there was little of what Hamburg had to offer outside the university that had much appeal. His lifestyle was austere.
VOLKER HAUTH: I think freedom and the possibility to tell your opinion openly was of great interest for him, or it was of big interest for him. But all these ‘goods’ of the Western world, like you told me ? cars, girls, motorcycles or things like that ? he was not interested in.
LIZ JACKSON: Television, movies?
VOLKER HAUTH: I don’t know if he had a TV set. No, I don’t think so. And I don’t remember him going to the movies.
LIZ JACKSON: Ever?
VOLKER HAUTH: I can’t remember.
LIZ JACKSON: Music?
VOLKER HAUTH: Music, yes, specific ? or I asked him about music because I like listening to music and I like playing music, and he told me for Muslims it’s not allowed to listen to music because music may have the same sense like drugs.
LIZ JACKSON: Hamburg is a city that displays all the freedoms the West has to offer, right in your face.
DR ROBERT SPRINGBORG: I think when an individual such as Mohamed Atta goes to the West he’s a fish out of sea to some extent. He’s surrounded by seculars. He lived in Hamburg, the famous Reeperbahn, the prostitute district of Hamburg, very close to the technical university there. So he saw all of the licentiousness of the West, and very commonly, this experience causes young Muslim men to become much more traditional, much more fundamentalist. And so I expect that in his case, it did the same.
LIZ JACKSON: Ralph Bodenstein met up with Mohamed Atta and Volker Hauth in 1994. He now lives in Beirut. They’d all chosen to specialise in the problems of urban planning in developing countries and took a three-month trip together back to Atta’s home town of Cairo in 1995.
It was clear that Mohamed had changed since the days when he accepted that his own sister did not wear the hijab. He could now see even women who wore the veil as immodest.
RALPH BODENSTEIN: What happened was that he would see, like, young women, or women wearing an hijab, and Volker and me, for instance, we would realise it’s looking good, actually, how they do it ? it’s nice actually. It makes them beautiful. Then we was, like, say yes. Or he would criticise them because he was saying they would not wear this hijab properly because they would ? ..they would choose certain colours which were too chic and they would, like, wear it, or wind it, in a way around their hair that would make them even more attractive. And so that was not the way it was supposed to be.
LIZ JACKSON: Atta and his two German student colleagues had come to write a report, assessing the renovation work on the old city gates of Cairo. The government plans involved clearing out run-down houses and factories where poor people lived and worked. Atta had a passionate interest in the preservation of Islamic sites, but in a way that took account of the social issues involved.
RALPH BODENSTEIN: There are many poor people in Egypt, especially in Cairo. And he was interested in finding ways to give them a better life or to organise the city and the space in a way ” and also the social structure ? in a way that these people would do better, actually.
LIZ JACKSON: And how did he feel the government was dealing with those issues?
RALPH BODENSTEIN: The government was dealing it in terms of self-interest. I mean, the government was dealing it in terms of profit, which was the state profit in tourism, which was very important.
LIZ JACKSON: The political climate in the 1990s was tense. Islamist groups had been providing social services to the poor and making good political ground by doing so. The government reacted with mass arrests, seeing their growing strength as a threat. There are still around 15,000 Islamic activists in Egyptian jails. Some are extremists, most are not. Mohamed told his friends that he feared if he returned to Cairo he, too, would be criminalised.
VOLKER HAUTH: He told me about the daily practice of the government to criminalise people of opposite opinions. Egyptian and especially the Egyptian president Mubarak tries to give the impression that Egypt is a democracy ? is a free democratic country, in the Western sense of democracy and freedom. But Mohamed told me that it was not possible to give or to ? to give or to tell open oppositional opinion.
LIZ JACKSON: Mohammed felt that, in any event, his prospects for work as a city planner were bleak. The economy is too weak to employ all the graduates flooding the job market and cronyism is rife.
RALPH BODENSTEIN: He wished and hoped that he might find such work in Cairo, but he was sceptical about it ? several times ? about the possibilities of really changing things in Egypt and finding a good and sensible work.
LIZ JACKSON: Because of ? ?
RALPH BODENSTEIN: Well, because of ? if you are critical of certain persons or certain critical circumstances, if you do know this and that person, you will never get this sort of job.
LIZ JACKSON: Neither Ralph nor Volker say that Mohamed was specifically hostile to America. But he did resent the cultural and political dominance of the West and the threat that posed to Islam. Do you think that he resented the way that Western culture, for the most part, does not understand Islam?
RALPH BODENSTEIN: Yes. I mean, he was very explicit about that. I mean, they deliberately did not want to understand.
VOLKER HAUTH: We spoke about that, yes. The industrial nations do not only export cars or tanks or things like that. They do not only export rubbish. They also export their way of living. And it’s quite opposite to the traditional way of living in an Islamic country or in an Arab country.
LIZ JACKSON: What made him most passionate?
RALPH BODENSTEIN: At that time, I remember there were two things I remember made him passionate. One was actually the ongoing war in Yugoslavia ? the Bosnian war especially, which he considered a war of one population against the Muslim part of the population. And he didn’t understand why there was no help by the so-called international community to prevent this murdering from going on. And this he was always linking to actually the thing, the war going on or the process going on in Israel and Palestine, which he was very critical of.
LIZ JACKSON: At the end of the project, the three students returned to Hamburg to write up their report. It was regarded as excellent. After this, they drifted apart. The last time Ralph or Volker saw Mohamed it was in this street, sometime in 1996, 1997.
But Mohamed Atta would soon acquire two new friends ? Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah. Marwan al-Shehhi is believed to have piloted United Airlines Flight 175 ? the second plane to crash into the World Trade Centre. Ziad Jarrah was on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. The three young men shared a flat in a suburb favoured by Turkish migrants.
The local shopkeeper noticed them because they were almost always together, and because of their clothes. Atta had abandoned his Western style of dress.
SHOP OWNER: They used to walk past here in their strange clothes which made them stand out. One wore a white kaftan and white turkish trousers, the other two wore black.
LIZ JACKSON: Their neighbours at Number 54 Marienstrasse say the men were polite but distant and had a lot of visitors to the flat. They’d see the shoes stacked up at the door.
EX NEIGHBOUR: They always had a lot of male visitors. Never women. Lots of people came to see them. At least four or five people every day.
LIZ JACKSON: The German police are focusing on people who’ve been at the Marienstrasse flat.
CHRISTOPH HOLSTEIN, SPOKESMAN, INTERIOR MINISTRY, HAMBURG: Because we think that Marienstrasse is a very central point in the whole thing, we want to ” of course, we want to talk to the people who have been there before.
LIZ JACKSON: So that flat is seen as, in a sense, the base of the terrorist cell.
CHRISTOPH HOLSTEIN: Yeah.
LIZ JACKSON: So anybody who stayed at that flat for any period of time over the relevant years is regarded as great interest?
CHRISTOPH HOLSTEIN: Yeah. We feel that it might have been the base for the terrorist attacks themselves, but we can only know when the investigation is stopped.
LIZ JACKSON: Throughout this period, Mohamed Atta remained enrolled at the university. But from the middle of 1997 to late 1998 he was nowhere to be seen. Intelligence sources are reported as saying they have evidence that this is when he went to Afghanistan for training with Osama bin Laden.
PROF. DITTMAR MACHULE: And when he came back, as well as I remember, he was ? he had changed. He had a beard. Not this long beard, as they have, the Taliban ? no, no ? as they wrote in the newspapers. No ? he had a very, very careful shaved beard, like that.
LIZ JACKSON: Mohamed Atta came back to write his diploma thesis on the Syrian town of Aleppo. Its theme was close to his heart ? how to preserve the Islamic character of cities in the face of modernisation. Professor Machule was impressed and marked the thesis highly. For his oral examination, he gave Mohamed Atta the top possible mark. The professor had by then known Atta for seven years and could see that he’d changed.
PROF. DITTMAR MACHULE: He was, looking back, very, very serious. He didn’t smile, as well as I remember. And he was working hard ? very, very hard ” and made his masters thesis very quick, consequently, and I was glad on that.
LIZ JACKSON: The professor remembers there was a final embarrassing moment when Atta finished the course in November 1999.
PROF. DITTMAR MACHULE: I went to him and said, "Hello, Mohamed. I’m glad. Congratulations. You are diploma, yeah? You have finished." And the colleague of mine ? lady ? wanted to shake hands too. But Mohamed refused. "No! Please understand me. No!" Like this. And she did not know something that somebody won’t shake hands with a woman.
LIZ JACKSON: It was now time for Mohamed Atta to leave Hamburg behind. Before he left, he had already written his will. It was witnessed by two men who went to Friday prayers at the same small mosque as Mohamed Atta, tucked away in one of the seedier areas of Hamburg. It’s one of the few mosques where the prayers are conducted in Arabic.
The will has been translated by the FBI, and includes the following instructions. "I do not want a pregnant woman or a person who is unclean to come and say goodbye to me. I do not want any woman to come to my grave at all, during my funeral or any occasion thereafter."
DR JEROLD POST, PSYCHIATRIST: In extremely orthodox Islam, even the touch of a woman’s hand is judged to be impure and to defile the pure Islamic male.
LIZ JACKSON: Dr Jerrold Post is a psychiatrist and a world-ranking authority on the personality of terrorists. He’s a consultant to the FBI.
DR JEROLD POST: Everything he gives voice to is described and prescribed in the Koran on the one hand, but the emphasis does suggest an almost purer than the pure aspect about him.
LIZ JACKSON: On June 3, 2000, Mohamed Atta entered the United States travelling as a tourist. He was not on any security list. He surfaced in the south-west of Florida in the seaside town of Venice. His two friends from Hamburg, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah, joined him. They were here for a purpose. Florida is known internationally as the cheapest place in the world to learn to fly.
There are numerous aviation schools catering for foreign students. Within six weeks, Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi had enrolled at Huffman Aviation. Atta had shaved off his beard.
RUDY DEKKERS, PRESIDENT, HUFFMAN AVIATION: In the five months they were here, they were absolutely low-profile. They clothed themselves like we all do ? jeans and sneakers. There was nothing else. My personal feeling was Atta was an asshole, first-class, and Al-Shehhi was a very nice, likable person. He had fun. He was laughing. He took the jokes we were talking about. This is a male environmental, so we talk about girls, planes. But Atta was never socialising.
LIZ JACKSON: Rudi Dekkers is the owner of Huffman Aviation. Dan Pursell was his chief flight instructor at the time. Both Atta and Al-Shehhi spent over 250 hours in the air over the next five months, flying almost daily. Atta had already clocked up some hours at another flying school.
DAN PURSELL, FORMER CHIEF INSTRUCTOR, HUFFMAN AVIATION: He was an average pilot ? at the onset. He improved greatly. I don’t have the records ’cause they’ve been seized but his progress went on and he became a pretty good aviator. Mr Al-Shehhi, he did the same. We pride ourselves here on turning out pilots that are ready to go to work.
LIZ JACKSON: Anne Greaves flew the same plane as Mohamed Atta. She was fulfilling a lifelong dream ? learning to fly. Every day for three months, she’d pass over the logbooks on the tarmac.
ANNE GREAVES: When you came down from a flying lesson you’d be very excited, you’d want to share some information, etc. You never had that feeling with Mohamed Atta, definitely not. Because I can see him striding towards me, towards the aircraft, and the thing that struck me was that he was that he had a terribly set expression on his face. Totally unemotionless. Cold eyes. I love watching people generally. Um, and it is that that struck me. That he seemed to have a sort of fixed purposeful expression on his face almost as though he was hypnotised, in a way. There was not a flicker of a smile, or of a recognition.
RUDY DEKKERS: Cold. No life in his face. No expression in his face. If I am happy, I smile. When I’m angry, I look angry. This guy had just a cold face.
LIZ JACKSON: After leaving Huffman Aviation, Mohamed Atta spent the following months travelling around the country covering thousands of kilometres, flying and driving rental cars, having face-to-face meetings with other members of the hijack teams. It now appears that Atta was coordinating the task ahead.
BRAD WARRICK, WARRICK’S RENT-A-CAR: In 32 days that he rented the car, he put about 3,000 miles on altogether, which is a lot of miles. He was polite. He always paid his bill on time. Returned the cars clean ? never damaged or trashed the cars at all. I mean, he was a good customer in that respect.
LIZ JACKSON: Atta is also known to have travelled extensively between the United States and Europe and within Europe itself, making him the suspected bridge behind the hijackers and Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda. Atta and Al-Shehhi also used their time to upgrade their aviation skills.
They spent $1,500 at Sim Centre Inc. in Miami using flight simulators to get the feel of flying large commercial jets. You can key in your destination, in this case New York, and practise your manoeuvres. In these last months, Atta and Al-Shehhi were rarely seen apart.
DR JERROLD M. POST: The close companionship with Al-Shehhi is really quite interesting, and sometimes one can see a circumstance where two faltering individuals use themselves to reassure themselves of the certainty and justice of their cause.
LIZ JACKSON: With three days left to go, the pair spent their last Friday night out on the town in Shuckums bar, Miami, with a friend. It’s a cheap dive.
TONY AMOS, BAR MANAGER: There were three gentlemen that came in that day. Two gentlemen sat ? actually where you’re sitting right now and the other gentle ? the third gentleman, Mohamed Atta, was sitting at the other end of the bar and he was playing video games.
LIZ JACKSON: Tony Amos was the manager on the night and says, as the evening progressed, Marwan Al-Shehhi got agitated and drunk.
TONY AMOS: And he pulled out a wad of cash and he put it on the bar and he said, "I’m an airline pilot." So I just took it at face value. I mean, he had been drinking, I found out that him and the other gentleman had five rounds each. Mohamed Atta, he was just drinking cranberry juice. He’d get up once in a while, come over to ? who I found out was this Marwan, was his cousin or claimed to be related in some way, and he would just maybe say something in his ear and then go back to the other end of the bar and just continue playing the video game. And he did that for four hours.
LIZ JACKSON: That weekend, Mohamed Atta headed north to Portland, Maine. Al-Shehhi returned their hire car on the Sunday afternoon.
BRAD WARRICK: In the glove box I found a small piece of paper stuck to a bank ATM slip and on that piece of paper was a name, address and a date of birth of a young man that turned up to be on the manifest of the airplane that flew into the Pentagon.
LIZ JACKSON: On Monday, 10 September, Mohamed Atta checked into the Comfort Inn in south Portland for the last night of his life. It was a short drive from the airport, but before turning in, there were still matters to attend to. At 8:41, Atta was filmed at an ATM machine with Abdulaziz Al-Omari, one of the hijack team who’d be on the same plane as Atta.
At 9:15 they were photographed buying petrol at the Jet Port gas station a few blocks away. The last time Atta was caught on film that night was at a WalMart store where he could be seen moving around the aisles for about 20 minutes. According to notes that the FBI say they found in Atta’s bag, the hijackers had a 4-page set of instructions about how to get through their final night on Earth.
Apart from chilling reminders like check that your knife is sharp, it tells the young men to pray and "be happy, optimistic and calm "because you are heading for a deed that God loves and will accept. "This will be the day, God willing, "you will spend with the women of paradise."
At 5:45am on 11 September, Atta passed through airport security in Portland on his way to Boston airport. At Boston, he boarded American Airlines flight 11. At 8:45, it crashed into the side of the first of the Twin Towers. The last call Atta made on his mobile phone was just before take-off to his friend Al-Shehhi who was on-board the second plane.
DR ROBERT SPRINGBORG: Clearly, this was a very well planned exercise and effectively carried out. So it suggests not madness so much as sort of a diabolical intent. A sort of an evil genius.
MOHAMED SID-AHMED, POLITICAL ANALYST, AL-AHRAM NEWSPAPER: It’s not easy to plan your death in such cold blood. That is super human. It’s not human. But it proves how deep the frustration is. It proves that we have not been able to achieve a world where everybody feels at home in it. It proves that people play the game of death because they can’t afford ? they don’t get the possibility of playing the game of life.
DR JERROLD M. POST: But it would seem that he took on this cause as the most meaningful thing in his life, and it gave his life meaning and satisfaction. And as he planned to go to paradise along with his brothers on this mission, that was the fulfilment of his destiny.
LIZ JACKSON: What is disturbing is that there is so little in Mohamed Atta’s early life that marks him out from thousands of other frustrated and embittered young men. And he went on to commit the worst terrorist crime in history. Even in that, he was not alone. It would be naive to think that this will be the end.