A Perfect Soldier
Mohamed Atta, whose hard gaze has stared from a billion television screens and newspaper pages, has become, for many, the face of evil incarnate.
By TERRY McDERMOTT
Times Staff Writer
January 27, 2002
WILHELMSBURG, Germany — After Mohamed el Amir Atta disappeared from the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg in 1997, he turned up here on an island in the middle of the Elbe River, at a red-brick prewar housing project on a broad, bleak street that faces a ribbon-wire fence and the Hamburg harbor, gray and forbidding, beyond.
Wilhelmsburg is industrial, worn-out, so psychologically remote that it is sometimes called the Forgotten Island. It’s here but hidden. If you wanted to vanish, to drop off the face of the world and yet keep the world close at hand, this would be a place to come to.
The six-story buildings of the Wilhelmsburg projects contain hundreds of two- and three-room apartments and nobody knows how many people. The buildings are filled mainly with Turks, by far the largest minority group in Germany.
Atta rented a third-floor, three-room walk-up for $250 a month. The apartment, neighbors say, was home to a large group of Arab men who were seldom seen and, until the events of Sept. 11, not much remembered. Like the island itself, they were here but hidden, shielded by their otherness.
The men talked long into the night most nights and disappeared all day most days, said Helga Link, a neighbor. Link lived directly beneath Atta’s apartment and could hear every footstep on the wooden floors. She never heard a radio or television or music. Just the footsteps and voices of men talking.
Atta’s stay in Wilhelmsburg marked a turning point in his life. He had until then followed an utterly conventional middle-class path, a striving, upward arc from boyhood through prestigious university and into graduate school. When he left, he turned in directions that people who knew him still can’t fathom.
In the days after Sept. 11, a narrative of the attacks emerged with remarkable speed. These were hard, dedicated men, we learned, religious zealots executing a devious plan to strike at the core of America. Central to the narrative was Atta. In numerous accounts, he was referred to as the mastermind. Osama bin Laden was said to be the evil leader who inspired and funded the plot; Atta was the brilliant acolyte who led a small, suicidal army in its execution.
Not much has altered this narrative since. Bin Laden remains the sinister presence behind the plot, taunting from a shrinking but thus far unbridgeable distance. The hijackers remain mute, unknowable ciphers. Atta, whose hard gaze has fumed from a billion television screens and newspaper pages, has become, for many, the face of evil incarnate.
He has become famous. A woman in Finland claims that he was her virtual lover. A Hamburg shopkeeper claims that she regularly sold Atta large quantities of mid-priced perfume, for what purpose no one pretends to know. A genial car repairman says Atta worked as an intermediary for Arab car-buyers. They liked Mercedes-Benzes, the repairman says.
Atta is said to have lived a double life; to have met with an Iraqi spy in the Czech Republic; to have traveled throughout Europe conferring with who knows what members of terrorist cells; to have so excelled in his terrorist training that he was chosen to form his own cell in Hamburg.
Some of these stories might be true, but as details of Atta’s life are examined and new ones uncovered, a less mysterious, more mundane man emerges. It is a man drawn on a smaller, less epic scale.
The people who knew Atta best during the past decade–housemates, roommates, co-workers and classmates–say he was taciturn, introspective and zealously religious.
“I’m more fundamental than the fundamentalists,” he told his first Hamburg roommate.
He was an exceptionally resolute, disciplined, stoic man. He was–particularly for a university graduate student–enormously respectful of authority. He did what he was told. Joerg Lewin, who hired Atta as a draftsman at an urban planning firm, said Atta did his job with extraordinary single-mindedness. Although already a trained architect and a prospective city planner, Atta–in four years at the company–never offered opinions of the plans he was asked to illustrate. He was assigned to make maps; he made maps.
“I think he embodied the idea of drawing,” Lewin said. ” ‘I am the drawer. I draw.’ ”
It’s hard to imagine that such a man could acquire the verve and daring to lead an enterprise as audacious as the September attacks. Maybe we have misconceived the nature of the attacks and built the requisite figure to orchestrate them. Maybe a brilliant general is not what was needed. Maybe the plan wasn’t so much difficult as it was detailed, and what it really required was somebody with will and steadfastness to see it through.
That is the Mohamed Atta described by the people who knew him: a meticulous, dutiful believer, a man who could sublimate himself, a man who could embody a plan, who could make it his, a man who could be, as he became, a perfect soldier.
Kafr el Sheik: A STRICT, AUSTERE FATHER
The Nile River delta is Egypt’s breadbasket. The markets are full of bananas, oranges, corn, guavas, figs, wheat, rice and lentils.
The last village is never out of sight before you come to the next. Men and animals work fields that are jigsawed across the land, small and irregularly shaped. Women wear veils or head scarves; many men wear long cotton tunics.
Alleys are clogged with cotton bales and rice straw. Ducks and chickens pick their way through scraps in tiny street-side pens. The roads are full of pickup trucks, the rare tractor and donkey carts; uniformed schoolchildren are everywhere. Nokia cell phone advertisements stand in front of ditches filled with trash, still water and women bathing and washing dishes.
Atta was born here in 1968 in the delta province of Kafr el Sheik. His father, Mohamed el Amir Awad el Sayed Atta, came from a tiny provincial village, and his mother, Bouthayna Mohamed Mustapha Sheraqi, from the outskirts of the provincial capital, also called Kafr el Sheik.
As is still customary in rural Egypt, his parents met and married by arrangement of their families. Mohamed el Amir (neither he nor his son used the name Atta anywhere except on official documents) was already a lawyer. Bouthayna was just 14, but as the daughter of a wealthy farming and trading family, she came from several rungs up the social ladder.
Mohamed was their last child. Two daughters, Azza and Mona, preceded him. The father was regarded by his in-laws as austere, strict and private.
Nearly all of Egypt’s 65 million people are squeezed by the surrounding deserts into the narrow band of fertile land along the Nile. The geography forces Egyptian life to be crowded, communal and shared. To resist takes real effort. Atta’s father was willing to expend it.
“The father is alone. There are no brothers, one sister maybe. We never met her,” said Hamida Fateh, Atta’s aunt on his mother’s side. “Here, the families are all very close. But even here, the father was separate.”
Fateh’s family owns land, an auto parts store and a large commercial building. But the family lives on a cobbled, dirty street in a cramped apartment with whitewashed walls, cheap rugs, stuffed furniture and a television.
The balcony door is open to let the heat escape. The lace curtains barely stir. The idea of living behind closed doors here seems almost as peculiar to Fateh as the idea that the boy who used to sit here on her sofa flew an airliner into a skyscraper.
A cousin, Essam Omar Rashad, nodded toward the television and said that he and Mohamed, as teenagers, would watch it together. Mohamed, he said, left the room whenever belly dancing programs–staples of Egyptian broadcasting–came on.
Outside, the call to afternoon prayer echoes down the block. You are never out of earshot of the prayer call here. Fateh wears a head scarf, but more out of habit, she said, than belief; neither her family nor Atta’s was particularly religious. Fateh studied agricultural engineering at university. We are educated, secular people, she said, people from the country but not country people.
Fateh said Atta’s father was always ambitious and focused. His law practice thrived here, but he was not satisfied. “He moved to Cairo,” Fateh said. “He wanted to be famous.”
Cairo: ‘A HOUSE OF STUDY’
It’s early morning on Eldmalsha Street and nothing moves, or will for a while. Cairo, the capital, is a slow city in the morning. It’s common to find shops not yet open at 11 or noon. Breakfast is a rumor, and some restaurants start lunch service at 4 p.m.
Residents see this as proof of their sophistication, a measure of distance from the villages their ancestors left not decades but millenniums ago.
Mohamed Atta spent his adolescence here in Abdin, a cramped quarter near the old financial and government centers. Much of the wealth of the city has migrated to newer districts, west across the Nile and south and east to new suburbs. Old core neighborhoods like Abdin have been left to crumble.
Most of the five- and six-story stone apartment buildings are holdovers from British colonial rule, which didn’t end until independence in 1952. Lobbies are paved with marble and limestone, remnants of a grander past. Few buildings have elevators, and stairwells are dark.
Atta was 9 or 10 years old when the family arrived here. His father rented a double flat, an entire floor. All three children got their own rooms. The old apartment, like most interiors in Cairo, is dim and still, windows covered against the sun.
Later, Atta’s father bought a vacation home on the Mediterranean coast, but the family lived frugally in town. Atta’s mother, Bouthayna, did her own cooking and cleaning. The father drove a used Opel, then a small Fiat sedan.
When Fateh and her family came to visit Abdin, they found the father had instilled his ambition in the children.
“It was a house of study. No playing, no entertainment. Just study,” Fateh said.
The children weren’t allowed to play outside the apartment. One neighbor said the walk to school had been timed, and if the children took longer than the allotted few minutes to get home, they would be asked why.
“His friends would sit on the corner there, chewing pistachios, spitting out the shells. Not Mohamed. There was no hanging around, no friends, very strict rules,” said Mohamed Gamel Khamees, a neighbor who runs an auto repair shop on the ground floor of the Attas’ old building.
“They came from a village, and they had their own traditions. They brought them along,” Khamees said. “They lived a closed family life. They were very polite but had little contact with any others.”
Neighbors laughed at Bouthayna when she pulled a little handcart behind her to the market. They thought that she was putting on airs. It didn’t matter. The family went its own way.
The senior Atta, a huskier version of his son, is unapologetic about his lack of sociability. He’s a blustering, forceful man who delivers speeches more often than answers. “We are people who keep to ourselves,” he said. “We don’t mix a lot with people, and we are all successful.”
Young Mohamed’s room looked out the back of the building, over rooftops and into a tangle of wires and adjacent windows. Neighbors said Mohamed used his window for clandestine conversations with neighbor boys. That was playtime.
Abdin is one of the densest districts in one of the most densely populated cities on Earth. The street is a place for entertaining, for sport, for business.
When visitors come, chairs and a tiny foot-high table are plopped down in the street. Tea is served.
A donkey cart loaded with dates rolls by. A sweet potato salesman pushes his wagon past. In between the tea being poured and the sugar offered, a man rolls a whetstone by. The cries of the knife man, the date man and the sweet potato seller bounce down the stone alleys.
It is hard to remain closed off here, even harder than in the delta. Asked if Atta’s family ever made exceptions–if, for example, it shared evening breakfast with neighbors during the holy month of Ramadan, which in Cairo is a period of daytime fasting but late-night socializing and celebration–Khamees said no, the father was a tough man, not given to making exceptions.
The family, Khamees said, was “like a set of rings interlocked with one another. They didn’t visit and weren’t visited.” He paused for a moment and waved a hand at the insects circling the sugar bowl. He looked up at the apartment.
“Not even the flies entered there,” he said. “Not even the flies.”
University: LOST IN A SEA OF STUDENTS
All three children were superior students. Atta followed his two sisters to Cairo University, one of the most prestigious colleges in the country. Admission is granted solely on the basis of national tests.
The university is mammoth, with 155,000 students and more than 7,000 teachers. It sprawls across both banks of the Nile, including an island in between. The campus is so large, some students drive cars from class to class.
Degree programs are typically five years. The first year is a preparatory year, used to direct students into major areas of study. If you want to study medicine, for example, but your first-year grades are insufficient, you might find yourself–without consultation or consent–enrolled in the Department of Ornamental Horticulture.
Students are grouped by their names.
“I found him standing there, staring up at the name sheets to see where he was assigned,” said Mohamed Mokhtar el Rafei. “I introduced myself. ‘I’m Mohamed,’ I said. So was he. We looked at the class sheets. We had three full classes of Mohameds. Oh wow.
“We used our fathers’ names to refer to one another. I was Rafei. He was always Amir.”
The two became friends. Both excelled in the first year, 1985, and were chosen for engineering, one of the most venerable and prestigious departments. Within engineering, the highest-scoring students were assigned to the architecture program. The two Mohameds, whether they wanted to, would be architects.
The engineering department had nearly 1,000 teachers. The size meant tremendous competition and–except for the very best students–little attention from professors.
For the first time in his life, Atta did not stand out. Architecture, more than most creative disciplines, is a blend of the utterly pragmatic–what do you coat glass with to keep heat out and let light in?–and the artistic–what should a house say? Atta shone at analytical subjects, but the curriculum was skewed toward design.
“He was a very clever person in mathematics, physical structures, less good in design and the more artistic aspects,” Rafei said. “He had been one of the top-ranked students in high school, and he had a very high rank in his preparatory year. In our time, though, design was emphasized, and maybe you could say he couldn’t adjust himself to what was needed. In the third year, when we studied soils, street plans and steel, something more concrete, he excelled. . . . You would recognize him more as an engineer than an architect.”
Another classmate recalled that Atta became upset when things didn’t go his way.
“He was a child,” she said. “So like a child that one time something happened, where he didn’t get the grade he wanted, and he pouted. Somebody said to him, ‘You’re acting like a child.’ Then he got very, very angry. Proving the point, he really was like a child. Spoiled.”
But mainly, Atta is remembered as utterly ordinary. “Mohamed was there, sharing all our fun times. He liked it. He would tell jokes, laugh. He was one of us,” said Waleed Khairy, another classmate.
Atta’s father often drove him to and from school. This was not unusual. In fact, unless they move to another city, many young adults remain in their parents’ homes until they marry. Many 30-year-olds eat dinner at home every night.
Politics: A GROWING RELIGIOSITY
Cairo is a plotter’s paradise. There is a shortage of jobs and a surplus of cafes filled with men, idling away days over sweet Turkish coffee, water pipes, Marlboro Lights and filtered Cleopatras, filling the narrow, cluttered streets with talk and soft, smoky haze. Not all the talk is idle chatter.
Egypt’s history for the last half a century is one of sporadic violence and constant tension between the government and Islamic activists.
President Hosni Mubarak came to power in 1981 when his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated by Islamic militants. Mubarak himself has been the object of three dozen assassination plots. One of the results is a repressive political system, democratic in name only. More than half the officially recognized political parties have at one time or another been barred from political activity.
The involvement of religious groups in politics is forbidden. Members of the strongest, most broadly active Islamic group–the Muslim Brotherhood–are routinely jailed for violating this prohibition. The lack of any avenue for legal dissent criminalizes political opposition and almost ensures that it will become extreme.
During Atta’s college years, the Muslim Brotherhood conducted major recruiting campaigns. It called for a return to basic Islamic principles and warned against the corrupting forces of modernization and Egypt’s tilt toward the United States. Its campus activism coincided with a period of increasing religiosity in Egypt generally.
Atta was neither politically active nor particularly religious, friends said. His father said he warned his children away from political involvement. Far from advocating a resistance to the West, Atta’s father insisted that his son, in addition to his regular classwork, study English and later German.
He said he wanted his son to match his daughters’ successes. Both had excelled at the university: Azza became a botany professor, Mona a cardiologist. Atta earned respectable grades, but they were not good enough for acceptance to Cairo University’s graduate school. His father gave him a 1974 Fiat 128 coupe as a graduation present but insisted that he continue his studies.
“My son is a very sensitive man; he is soft and was extremely attached to his mother. I almost tricked him to go to Germany to continue his education. Otherwise, he never wanted to leave Egypt,” Atta’s father said. “He didn’t want to go. By pure coincidence, a friend of mine had visitors from Germany, two high school teachers in Hamburg. I invited them to dinner, and Mohamed was the king of the evening because he spoke German fluently . . . and three weeks later, Mohamed went to Germany.”
Hamburg: ‘I AM GROWN UP NOW’
When Mohamed Atta, 24 years old and on his own for the first time, arrived in Hamburg in the summer of 1992, one of the first things he asked for was the location of the nearest mosque.
Atta’s family was moderately religious but not publicly so. His father, for example, said he reads the Koran every day, but none of the family’s old neighbors remembered ever seeing the Attas at the neighborhood mosque. Once in Germany, Atta went every day.
Atta lived, rent-free, with the two teachers he had met in Cairo. The couple had been organizing exchange programs between Germany and Egypt for several years. They had an extra room in their small cottage and were happy to help. Atta arrived with a single suitcase. But in other respects, he carried more baggage than almost anyone his hosts had ever met.
In addition to praying at the mosque and observing a strict Islamic diet–no pork, no alcohol–Atta refrained from the pleasures young students often sought. He seldom socialized, never went to clubs or sporting events. Hamburg is a notably unrepressed city. Sex businesses–theaters, prostitution, publishing–thrive. For someone who would leave the room when belly dancers came on television, Hamburg can come on strong.
Atta’s hosts had traveled often to Egypt; they welcomed cultural differences. The woman initially liked Atta’s seriousness. He was eisern, she said–iron.
They discussed religion. She knew the Old Testament well and tried to make the point that the roots of Islam and Christianity were similar. Mohamed would listen, then reply, yes, but what is written in the Koran is the truth, the only truth. They would argue, the woman said, until she left the room disgusted by his closed-mindedness.
Atta went to Germany on a tourist visa. He would need a student visa to attend graduate school but apparently hadn’t understood that he could get it only in Cairo.
The teachers, on a trip to Cairo to make arrangements for other students, put through his visa application. When they returned and told him, he was quite angry.
“I am grown up now; I can take care of that myself,” he told them.
“He said that a lot,” one of his hosts said. ” ‘I am abroad now; I am grown up. Now I can decide on my own.’ ”
It seemed silly to resist their help, “but that’s the way he was,” she said.
Atta made few friends. He could be amiable and polite but never warm. The landlady felt that there was “always a wall between him and the family.”
She said that eventually she didn’t feel comfortable in her own home. He would glare at her if she walked through the living room in a sleeveless top. He complained when her adult, unmarried daughter came to visit and brought along her young daughter. It was strange, she said. He played with the little girl and obviously enjoyed it. “He was free. The only time I remember him to be free,” she said. But then he railed against the licentiousness that produced the child.
In the spring of 1993, by mutual agreement, Atta moved out of the little cottage.
When he had arrived in Hamburg, he intended to enroll for the fall term in the graduate architecture program at the University of Applied Sciences. He was denied admission. The university said the program was full; Atta’s father said this was simple prejudice. Atta sued, the university relented, and he was quickly admitted. Then, just weeks into his first term, he abruptly quit and enrolled in an urban planning program at a different school, the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg.
He told his hosts he realized belatedly that the architecture program would be repetitive of his undergraduate work in Cairo.
Technical University is not in Hamburg proper but south of the Elbe River, in the old industrial suburb of Harburg. The Elbe forms what planners here call a cultural border. People who live north of it seldom cross over. Technical University was built south of that border 20 years ago as an economic development measure for a declining Rust Belt town. When Atta enrolled, it had only 5,000 students.
The planning program, from which he hoped to receive the German equivalent of a master’s degree, was a good fit for Atta, in line with his analytical ability and meticulousness. It opened up a field of study that would combine those skills with his newly evident interest in Islam: the preservation of old Islamic cities.
The department was housed in a former police barracks that was left standing as the new university was built around it. Fortuitously for Atta, the department’s chairman, Dittmar Machule, was a Mideast specialist. Machule said he sensed in Atta someone who shared his passion for the old cities of the region. He described Atta as “tender, sensitive . . . he had deep, dark eyes. His eyes would speak. You could see the intelligence, the knowledge, the alertness.”
Hans Harms, another professor, said Atta was “almost shy in the beginning but engaged. I could see that he was listening, that what I said as a teacher would influence him.” He was beeindruckt und beeindruckbar, impressed and impressible, Harms said. Harms and Martin Ebert, a student who took several classes with Atta, recalled that Atta seldom jumped into discussions. He would sit and listen, often not saying a word, then come back a week later with something to offer on the subject.
Ebert said Atta wasn’t much different outside class. He was careful about what he said, weighing it, never one to get excited. “I don’t think it was possible to have a fight with him,” Ebert said.
Harmut Kaiser, another classmate, said it was hard to draw Atta into a political discussion in class. “He wasn’t a guy who acted like he wanted to change the world–unlike a lot of other students in the group,” Kaiser said.
When students complained about a teacher’s idiosyncrasies, Atta would join in the critique only if he thought a professor hadn’t prepared properly or didn’t know the subject. For those teachers who did, Ebert said, Atta showed a respect bordering on awe.
Roommates: POTATOES AND MISS PIGGY
Atta showed somewhat less respect for his roommates. The difficulties he experienced when he lived in the small cottage with the host family repeated themselves in Harburg, where he moved into a university-subsidized apartment building called Centrumshaus. Each apartment had two bedrooms, a shared bath and a kitchen. Atta lived there from 1993 to 1998. He shared the flat successively with two men.
In the end, Atta so aggravated both that neither could bear to be in his company. He seldom washed the dishes, they said, even if he had borrowed theirs to eat from. He almost never cleaned the bathroom. If asked, he would do it once, then not again for months. He left food uncovered in the refrigerator for weeks, affecting the taste of everything else.
The roommates grew to dislike Atta himself even more than the things he did. The two roommates are very dissimilar. The first is high-strung, anxious, the son of recent immigrants. The other is laid-back and was chosen by the house manager in the hope that he could get along with Atta. Both objected to the same personality trait in Atta: his complete, almost aggressive insularity.
Just 5-foot-7 and wiry, Atta nonetheless had a heavy, foreboding presence. He was slightly awkward, stiff and self-contained. The now famous face, with its angled planes and low, dark brow, was more hangdog than menacing but seldom welcoming.
The men’s shared kitchen was compact, functional, with a maple table that overlooked the street. It was a bright, sociable space, a place to sit for coffee or tea in the morning. Atta was often so inwardly focused he would walk in and out of the room without acknowledging anyone else in it.
The first roommate tried early on to loosen Atta up. He took Atta to a showing of Disney’s animated film “The Jungle Book.” Atta became so upset at the crowd’s unruliness before the film began that he seethed in his seat, muttering over and over in disgust, “Chaos, chaos.”
He didn’t speak a word during or after the film, and when they arrived back at the apartment, he stomped into his bedroom and slammed the door behind him. Another time, Atta asked the roommate if he had any light reading material. The roommate gave Atta a book of absurdist, Monty Python-esque short stories. Atta took it, then returned it the next morning without a word of thanks or comment.
Atta spent very little money on food and very little time eating. When he did eat, he complained about the necessity of doing so.
“He was reluctant to any pleasure,” the roommate said. “We never shared food. We shared dishes. Mostly, he messed them up and I cleaned them.”
Atta sometimes prepared a meal by boiling potatoes whole, scraping the skins away, then smashing them into a mound. He would eat his little potato mountain, without reheating it, for a week or more, sticking his fork into it and shoving the whole assembly back into the refrigerator when he finished a meal.
Each bedroom was furnished with a bed, a desk and shelves. The only thing Atta added was a slide-projector table that he used as a bookstand. He kept a Koran on it. Atta prayed five times a day, fasted on holidays and went to the mosque whenever he could. When he couldn’t make it to a mosque, he prayed in his room, at work, even in the corner of classrooms.
Sometimes Atta had a beard. Other times he shaved. He almost always wore the same clothes: cotton slacks and sweaters. He never wore shoes in the apartment, changing to a pair of blue flip-flops as soon as he came home.
The second roommate said that by the end of three years, he and Atta were barely speaking. Atta was so intense that the roommate, out with friends one time, joked that he hoped Atta wasn’t back at the apartment blowing himself up.
“In the end, I counted the days until Mohamed would leave the flat for good,” he said. Students were allotted up to four years at Centrumshaus but could extend that to five if they were near graduation. Atta received the extension, much to the roommate’s dismay.
The roommate’s girlfriend, a frequent visitor, was even more put off by Atta. He answered questions from her in curt, clipped tones and would never look her in the eye, she said.
“It was a good day when Mohamed wasn’t home,” she said.
The woman was so offended by Atta’s behavior toward women that she conspired to get even with him. She persuaded her boyfriend to hang a poster of a Degas nude in the bathroom above the toilet. The bathroom was small; a person couldn’t open its door and avoid seeing the nude. Atta initially didn’t respond to the provocation. Finally, three months later, he asked that it be removed.
Then the girlfriend hung a poster in the kitchen, this one of the Muppet character Miss Piggy, dressed voluptuously in a negligee. Atta never said a word.
Aleppo: IN MOSQUE, A TRANSFORMATION
Dittmar Machule, the Technical University professor, had taken a special interest in Atta. Machule is a committed Orientalist who sees his role at the university as both teacher and promoter of intercultural communication. When Atta early on chose the subject that would become the topic of his degree thesis–preservation of ancient cities in the Middle East–Machule was pleased.
“The other Muslim students, when they come to our world, they had problems with another cultural context,” Machule said. “Either they try to get more and more a part of the Western culture, or they try to take something of that and this. . . . With Mohamed, I was somewhat impressed, I must say, with someone who didn’t change, who tried to be as he was before, to try to learn, but to be who he was.
“I thought if this young man went back to his mother country, he could be able to work with the fundamentalist person, he could work with strong religious people because they believe in him.”
For years, Machule had supervised a project in northern Syria, excavating the ruins of an ancient city near Aleppo. In 1994, he invited Atta to visit the site and consider Aleppo as the place to do fieldwork for his dissertation. Atta was already planning a summer excursion with other students to Istanbul, Turkey.
“I told him, ‘Mohamed, try to come over to Syria; it’s a direct bus line to Aleppo.’ He arrived in August, early morning, after three days on a bus. He came with his little suitcase, and I felt so sorry for him.”
Atta spent time at the excavation site and then went on to Aleppo. In towns like this throughout the developing world, the collision of old and new isn’t merely theoretical. You can follow old roads, twisting along lines of elevation and drainage, through old neighborhoods, dense and jumbled just as they must have been a thousand years before, then suddenly come upon something new–a concrete apartment building that looks like it arrived from Mars or Moscow, or a three-story mini-mall fresh off the boat from Sherman Oaks.
Atta focused on a neighborhood called Almadiyeh Square. It, too, had suffered modern improvements. In the 1970s, the government dug broad new roads, improving access to and through the old town. Crews cut part of a road right through Almadiyeh, tearing down what they needed to, and put up a small building to sell souvenirs to the tourists the road was intended to carry.
“That was the only thing I ever saw him get emotional about. He was very angry at the destruction of our old heritage,” said Razan Abdel-Wahab, a Syrian engineer who still works at the Aleppo redevelopment project.
When Atta returned to Hamburg, he told Machule that he would make Aleppo the focus of his thesis. He and another student, Volker Hauth, made a second research trip to Syria at the end of the year.
Atta was enlivened by the work, Hauth said.
On a side trip to Damascus, Syria’s capital, Hauth went to a mosque with Atta. Hauth was a devout Protestant and the two of them talked about religion often, but Hauth had never seen Atta in religious circumstances. At the mosque, he was surprised to see Atta leading prayers.
Hauth said Atta was self-assured, self-confident and diplomatic. It was a revelation for Hauth, who knew the dour, introverted Atta from Hamburg. Here, he was a different person–looser, more talkative, animated, at times almost playful. It was as if he had been released, like “a fish in water.” He even made tentative advances to a woman he met in Aleppo. She teased him in return, calling him an Egyptian pharaoh.
Atta seemed to have everything going his way. He had gone to an alien culture, had found work that engaged and challenged him, and had gained a measure of acceptance and encouragement he never found at Cairo University.
As an undergraduate in Cairo, Atta had never talked about his career, his dreams. Now he spoke of having found a future, about eventually going back to Egypt–“as an Arab to Arabia,” as he described it to a German colleague, to help build neighborhoods where people could live better lives.
Cairo Again: IDEALISM RUNS INTO REALITY
Much of the political map of Africa has been drawn by foreign hands. Egypt is the great exception. More than 50 centuries old, it was home to grand civilizations when, as Gernot Rotter, a prominent Islamic scholar in Germany, puts it, “middle and northern Europeans were still sitting in trees.”
This is cause for both an abiding pride and an abiding sense of loss. Both the glory and its passing are nowhere more evident than in an old section of Cairo known as the Islamic City, a rich concentration of ancient monuments, modern marketplaces and medieval architecture.
In the summer of 1995, Atta and Hauth won a grant from a German think tank to go to Cairo to study and analyze redevelopment plans the Egyptian government had devised for the Islamic City. They were joined on the trip by a third student, Ralph Bodenstein.
What the three young architects found appalled them. The government planned to “restore” the area by removing many of the people who lived there, evicting the onion and garlic sellers, repairing the old buildings and bringing in troupes of actors to play the real people they would displace.
Bodenstein described what happened: “We had a very critical discussion with the municipality. They didn’t understand our concerns. They wanted to do their work, dress people in costumes. They thought it was a good idea and couldn’t imagine why we would object.”
It was Atta’s first professional contact with the Egyptian bureaucracy and it distressed him, Bodenstein said.
“Mohamed was very, very critical of the planning administration, the nepotism. He had begun to make inquiries about getting a job after school, and he had difficulty finding anything. He did not belong to the network, where jobs were handed down from one generation to the next, to political allies. Mohamed was very idealistic, humanistic; he had social ideals to fulfill.”
Atta’s complaints about the difficulty of finding a decent job were not unique. Egypt’s ambitious, virtually free system of higher education pumps out many more graduates than the economy can handle. The more education you have, the less likely you are to find a job. According to one 1998 study, those with graduate degrees are 32 times more likely to be unemployed than illiterate people are.
Bodenstein said Atta’s critique of the government grew more expansive as the study project went on. He said the government’s redevelopment plans would turn the old city into an Islamic Disneyland. Such Western influences, he said, were the result of the government’s eagerness to be allied with the United States.
The study project lasted five weeks. Hauth and Bodenstein returned to Hamburg. Atta stayed on in Cairo and spent time with his family, which had moved from Abdin west across the river to Giza. Atta went back to the old neighborhood to visit and have Khamees check out his car. While they talked, the afternoon call to prayer sounded. Atta excused himself to answer it. It was the first time Khamees had ever seen anyone in Atta’s family go to mosque.
Religion had become a chief focus of Atta’s life. With his father’s blessing, and financial assistance, he joined that year’s pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, an important, often powerful experience in a Muslim’s life. Every believer who is able is supposed to make the trip at least once. Saudi Arabia restricts the number of pilgrimage visas, so they are highly prized. To make the pilgrimage at such a young age–Atta was 27–was a privilege.
When Atta returned to Hamburg, Hauth thought he was, if possible, more quiet, more inward-looking and more fervent. John Sadiq, a classmate who worked with Atta at a part-time job, saw the same change. Atta told Hauth that he eventually wanted to return to Egypt to work as a planner but despaired of the political situation. “He lived in fear of being criminalized for his religious beliefs,” Hauth said.
Al Quds: AT LAST, SOME FRIENDS
Atta never had many German acquaintances, and none who regarded themselves as close. One reason was Atta’s introversion. Another was his narrow range of interests. He simply wasn’t much fun to talk to unless you wanted to talk about Islam, Cairo or city planning, not subjects known to foster German friendship.
During his first four years in Hamburg, Atta worked as a draftsman at a Hamburg urban planning firm, Plankontor. He was an excellent employee, said Joerg Lewin, one of the firm’s partners. But not once did Atta socialize with other employees. He stayed at his drawing table and worked, or knelt beside it and prayed. Although the firm invited him on annual holiday trips, he never went.
He owned almost no books, didn’t like food, didn’t listen to music other than religious chants and, as far as anyone knows, the only movie he ever saw was the one his first Hamburg roommate dragged him to.
When Atta had enrolled at Technical University, there were about 100 “foreign” students in the entire school. More than half of those weren’t really foreigners but ethnic Turks whose families were longtime residents of Germany. There were only about 40 “real” foreigners and just a handful of Arabs among them.
Atta wouldn’t find many cultural soul mates in Harburg. Where he found them, instead, was in a seedy neighborhood east of the rail station in downtown Hamburg, at Al Quds mosque. The biggest, oldest mosques in Hamburg are Persian. Most others, including those Atta attended in his early years in Hamburg, are small, neighborhood Turkish congregations. Al Quds is mainly Arab.
Al Quds is on Steindamm Street, squeezed between a body-building parlor and a Turkish coffee shop. The street is best known for sex shops and drug dealing; you can be propositioned within sight of the mosque at any hour of the day or night.
Al Quds is of medium size; it holds at most 150 people. The walls are white, with Koranic verses painted on them. The carpets are gray, and the place has a utilitarian feel to it. It is regarded by German intelligence agencies as the most radical mosque in Hamburg; in Cairo there might be 1,000 just like it.
It is the sort of place that was enveloped in cheers when news of the Sept. 11 attacks broke. On the day the Taliban was forced to flee Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, the men at Al Quds screamed and shouted in anger. Many there, including the imam, Abu Maziad, blame the United States for most that is wrong in the world and blame Israel and Jews for much else.
Abu Maziad said Atta began coming to Al Quds in the mid-1990s. He came often, both for prayers and to talk with friends. Atta’s new Arab friends–men of all ages–called on him frequently at Centrumshaus, his roommates said. He sometimes invited groups of them to dinner. He made soup.
Not long after he returned from Mecca, Atta asked two of the men from the mosque to witness a will he had written.
The will, dated March 6, 1996, subsequently turned up in a suitcase that was left behind when Atta boarded an American Airlines flight out of Boston 5½ years later. It’s an odd document, a mixture of standard Islamic text and stern orders on preparations for his burial and who would be allowed to attend it. In it, Atta dedicates his life and death to Allah and forbids women to visit his grave. It’s difficult to discern the meaning of the will, but if nothing else it provides an indication of a young man’s growing obsessions and frustrations.
Marienstrasse: THE HOUSE OF THE FOLLOWERS
Atta continued to live at the university apartment and worked at Plankontor until the firm laid him off when business declined in 1996. Atta hated to lose the job, he told Lewin, but left gracefully. He sent back money that he thought the firm had overpaid him on his final paycheck.
Atta finished his course work the next spring. All he had left was to write his thesis. Instead, he seemed to vanish. He had almost no contact with the university for a year beginning with the fall of 1997.
He taught a series of seminars put on by the think tank that had sponsored his research trip to Cairo. The seminars, in 1997 and ’98, were for students undertaking similar projects. Atta wasn’t markedly different as a teacher than he was as a student. He was well-prepared, thorough, unexciting and serious, said one man who attended two of the four-day meetings. The man, an Egyptian, said that he was initially excited to meet another Egyptian so far from home but that Atta, while not hostile, showed little interest in personal conversation.
The seminars included evening social events. Atta attended none of them.
The Egyptian student said Atta always seemed preoccupied. There was “a wall” between him and the students, he said.
Atta took another part-time job, in a warehouse packing computers for shipment. Unlike the work at Plankontor, this job had no connection to his city planning career. It did have other connections, however. At least two of his co-workers are alleged to have been involved in the planning or execution of the Sept. 11 attacks.
U.S. investigators think that at some point during this period, Atta went to Afghanistan for training at a camp run by Al Qaeda, Bin Laden’s terrorist network, but the seminar schedule didn’t permit lengthy absences. His longest absence appears to have been a couple of months at the beginning of 1998. He told his roommate at Centrumshaus that he was going on another pilgrimage. He didn’t say where.
By autumn 1998, Atta finally exhausted his eligibility for subsidized student housing. He told his house manager, Manfred Schroeder, that he would take an apartment with friends. Schroeder was probably the only one sorry to see him leave.
Schroeder is an older man. He has an air of authority. Not all the students appreciate it. Atta, though, habitually treated older men with deference. He sometimes invited Schroeder into his apartment for tea and chocolate candy, Atta’s sole indulgence.
But he had been at Centrumshaus five years. He had to move.
He packed his bag and was gone to the Forgotten Island, Wilhelmsburg. Neighbors said the large group of Arab men stayed at the housing project there a few months, then disappeared as quickly as they had arrived, leaving only 11 mattresses behind.
By November, Atta was back in Harburg. He and two other men, Ramzi Binalshibh and Said Bahaji, rented a freshly remodeled apartment on Marienstrasse near the university. The apartment had three bedrooms, new paint and heating and a great many visitors. The tenants paid for installation of high-speed computer lines.
This was, investigators say, the formation of a new Al Qaeda terrorist cell and a central planning point for what would turn out to be the Sept. 11 attacks.
Binalshibh, a Yemeni national, had no apparent means of support and little interest in school. He attended Hamburg’s University of Applied Sciences for a few months, didn’t do well and quit. Bahaji, a German of Moroccan descent, studied computer engineering at Technical University. He and Atta petitioned the school for space to establish a Muslim meeting and prayer room.
U.S. investigators say Binalshibh intended to join the hijack teams in the United States. Bahaji is thought to have provided key technical and logistical support to the teams. Both men left Germany shortly before the attacks, surfacing briefly in Pakistan before disappearing again.
In 1998, Bahaji came under the scrutiny of German police because of his association with a middle-aged Syrian businessman, Mamoun Darkazanli, whom he had met at the Al Quds mosque. Darkazanli had an odd, still-vague association with a man who had once been a financial officer for Bin Laden.
Nothing came of the police surveillance because, an investigator said later, “we only knew them as radical Muslims. That’s not a crime. They might have had contact with followers of Osama bin Laden. This is also not a crime.”
Atta, Binalshibh and Bahaji were good tenants, said Thorsten Albrecht, their landlord. They paid their rent, often noting on the check that it was from the Dar el Anser, the House of the Followers.
Albrecht thought that they looked and acted like philosophy students. They seemed almost dreamy, preoccupied. They dressed in clothes that had been out of style for a while. He remembers one of them wearing beige bell-bottom jeans. They also sometimes wore traditional Muslim tunics. Neighbors said the flat became a gathering spot. As in Wilhelmsburg, large numbers of Arab men visited routinely. Among them were two other alleged Sept. 11 hijackers–Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Samir Jarrah.
Atta requested a meeting with Dittmar Machule to renew work on his thesis. Machule said he asked him: “Where have you been, Mohamed? . . . There is trouble? Problems in the family?”
“Yes, in the family, at home,” Atta told him. “Please understand, I don’t want to talk about this.”
And that was that. Atta began vigorous work on his Aleppo thesis. He resumed regular meetings with Machule to discuss it and in June 1999, he turned in a 152-page manuscript. Machule opened it to find an Arabic inscription and dedication to Allah on the first page.
The rest of the work held few surprises. It was a solid, thorough examination of Aleppo’s history, current redevelopment and a proposal to better integrate the city’s past with its future. Machule judged it to be of high quality intellectually but uneven in its writing. He asked another professor, Chrilla Wendt, to work with Atta to polish the thesis before it was formally submitted.
They worked together at regular meetings, side by side at a desk, for six weeks. Wendt knew of Atta’s discomfort around women but said the work went smoothly until, suddenly, Atta told her that he could no longer stand to be in such close proximity. By then, the rewriting was nearly done and in August, Atta formally submitted the thesis. He defended it before the review committee later in the month and received high marks and congratulations.
The thesis is a routine piece of urban analysis. The most interesting thing about it is why Atta chose to finish it at all. It seems clear in retrospect that Atta was already well down the road to Sept. 11. He, Al-Shehhi and Jarrah would soon, within weeks of one another, report their passports stolen, presumably to obtain new, clean documents without the sort of travel record that might stop them from getting U.S. visas.
Maybe the thesis was something Atta set his mind to and did solely because he wanted to; he was a resolute man. Maybe Machule is right: He thinks that Atta didn’t yet know his fate.
Machule remembers Atta coming by his office one final time. Machule was busy with another student and Atta, being Atta, didn’t barge in. He didn’t even knock. He just stood at the open door, hoping to catch Machule’s eye. Machule gestured to him to wait. Atta stood there for 10 minutes. Then he walked away, and Machule never saw him again.
At the end of 1999, Atta went home to Cairo, degree in hand. His father greeted him as a conquering hero.
“I told him we should look for a wife for him,” Atta’s father said. He always had things arranged. This time, he had a potential bride lined up: “We went to visit a family, and Mohamed met the daughter and they liked each other. The woman’s parents also liked Mohamed, but their only condition was that their daughter not leave Cairo. So Mohamed got engaged to her and then went back to finish his PhD.”
There would be, of course, no marriage, no doctorate.
By this time, Atta’s parents were estranged. There had been a dispute over arrangements for their older daughter’s marriage, according to Atta’s aunt, Hamida Fateh. Atta’s father didn’t approve of the groom, who had been selected by Bouthayna’s brothers, Fateh said.
Bouthayna’s health had declined. Atta’s visit was a time of great joy for her, Fateh said. Bouthayna took Atta to Kafr el Sheik to show him off to her relatives.
“It made her very, very happy,” Fateh said.
The aunt said Atta told his mother that he didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to continue his studies. He wanted to stay in Cairo and take care of her. He asked if he could.
“His mother insisted he return to his studies,” the aunt said.
You need to get a doctorate, she told him. Go to America.
America: AN IRRECONCILABLE MEMORY
Most of the north tower of the World Trade Center was air. All big buildings are, but the trade center was especially so. The center’s chief engineer used to enjoy showing a chart of all the lightest tall buildings in the world. His were clustered near the top of the chart. He achieved this extraordinary lightness mainly by clever design that reduced the amount of steel in the buildings, creating more space.
Because they were so light, the main structural concern was wind. The trade center was designed to withstand gusts of hurricane force. But the wind isn’t pointed, and even hurricanes don’t attack at the speed of a Boeing 767. Eerily, another of the buildings’ engineers had once bragged that they were designed to withstand the impact of an airliner; people laughed when they heard that anyone would ever consider such a thing.
After the unlikely weapon with the unlikely pilot rammed it, 24,000 gallons of kerosene ignited inside the north tower with the force of 7 million sticks of dynamite, eventually buckling columns and collapsing floors, one on top of another, until the entire building collapsed on itself, along with the south tower, turning a million tons of glass, stone, steel, Crane’s 24-bond embossed letterhead stationery, janitors’ mops, Italian wool suits, silk ties, Herman Miller chairs and nearly 3,000 people into a seven-story-high stack of rubble.
In November, on a blustery cold day in northern Germany, a young woman in Hamburg, the former girlfriend and now wife of one of Atta’s old roommates, talked about an image she couldn’t get out of her head. She said when the bombs started falling in Afghanistan, she would sit in front of her television, staring in disbelief, unable to comprehend that the bombs were in a very real sense put in motion by her husband’s old roommate.
Watching the explosions, she would try to match them, the war, everything that has gone on in the world since Sept. 11, to her memory of the slight young man padding around his student apartment in his shower shoes. It didn’t fit. She would ask herself: All of this because of Mohamed? It’s impossible, she said. Not little Mohamed in his blue flip-flops.
There is much about Atta we can’t now know. But when a person moves through the world, he leaves a path that can be traced, however faint parts of it may be. Down in the Atta traces, the image that lingers is of a man who was far too small to accomplish the huge thing he did. This was a man too timid even to knock on a professor’s open office door. There is something deeply unsatisfying about this. We want our monsters to be monstrous. We expect them to be somehow equal to their crimes. More than anything, we want them to be extraordinary, to allow us to think the horrible thing itself is unlikely to be repeated.
When we go looking for people capable of inflicting such great destruction, the last thing we expect to find is little Mohamed in his blue flip-flops.
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