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September 11, 2001 - Five Years Later: Atta's Army

What motivated the suicide attackers of September 11? How did their group function? Who pulled the strings? Police records, accounts from onetime associates and numerous documents shed light on the inner workings of the Hamburg-based al-Qaida cell.

From now on every second would count. The moment of truth had arrived, the point of no return when the select few, the willing and able, would be anointed -- and the weak and thus dangerous discharged. It was the end of 1999.

Atta the terrorist: He saw unbelievers as the embodiment of evil
AP

Atta the terrorist: He saw unbelievers as the embodiment of evil

With impeccable timing, the young German convert Shahid, Mohammed Atta's pride and joy, was grousing. Why did they have to keep studying the same passages from the Koran? And what, he asked, could they do to stop the Americans anyway? "There is something. There are ways," Atta said. "The United States isn't completely invulnerable."

But the 18-year-old was insistent: he was already a high school senior, he said, and had never even set foot in the redlight district. As far as girls were concerned, he hadn't a clue.

Girls?

Girls were almost as bad as Jews. Girls were forbidden fruit, Atta replied, instructing him to forget about nights on the town. Atta reminded the doubting teen that 70 virgins and 70 palaces awaited him in paradise. The virgins would sweeten life with honey in his heavenly home.

"I don't like honey," Shahid said.

That was a telltale sign for Mohammed Atta. Shahid didn't like honey. In Atta's eyes, this betrayed his lack of commitment, his unwillingness to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Atta and his co-conspirators, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, wanted a straight answer. Was the young German a Muslim or an infidel? But in reality their decision had already been made. From that day on, they retreated into their religious cocoons. From that day on, they were secretive and taciturn. From that day on, they spoke only Arabic when the doubting Shahid came into the kitchen. At the end of 1999, Shahid's time was up. The drill sergeants had tested the mettle of their recruits. Those not making the grade were unceremoniously drummed out.

Atta's army was marching off to fight a holy war, and the commander in chief needed martyrs, not quitters.

The madness that drove the Hamburg-based group of Arabs cost some 3,000 lives on September 11. Ten German nationals were thought to be among their victims. One died in a hospital. The remains of four others were identified only through DNA analysis. Nothing at all was found of the last five: their families were sent burial urns filled with dust from the World Trade Center.

In the months that followed, thousands of investigators from every corner of the world toiled nonstop to understand the largest and most devastating terrorist attack of all time.

Thanks to them, the events leading up to 9/11 have been reconstructed down to the smallest detail. How Atta organized his terror commandos. How the assassins thought, conspired, and ultimately executed their plans.

There are witnesses, people whose paths crossed with the terrorists, who came to know them close-up -- and broke their silence. People like the honey-hating Shahid. There is a video of a speech by Osama bin Laden - found on the computer of the Moroccan-German Said Bahaji, another suspected member of the cell. "Wherever you are, death will seek you out, even if you are in towers built up strong and high," a menacing bin Laden warns his enemies. And there are the letters, e-mails, documents and, above all, the archives of the Islam Study Group set up by Mohammed Atta at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg: a mountain of notes, tape recordings and propaganda. Taken together, the material reveals how model students metamorphosed into radicals, then bin Laden recruits and, finally, mass murderers.

Within days of the attack, investigators had pieced together much of the puzzle. They quickly determined that Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi had piloted the planes that rammed into the World Trade Center. They also concluded that Ziad Jarrah and his group had skyjacked the airliner that plunged into a Pennsylvanian field. And, after a few days, they felt confident that the group had formed -- and stoked its hatred -- in the northern German city of Hamburg.

This much established, the investigators set about pinpointing a motive and locating the masterminds who mentored their student henchmen.

Many thought the Egyptian Mohammed Atta and his cohorts were "trainee terrorists," dispatched to Europe by fanatics. But that theory was soon discounted; there was simply no evidence. The most spectacular terrorist attack of all time, it seems, was pulled off by a few young men who gradually developed an all-consuming hatred for the West long after they had made their home in Germany.

In the beginning they hit the books hard, evidently desperate to become part of a world they found so new and different. Yet as time passed, their hostility grew, and they became enemies of the very society they were living in.

Far from integrating, they distanced themselves from Germany and the Germans around them. Shehhi was particularly adept at straddling the two worlds. He lived off a stipend provided by the United Arab Emirates, 4,000 deutschmarks a month and an annual 10,000 deutschmark lump sum. Worth more than $100,000 over the five-year period, the money became a fund for all the would-be pilots. When he needed to travel to the embassy in Bonn, Shehhi rented a Mercedes. And when he opened an account at Dresdner Bank in August 1999, he took full advantage of the capitalist system. With standing orders and ATM withdrawals, he soon maxed out his overdraft limit.

At the same time he was walking around wearing a turban. And he refused to shake hands with female bank clerks, saying it was against his religion.

It was sheer coincidence that the events unfolded in Hamburg. They could have occurred anywhere in Germany, indeed anywhere in Europe -- given the right catalyst: a killer like Mohammed Atta.

He was the essential ingredient. It was Atta who decided to search out soul mates in a foreign world. He was the one who forged the group, inducted its members. He personally embraced the lifestyle that he demanded of others. Atta was the role model and the leader. And it was Atta who trimmed the group when necessary.

The 9/11 conspirators were a cult, and Mohammed Atta was their guru.

Mohammed Haydar Zammar, who has been held by Syria since the end of 2001, discovered Atta and his comrades, and helped them on their way. This was all in a day's work for the Syrian-born German: he had been shipping volunteers off to bin Laden's boot camps for years. "Don't forget to bring good shoes and warm clothes," he would remind the new troops.

Zammar, who reportedly took up arms himself in Afghanistan and the Balkans, numbered among al-Qaida's first generation in Europe. He laid out the welcome mat for the young radicals, the second generation. He laid the groundwork; he put his network at their service. But eventually the boys came of age, and Zammar was all but superfluous. There was no need for a father figure in Atta's gang of assassins.

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