Atta had a strict family upbringing. He was born on September 1, 1968, in the village of Kafr el-Sheikh in the Egyptian delta. His father was a middle-class lawyer with ties to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. Atta's family moved to the Abdin District of Cairo in 1978 when Atta was 10. His father, who had a dominating personality, insisted that his children study, not play. Atta's family life allowed him few friends. After attending a local high school, he enrolled in the Cairo University in 1986. As usual in the Egyptian system, Atta's admittance to the university was based on his exam scores, and he was assigned to a specialty—the architecture section of the engineering department. At his graduation in 1990, his grades were not good enough to admit him to graduate school. On the recommendation of his father, he then planned to study town planning in Germany. In the meantime, he worked for a Cairo engineering firm. After learning German at the Goethe Institute in Cairo, Atta traveled to Hamburg, Germany, in July 1992 to begin studying town planning. He applied first to study architecture at the University of Applied Science but, after being turned down, migrated to the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg to study the preservation of the Islamic quarters of medieval cities in the Middle East. During his coursework, Atta interacted very little with fellow students, earning a reputation as a loner. His classmates also noted his strong religious orientation. He traveled to Turkey and Syria in 1994 to study old Muslim quarters. After receiving a German grant, Atta and two fellow students visited Egypt to study the old section of Cairo, called the Islamic City. They were appalled at what the Egyptian government was doing to this old part of the city. Up to this point his life, Atta appeared to be an academic preparing for a career as a teacher at a university.
In 1995, however, he became active in Muslim extremist politics. After a pilgrimage to Mecca, he initiated contact with Al Qaeda recruiters. Atta was just the type of individual that Al Qaeda recruiters were looking for—intelligent and dedicated. After his return to Hamburg to continue his studies, he attended the al-Quds Mosque, where his final recruitment to radical Islam took place. There Atta met radical clerics who steered him toward an Al Qaeda recruiter. Muhammad Zammar, a Syrian recruiter for Al Qaeda, convinced Atta to join Al Qaeda. Several of his friends, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Marwan al-Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah, also joined Al Qaeda. Atta became the leader of the so-called Hamburg Cell of radical Islamists.
In 1998 Atta left for Kandahar, Afghanistan, to receive military and terrorist training at the Al Qaeda training camp at Khaldan. He so distinguished himself during the training that Al Qaeda leaders decided to recruit him for a future suicide mission. Atta ranked high in all the attributes of an Al Qaeda operative—intelligence, religious devotion, patience, and willingness to sacrifice. Atta, Jarrah, and al-Shehhi met and talked with Osama bin Laden in Kandahar. Bin Laden asked them to pledge loyalty to him and accept a suicide mission. They agreed, and Mohammed Atef, Al Qaeda's military chief, briefed them on the general outlines of the September 11 operation. Then Atta and the others were sent back to Germany to finish their academic training.
Atta was a complex individual deeply affected psychologically. He had puritanical and authoritarian views toward women and, despite having two sisters and a reportedly normal relationship with his mother, believed women and sexual intercourse were polluting. Only once, in Syria, did a woman attract him—but he complained that the Palestinian woman was too forward. Atta also held strong anti-American views, disturbed by the Americanization of Egyptian society.
After he finished his degree in 1999, Al Qaeda's leaders assigned him his martyrdom mission in the United States, a mission planned by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Atta arrived in the United States on June 2, 2000. His orders placed him in charge of a large cell, but he, Jarrah, and al-Shehhi were the only members of his cell who knew the details of his mission. Several times Atta flew back and forth between the United States and Germany and Spain to coordinate the mission. Members of his cell arrived in the United States at various times. Atta and key members of the cell received orders to take pilot lessons to fly large commercial aircraft.
Most of Atta's time was spent in pilot lessons in Florida. Before he could qualify for training on large commercial aircraft, Atta had to learn to fly small planes. Most of his flying instruction took place at Huffman Aviation in Sarasota, Florida. He had an attitude problem that hurt his relations with his instructors, but it did not prevent him from earning his small aircraft license in December 2000. Next, he began to use simulators and manuals to train himself to fly large commercial aircraft.
Atta gathered most of the members of his cell together in Florida for the first time in early June 2001. He organized the cell into four teams, each of which included a trained pilot. Throughout the summer of 2001, each team rode as passengers on test flights in which they studied the efficiency of airline security and strategized about the best time to hijack an aircraft. They discovered that airline security was weakest at Boston's Logan International Airport and decided that the best day for hijacking was Tuesday. They decided that first-class seats would give them better access to cockpits. Although the teams tried to remain inconspicuous, the Hollywood actor James Woods reported suspicious behavior by one of the teams on a flight. He reported his suspicions to the pilot and a flight attendant, who passed them on to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but nothing came of his report. Atta selected two airlines—American Airlines and United Airlines—that flew Boeing 757s and 767s, aircraft used for long flights that thus held the most aviation fuel. Furthermore, these aircraft were equipped with up-to-date avionics, making them easier to fly.
Atta called for a leadership meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada, in late June 2001. Atta, Ziad Jarrah, Hani Hanjour, and Nawaf al-Hazmi stayed at the EconoLodge Motel in Las Vegas, where they completed plans for the September 11 operation. Atta and Jarrah used a local Cyberzone Internet Café to send e-mails to Al Qaeda leaders abroad.
Atta then traveled to Spain via Zurich, Switzerland, to update his handlers on his final plans and receive last minute instructions. He met with Al Qaeda representatives in the resort town of Salou on July 8, 2001, receiving his final authorization for the September 11 mission. Atta was given final authority to determine the targets and date of the operation. Several times bin Laden had attempted to push the plan forward, but Atta had refused to carry out the mission before he was ready and was backed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in this. Atta flew back to the United States, and, despite an expired visa, had no trouble getting past the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) agents at the airport.
Atta issued final instructions about the mission on the night of September 10. One-way tickets for flights on September 11 had been bought with credit cards in late August. Atta had made arrangements to have the cell's excess funds transferred back to Al Qaeda on September 4. He traveled to Portland, Maine, with Abdul Aziz al-Omari where they stayed at the Comfort Inn in South Portland. They caught a 5:45 a.m. flight out of Portland International Airport, but Atta's luggage arrived too late to make American Airlines Flight 11 from Logan International Airport. At 7:45 a.m., Atta and al-Omari boarded American Airlines Flight 11. Soon afterward, Atta phoned Marwan al-Shehhi, on board United Airlines Flight 175—also at Logan International Airport—to make sure everything was on schedule.
Atta commanded the first team. Approximately 15 minutes after takeoff, his team seized control of the aircraft using box openers as weapons. Atta redirected the aircraft toward New York City and the World Trade Center complex, where it crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at about 8:45 a.m. Other members of the team carried out their attacks successfully except for one flight lost in Pennsylvania.
Stephen E. Atkins
Fouda, Yosri, and Nick Fielding. Masterminds of Terror: The Truth behind the Most Devastating Terrorist Attack the World Has Ever Seen. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2003; McDermott, Terry. Perfect Soldiers: The 9/11 Hijackers; Who They Were, Why They Did It. New York: HarperCollins, 2005; Miller, John, Michael Stone, and Chris Mitchell. The Cell: Inside the 9/11 Plot and Why the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop It. New York: Hyperion, 2002; Sageman, Marc. Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.