Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Mohammed Atta al Sayed (Arabic: محمد عطا السيد) (September 1, 1968 – September 11, 2001) was named by the FBI as the suicide pilot of the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He is now believed to have been the leader of the attacks. He has used several aliases and alternate spellings, including Mehan Atta, Mohamed Atta, Mohammad El Amir, Mohamed El Sayed, Muhammad Muhammad Al Amir Awag Al Sayyid Atta, and Muhammad Muhammad Al-Amir Awad Al Sayad.
More is known about Mohammed Atta than any of the other 9/11 hijackers. However there are reports that seem to contradict others, indicating that he was in two places at the same time. Some reports may be unreliable, and it is possible that more than one person used Atta's identity at various times.
Atta was born on September 1, 1968 in Kafr El Sheikh, a city in the Nile Delta in Egypt and also carried a Saudi passport. He grew up in Cairo, Egypt and graduated with a degree in architecture from Cairo University. He was apparently not particularly religious during this period. He then moved to Germany, where he was registered as a student of urban planning at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg in Hamburg from 1993 to 1999. There are other reports that Atta attended Valencia School of Medicine in Spain during this period, though these may be a case of mistaken identity. )
In Hamburg, Atta worked on a thesis exploring the history of Aleppo's urban landscapes. It explored the general themes of the conflict between Arab civilization and modernity. Atta criticized how the modern skyscrapers and development projects in Aleppo were disrupting the fabric of that city by blocking community streets and altering the skyline. He received a high mark on his report from his German supervisor.
In Germany, Atta was registered as a citizen of the United Arab Emirates. His German friends describe him as an intelligent man with religious beliefs who grew angry over the Western policy toward the Middle East, including the Oslo Accords and the Gulf War. MSNBC in its special "The Making of the Death Pilots" interviewed German friend Ralph Bodenstein who traveled, worked and talked a lot with Mohammed Atta. Ralph said, "He was most imbued actually about Israeli politics in the region and about U.S. protection of these Israeli politics in the region. And he was to a degree personally suffering from that."
The 9/11 Commission Report states that "In his interactions with other students [in Germany], Atta voiced virulently anti-Semitic and anti-American opinions, ranging from condemnations of what he described as a global Jewish movement centered in New York City that supposedly controlled the financial world and the media, to polemics against governments of the Arab world. To him, Saddam Hussein was an American stooge set up to give Washington an excuse to intervene in the Middle East," (p.161).
While in Germany, Atta became more and more religious, especially after a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1995. A German terrorist of Syrian origin, Mohammed Haydar Zammar, claims he met Atta at this time and recruited him into al-Qaida.  (Zammar had al-Qaeda contacts going back a decade and knew Osama bin Laden personally.) Atta started attending an Islamic prayer group at the university, and is thought to have recruited for fundamentalist causes there. Other students remember him making strident anti-American and anti-Semitic statements. In a visit home to Egypt in 1998, his former friends noticed that he had become much more of a religious fundamentalist than he had been before.
On November 1, 1998, Atta moved into an apartment in Germany with the alleged terrorists Said Bahaji and Ramzi Binalshibh. The Hamburg cell was born at this apartment.  They met three or four times a week to discuss their anti-American feelings and to plot possible attacks. Many al-Qaeda members lived in this apartment at various times, including hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi, Zakariya Essabar, hijacker Waleed al-Shehri, and others. In all, 29 men listed the apartment as their home address while Atta's name was on the lease. The 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed visited the apartment repeatedly.
In late 1999, Atta, al-Shehhi, Jarrah, Bahaji, and Binalshibh decided to travel to Chechnya to fight against the Russians, but were convinced by Khalid al-Masri and Mohamedou Ould Slahi at the last minute to change their plans. They instead traveled to Afghanistan to meet with Osama bin Laden and train for terrorist attacks. In addition, Atta was trained in passport alteration. Immediately afterwards, Atta, al-Shehhi, and Jerrah reported their passports stolen, possibly to erase travel visas to Afghanistan.
Atta is reported as having lived in the Philippines at this time, but is also reported to have been living in Germany. He may have traveled often between locations, or there may be some confusion between two different people. Some have speculated that another person was using Atta's passport in the Philippines. 
Atta and the other hijackers began to work on appearing normal, shaving their beards and avoiding known radicals. Starting in 2000, the CIA placed Atta under surveillance in Germany. He was trailed by CIA agents, and was observed buying large quantities of chemicals.  When he entered the United States in June, the CIA says its surveillance of Atta ended. It is unclear whether the FBI monitored Atta's activities in the U.S.
In the United States
In March 2000, while still in Germany, Atta contacted 31 different U.S. flight schools to discuss training to fly planes. Upon entering the U.S. on June 3, Atta and other hijackers opened at least 35 bank accounts with fake social security numbers, but none of the accounts were checked by the banks. In July, Atta enrolled at Huffman Aviation International in Venice, Florida. He was always accompanied by Marwan al-Shehhi, a hijacker and pilot of United Airlines flight 175: Atta claimed to be of royal Saudi descent and presented al-Shehhi as his bodyguard. Both earned their instrument certificates from the FAA in November, and received their licenses the next month.
In December 2000, Atta went to the Miami area to practise on a Boeing 727 simulator. He returned to Germany to coordinate with Binalshib, returning to the U.S. on January 10, 2001. He traveled to Georgia for unknown reasons, and then moved into an apartment in Coral Springs, Florida. He assisted with the arrival of the "muscle" hijackers in April. In May, he began to take "surveillance flights", rehearsing how the 9/11 attacks would be carried out.
Atta left again in May 2001 for Spain to meet with Binalshibh for the last time. They coordinated the details of the attacks, but did not reach a firm agreement on all the targets or the date. They did decide that the World Trade Center would be hit, and they ruled out a strike on a nuclear plant. They also discussed the personal difficulties Atta was having with fellow hijacker Ziad Jarrah. Binalshibh was worried that Jarrah might even abandon the plan. The 9/11 Commission Report speculates that Zacarias Moussaoui was being trained as a possible replacement for Jarrah.
Atta, along with at least five other future hijackers, traveled to Las Vegas at least six times in the summer of 2001. They reportedly drank alcohol, gambled, and paid strippers to perform lap dances for them.  In the week before the attack, Atta was seen drinking and playing video games in a Florida sports bar. This would appear to contradict the view that he was an extremely religious man. He also apparently visited each of the hijacking teams to ensure that everything was in place for the hijackings.
Former television producer Daniel Hopsicker  has written a book about Atta's time in Florida prior to 9/11. Hopsicker talked to many individuals who knew Atta, including his girlfriend at the time, described as a stripper or a prostitute, who spoke of Atta's booze- and cocaine-fueled lifestyle.  The book also details alleged links between the owners of the Venice flight school, where three of the four terrorist pilots learned to fly, and international arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi who was involved in Iran-Contra and the BCCI scandal, and who Slate magazine investigated for fixing the 2000 election. 
Atta spent the day before the attack with another hijacker, Abdulaziz al-Omari, in South Portland and Scarborough, Maine. In the morning of September 11, they drove to the Portland International Jetport (PWM), flew on Colgan Air (U.S. Airways Express) to Logan International Airport in Boston and boarded American Airlines Flight 11. At 6:45 a.m., while at the Boston airport, Mohammed Atta took a call from Marwan al-Shehhi, another hijacker. This call was apparently to confirm the attacks were ready to begin.
At 7:59 a.m., the plane departed from Boston, carrying 81 passengers. At 8:24:38, a voice believed to be Atta's was heard by air traffic controllers, saying: "We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you will be OK. We are returning to the airport. Nobody move, everything will be OK. If you try to make any moves you'll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.."  Atta is believed to have been the pilot of the plane when it crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center 23 minutes later at 8:47 a.m.
Because the flight from Portland to Boston had been delayed, his bags did not make it onto Flight 11. When later found by U.S. authorities, they contained airline uniforms, flight manuals, and a four-page document in Arabic, copies of which were also found with the terrorists of the other three planes. It contains a list of instructions, such as "make an oath to die and renew your intentions," "you should feel complete tranquility, because the time between you and your marriage in heaven is very short," "check your weapon before you leave and long before you leave. You must make your knife sharp and you must not discomfort your animal during the slaughter." The writer of this document is now believed to have been Abdulaziz al-Omari, who went with Atta aboard Flight 11.
Initially, Mohammed Atta's identity was confused with that of a native Jordanian, Mahmoud Mahmoud Atta, who bombed a bus in 1986 on the Israel-controlled West Bank, killing one and severely injuring three. Mahmoud Mahmoud Atta, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was subsequently deported from Venezuela to the United States, extradited to Israel, tried and sentenced to life in prison. The Israeli supreme court later overturned his extradition and set him free; his whereabouts are unknown. He is 14 years older than Mohammed Atta. After the September 11 attacks, a general furor arose over the supposed failure of immigration authorities and the U.S. intelligence community to stop a known terrorist from entering the country under his true name. Eventually, The Boston Globe reported details from records at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals detailing the detention and subsequent extradition of Mahmoud Mahmoud Atta from the U.S.
It is believed that Atta was a ringleader among the hijackers. In a video released by the U.S. government, Osama bin Laden points to Atta as the leader of the attacks (see videos of bin Laden). Atta's father, a retired lawyer in Egypt, characterized this accusation in an interview as ridiculous, calling his son gentle and shy. 
External links and references
- Chapter 5 of the Final 9/11 Commission Report Mohammed Atta is described in section 5.3
- Investigation of the claim that Atta also blew up a bus in Israel, snopes.com
- Six Degrees of Mohamed Atta (Business2.com subscription required)
- Social Network Map of Mohamed Atta and 9-11 hijackers
- Prague Discounts an Iraqi Meeting, The New York Times, October 21, 2002 (requires login to read online)
- " 'We have planes. Stay quiet' - Then silence" by Michael Ellison, The Guardian, October 17, 2001
- The Complete 9/11 Timeline from the Center for Cooperative Research
- Description of Atta by a Hamburg neighbor
- Filipinos Recall Hijack Suspects Leading a High Life International Herald Tribune
- 1000 Days of Continuous Cover-Up Conspiracy theory averring that the discrepancies in descriptions of Atta point to a sweeping conspiracy
- Atta's Odyssey October 2001 biography of Atta printed in Time Magazine
- October 2001 interview with Dittmar Machule. Machule was Atta's thesis supervisor at the University of Hamburg-Harburg.
- Hopsicker, Daniel. Welcome to Terrorland: Mohammed Atta and the Venice Flying Circus. 
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