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
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 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.
The September 11 story began in the early 1990s: One by one, the killers -- educated, and by all appearances well-adjusted young men -- were sent to Germany to attend college. They met. They discovered their shared roots. They prayed. And slowly but surely evolved into radicals.
Attack on the World Trade Center's North Tower: "Death will seek you out, even in towers built up strong and high."
By November 1999, it was time for the talking to stop and the fighting to begin. One after another, they headed off to Afghanistan. The al-Qaida leaders soon saw that the "Germans" were more resolute and better educated than the other hotheads who showed up for training. Chalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of bin Laden's most trusted confidantes, was convinced they could execute the plot that al-Qaida's leadership had long been planning. Osama bin Laden took a personal interest, promising them martyrdom. Al-Qaida's top general Mohammed Atif would provide the details. They had been chosen for a "top-secret mission," bin Laden told them, and they needed to learn how to fly.
After Atta, Jarrah and Shehhi returned to Hamburg at the beginning of 2000, they turned Wilhelmstrasse 30 in Hamburg-Harburg into their new headquarters. This was the point when each of them knew their previous lives had come to an end. Atta sent e-mails to 31 flight schools in the United States: "We are a small group of young men from several Arab countries. For some time, we have been living and studying in Hamburg. We would like to start our training as professional pilots." And, four weeks later: "It would be helpful to know something about the length of the courses and the airplanes used."
But the pilot assassins Atta, Shehhi and Jarrah weren't the only ones ready and willing. Zakariya Essabar, another member of the cell, and Ramzi bin al-Shibh were burning for action too. But failed visa applications ruled them out.
So the group parted ways. Three made the journey across the Atlantic. The others stayed behind, covering their tracks and telling people that Atta was doing a doctorate, sometimes in the United States, sometimes in Malaysia. From their Hamburg base they dispatched money for the flying school fees.
In the months after the attack, people were able to shed light on the terror network. These were former associates of Atta's army, people who had prayed, cooked and eaten with him but who -- voluntarily or not -- had left the group because Atta questioned their reliability. People like the young German Shahid, who didn't want to reveal his identity because -- even months later -- he still feared for his life. The investigators' persistence has uncovered a disconcerting tale.
A tale of madness.
A tale of consummate perfection.
A tale of compelling simplicity.
It is a tale that unravels the mysteries nobody could fathom in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001: How could the attacks have happened? What kind of monsters could dream up such a plot? What turned the diligent students into killers?
It was Zammar -- effectively bin Laden's representative in Hamburg -- who gave the German authorities their best chance of preventing the attacks of Sept. 11.
If rage was the drug that the expatriates needed, Zammar was their supplier: "Fight! Allah demands nothing less of you!" he exhorted.
"Who invented the atomic bomb? The Americans," Zammar proclaimed. And: "Who are the worst terrorists? The so-called civilized world." Zammar -- who had come to Hamburg as a child from Aleppo, Syria - would linger on the fringes of mosques, sipping his tea. Anyone needing help would beg a few moments of his time. Zammar was the genuine article in the eyes of the others: he had already fought in the very same holy war that filled the young men's dreams.
Even before 1997, German domestic intelligence agents had been monitoring Zammar following a tip-off from the Turkish authorities. Known as "Brother Haydar" among his comrades, Zammar had attracted attention by making more than 40 flights to various war zones via Istanbul and Ankara. Back then, bin Laden's alQaida was not a priority for German intelligence, but Zammar was still worth a closer look. The security services showed black humor by designating the mission against the 300-pound, 6'5" giant as "Operation Delicate."
His telephone was bugged as early as 1999. And, from time to time, surveillance teams hung out at mosques in Hamburg. But the operation was shut down after a few months. The phone tapping had yielded little. Zammar remained the subject of suspicion, but the domestic intelligence service had more pressing concerns, closer to home. The government was alarmed at the spread of right-wing extremism. And who cared about bin Laden anyway, let alone Zammar and Atta?
After the towers of the World Trade Center in New York came crashing down and hundreds of German and American investigators had launched their hunt for evidence in Hamburg, the "Delicate" file was put back on the front burner. Neatly attached to it was the transcript of an intercepted telephone call which -- back then -- had seemed irrelevant.
The Hamburg Cell: A perfect division of labor
The caller wanted to know where Zammar was. He was told that Zammar wasn't there, but that -- in urgent cases -- he could be reached at another number in Hamburg: 76 75 18 30. He was with Mohammed, Ramzi and Said, the caller was told.
76 75 18 30 was the number at the shared apartment at Marienstrasse 54. Mohammed was Atta, Ramzi was bin al-Shibh, and Said was Bahaji. The four of them were meeting. And Zammar may even have been unleashing one of his occasional pep talks: "Do something!"
Sometimes they gathered for porkless barbecues at the lake in Hamburg's Bramfeld district. They would come armed with a soccer ball, the Koran, blankets and mineral water. Mohammed Atta was useless at soccer, but that didn't stop him trying. Play only stopped when it was time for prayer. Puzzled passersby would watch and sometimes express amusement.
When the momentum started to build, Marek, a young German like Shahid, was just 14. His head was full of girls at the time. And the Koran, with its demands for chastity.
At the end of 1996, Marek's mother, Christine, met a Jordanian at a snack bar on the Reeperbahn, Hamburg's red-light and entertainment district. At first she saw him as a one-night stand. But she told him she often spent her evenings at the "Pflaumenbaum" near the airport. One evening he showed up.
They married in March 1997. "I bear witness that there is no god but Allah," she said. From that point on, Christine watched her freedom melt away. It was a loss she gladly accepted: life can be easy with a husband who makes all the decisions, calls all the shots. First she joined the prayers. Then she wore a head scarf. And before she knew it, she was a captive of her marriage -- the target of curses and the victim of beatings.
Soon Marek's mother was observing Islamic rituals that made no sense to her. She washed five times a day. And she always entered the bathroom with her left foot first, mumbling an Arab prayer. Why? She has no answer.
It was the will of Allah.
Christine converted to Islam along with her daughter and the two youngest of her three sons. In the years that followed, she turned her apartment in Hamburg's Steilshoop neighborhood into a kind of mission for the city's Muslims. As a result, her son Marek, now known as Muhammed, soon became a committed member of the radical group.
Atta, the student at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg, the urban planner who hated Western architecture and despised everything the West had imported into the Middle East, became Marek's mentor. It went without saying that Atta was present during Marek's circumcision. Even a year after the attacks, when Marek -- clad in a sleeveless T-shirt -- was sitting in a café at Hamburg's Berliner Tor, chain-smoking and drinking cola, he still seemed slightly in awe.
"He was incredibly well respected," Marek said. "He was a poster-boy Muslim," said his mother, a redhead who subsequently reverted to wearing a necklace with a cross.
Even in those days, Atta referred to himself as al-Amir, the leader.
The terrorists' ex-apartment at Marienstrasse 54 in Hamburg: Eating, praying, talking
Once, he had a girlfriend -- a clandestine relationship, needless to say. But when the others saw he was withdrawing, they demanded the truth. Atta railed at the teen's "wicked thoughts." At home, the stepfather fumed. "He's had sex. I can smell it," he bellowed after Marek had come home late once. For hours on end, the man hammered away at him. Finally Marek called his girlfriend and told her it was over.
Atta himself rarely raised his voice; his rebukes were soft but sharp. "He thought infidels were the devil incarnate," Marek remembers.
Atta's boys met three or four times a week to pray. On Saturdays they studied the Koran at the al-Kuds Mosque, and on Sundays they congregated at 6 p.m. for Islamic instruction. One of them would give a talk on a topic like "Prayer," "Women in Islam" or "Fasting." Then, Atta would preach. "It was like being part of a sect," one early member had commented. "After a while, you only see the other members. If you do want out, you have no idea how to go about it."
The clique grew tighter; the world outside receded from view. They often ate together -- at Atta's place on Marienstrasse, next door at Said Bahaji's apartment or in Mounir al-Motassadeq's kitchen. Atta was a brilliant cook. Rice dishes were his specialty; they would eat right from the pot with their pita bread. Eating, praying, talking -- just a group of friends, albeit unusual friends.
After these meals the Germans usually stayed overnight in the apartment. Atta had the nicest room - with a desk, bed, files and a 386 computer. Bin al-Shibh and Shehhi had only mattresses, and tossed their dirty clothes onto a pile in the corner. The apartment "became a home to us all," Marek said later.
They would sit around on the floor, discussing the Zionist conspiracy and the conflicts in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Kosovo.
Atta was the "boss." His word carried weight, and his "orders were executed," one member said. He was charismatic, intense, cultivated and virtuous. He was a man of the mind, not the heart. Atta dressed like a Westerner, in gray or brown pants and a blue corduroy jacket, a black leather backpack often dangling from his shoulder. He bought his shirts and ties at a popular clothing store, C&A. Occasionally he would slip on the traditional caftan. And sometimes wear a ring with a religious symbol.
Spanish investigators suspected that Atta was homosexual. They speculated that his sexual orientation haunted him -- he couldn't live up to the image his father, a lawyer in Cairo, held of him. This might explain his desire to die a hero's death for his beliefs, they add. And why he invited men, preferably very young men, to his apartment.
In any case, the scrawny, uncoordinated and sickly Atta was rarely at ease. His eyes narrowed as he perused the world with lips pressed tightly together. Atta didn't cry. And Atta didn't laugh.
He was an ascetic terrorist.
He was consumed with hatred. Members of his Koran reading circle claimed he had a "national-socialist mindset." In his eyes, "the Jews" pulled all the strings in the media, the financial world and the political arena. And obviously the Jews were behind the Americans' operations in the Gulf, and the wars in the Balkans, Chechnya, and everywhere else. Who wanted to erase the architecture, culture and, ultimately, all of Islam in Egypt? The Jews, of course. And where was "the hub of world Jewry"? In Atta's eyes: New York City. Atta wanted to establish a theocracy that stretched from the Nile to the Euphrates, purged of Jews. And the war of liberation would have to begin in New York.
To pull it off, he needed to be committed and, of course, prepared to die. On April 11, 1996, Atta drew up his will. He directed that women "should not attend my funeral or visit my grave at any time." He also stipulated that gloves should be worn when washing his genitals. Was Atta just being careful? Or did he know -- five-and-a-half years before the attacks -- that he was soon to die a martyr?
At the end of 1998, Shehhi and bin al-Shibh dropped off the radar. Investigators were certain they were abroad linking up with other extremists. Atta obtained guides to making pipe and incendiary bombs, and the explosives they contained. Plus insurgency manuals such as The Terrorist's Handbook and The Anarchist's Cookbook.
Atta needed faith too. In January 1999, he established his own private training school, giving it a name that raised no eyebrows at all: "Islam AG," the Islam Study Group.
The dark wooden building with the white window frames was located on the northern perimeter of the campus, secluded behind high trees -- an unwanted eyesore amidst university's modern glass architecture and aubergine brickwork. Its rooms were assigned to student organizations. Room No. 10 on the right was next to the ham radio club. At the time, the off-white sign outside read "Islam AG/Prayer Room." A photo from Mecca was glued to the door.
An aging gray computer was set up by the door inside the 50-square-foot room. Shelves covered the wall to the left; the Arabic characters on the book bindings were engraved in gold. On the far right was the Koran. It was here that the assassins and their accomplices sat, here that they found solitude, here that they hatched their plot.
On Sept. 13, 2001, after learning where the 9/11 pilots had studied, Hendrich Quitmann -- who headed the student union at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg -- notified the German authorities: "I think we have something of interest to you." Quitmann had to place two more calls before the police arrived on the scene, he said.
Marek and his mother: Islamic prayers
Atta had begun playing with the idea of an Islam study group in 1996. In 1998, Bahaji wrote a letter to the university requesting a meeting room "like the one used by the Protestant students." He wrote that this would be seen as "a signal of tolerance" at the university. The administration rejected their application. As a result, Atta had to wait until Jan. 27, 1999, when he established the group at a meeting of the student union. Seven months later he graduated.
Bahaji gave a presentation on the group during freshmen orientation, former students have said. One of the newcomers asked: "So just what do you do? Fundamentalism?" "Of course!" Bahaji answered with a smile. "Drop by sometime. We don't just make bombs here!"
One year after 9/11, the last vestiges of Islam AG were still in the storeroom, stacked in six boxes alongside crates of orange juice left over from a student party.
The boxes held gold-engraved translations of the Koran -- in Turkish, German, French and Albanian. A brochure about Islam in Poland, a tattered train timetable, and a ticket for the Dortmund-Hamburg train leaving at 8:24 p.m. on Sept. 5, six days before the attacks.
There were coffee-table books featuring the sights of Barcelona and aerial views of romantic Germany. For tourists? Or for terrorists? There were also two prayer rugs and documents from Hamburg's Airbus plant: "5. 2. Airborne Auxiliary Power APU ATA 49." Did they belong to Jarrah, the aircraft engineer? There were even papers showing that Atta had considered buying a professional cassette copying machine for 5,000 deutschmarks as early as 1996.
But above all there were religious books that cast light on the thoughts and fantasies of this motley crew, on their world so filled with paranoia, and on their strange cocktail of persecution complexes and megalomania, some sounding politicized, others simply naïve. The works in Mohammed Atta's propaganda library came from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, South Africa, Egypt and the Philippines.
Some publications bear the stamp of the Saudi Embassy in Germany. These include a book on freemasonry providing "scientific" proof that the letters of the word 'Zion' appear on the U.S. dollar bill. This, it argues, reflects the intention "to establish a dictatorship, a world government along the lines of the United Nations." "Zionist" freemasonry seeks to efface "dignity, honor, truth and morality," and "generally strives to destroy all formal religions, most notably Islam."
The library was open to members of Islam AG and any other interested students. The records show that Mohammed Atta borrowed his last book on April 20, 2000. Many of the volumes evidently belonged to bin al-Shibh, and either bore his signature or a dedication addressed to him. One of these wished the "ambitious young man" every success; another expressed gratification that bin al-Shibh had become friends with the "good young Muslims in the diaspora."
The cassettes came from Saudi Arabia: Friday sermons, hate songs and reports on fatwas. Bursts of machine-gun fire punctuate the verses from the Koran. The battle for Palestine is a recurring theme. "Every free Muslim must join the jihad," the preacher rages. "The use of weapons is the only logical consequence. In my experience, bloodshed is the only guarantee of peace."
Another tape, another text: "Praise be to the Mujahideen! May God kill the Jews and their supporters. May God cleanse Jerusalem of them. May God make widows of their wives and orphans of their children!" an imam exhorts during his Friday sermon. Verbal adrenaline in support of the call to arms.
The group's members took a particular interest in jihad. A scholar named Mohammed Nassir al-Din al-Albani argued that holy war was a duty, calling for it to be waged under the command of a sultan, i.e. using group strategies and tactics because individual actions have little effect. In his eyes, this was a battle of the good, of the very few real people, against the "offspring of apes and pigs."
Students using the neighboring rooms -- such as those in the foreign students association -- described the Islam AG as a taciturn organization. You would only meet them on their way to the washbasins in their flip-flops -- to cleanse their feet before prayer. Islam AG had a core membership of about five, and some 20 members in all, the students recalled.
To help members resist the big-city temptations, Atta's network printed several documents for distribution. The draconian guidelines left no room for discussion. Anyone failing to pray or only praying sporadically was deemed to have "fallen by the wayside" and "had to be killed." Another document underscores that this is a fatwa. The failure to pray is punishable by God no less than 15 times: six times during the person's lifetime, three times during an excruciating death, three times in the grave and three times on Judgment Day.
Television -- obviously another Jewish product -- was "the work of the devil." With its "shameless songs, reprehensible series and perverse movies," it spawned "iniquity."
How did someone like Said Bahaji cope with this? With a Moroccan father and German mother, he was forced to commute between two civilizations. He loved the Formula One circuit, but couldn't watch the races because TV was the instrument of Satan. The answer was simple: You were either for Atta or against him. Bahaji was for him.
Music was equally heinous. "The devil and his army of Jews and Christians" could call upon "hordes of singers" equipped with money and wine who were waging propaganda crusades against Islam.
And this particular folder also contained a directive banning participation in "festivals of the infidel." During such periods, it said, Muslims were not allowed to offer gifts or eat with the unbelievers, least of all at Christmas and on New Year's Eve: "On these days, Muslims should do nothing out of the ordinary, but treat them like any other day, as though the Christians weren't celebrating."
Meaning nothing to the majority of Muslims, these rules governed a parallel universe located in the very heart of Germany. Most are bizarre, and some incredibly stupid.
Prohibited: plucking your eyebrows. Reason: "The prophet cursed both the woman who does it and the woman who has it done for her." Prohibited: wigs. Reason: Please see above. Permitted: hair coloring. Reason: "Jews and Christians don't dye their hair."
In this way, Atta's world view separated everything into "halal" (permitted) and "haram" (forbidden). Producing and publishing provocative movie posters, or even glancing at them, was haram. Life insurance was generally haram, as was the name "Israel" instead of the approved "Palestine."
Masturbation was haram. In most cases. There were exceptions for men who couldn't fight the urge any more. And if a man felt he would commit adultery if he didn't masturbate, it was absolutely halal. Although fasting was still the preferred remedy.
One of Atta's soldiers left a bookmark in the page that allows a man to see his future wife before marriage. It also spells out the type of sex that is permitted: It doesn't matter "who is on top, as long as it is vaginal intercourse."
Room No. 10 also contained lists of foodstuffs, so that anyone could check if cookies contained gelatin, emulsifiers or anything else that might have originated from pigs. The pig, according to one of the holy books, is "lazy by nature" and indulges "in excessive sex," and might therefore infect consumers with similar characteristics. "Are you going to take God's advice or do you want to wait until you fall sick?" the author asks. Pork, he adds, transmits tuberculosis, contains unhealthful fat and causes acne. He attributes poor health among the Chinese to their affinity for pork.
Details of Islamic centers from Munich and Riyadh to Leicester, England, were scribbled on scraps of paper. There were notes on the meetings of a Muslim youth group offering trips to Islamabad, Pakistan. The investigators also overlooked a white Arabic tome with gold lettering on its cover. The name "Ziad" was inscribed in pencil on the first page, as though it were a school book. The title: The Global Conspiracy. The author is one Abdullah Azzam who, having been assassinated in Pakistan in 1989, is considered a martyr. His work contains sermons, lessons and talks on the subject of jihad. The index includes references to Azzam Centers in Peshawar, Pakistan, in Malaysia and in Australia. Azzam writes that jihad must be "continued at all costs."
He noted that every Arab country has military service, but that "God's army" was more important and that everyone should serve in it. Muslims should obey God's orders rather than those of political leaders, he argued.
"Jihad takes precedence over all other religious acts, even prayer," he added. And for those readers failing to grasp his meaning: "Jihad means killing." And what did this teach Jarrah, who had been tempted by a Western lifestyle until the very end?
He learned this: "One way, after studying for four years for your degree, you can get a job paying 2,000 dirham. The other way, you get a certificate granting you entry into paradise, which is as big as the heavens and earth together. One way, you work for 20 years, save a pittance and marry some woman. The other, you marry 72 virgins. One way, you get a two-room apartment. The other, you are given palaces."
Azzam's books were probably the three most influential sources of inspiration to Islam AG. In them, we read: "Osama bin Laden has stated: For every Arab who wants to join the jihad, I will pay for his ticket and for his whole family's passage." At issue were the "Jewish octopus," and the German and French doctors who were allegedly removing women's uteruses in Afghanistan "to prevent them from bearing more children."
The effect of this propaganda was patent. The group didn't need commanding officers, drugs or brainwashing. It fired itself up. And when reality clashed with the 9/11 attackers' distorted perception of the world, it was seen as subterfuge by the enemy. Aren't there nice people in the West too? A trick, a dirty trick! There was just one way to counter the coldness and brutal domination of the West, they concluded. And those who no longer set any stock in their own survival are capable of hurting the West.
The group cut itself off from society. Shehhi renounced all luxury, grew a beard and donned Afghan robes. Essabar sold his television and video recorder. Said Bahaji's sister urged one of his teachers to talk to her brother about his increasingly radical views. And Jarrah, who so loved to drink and party, decided it would be an honor to die for Allah. He too stopped shaving and began eating only with his fingers.
At the end of his book, Azzam wrote: "We're ready to fight America, just as we fought Russia. We will attain one of our two goals: a martyr's death or victory." An address followed as a postscript: "P.O. Box 1395, Peshawar, Pakistan." Ziad Jarrah may have bought the book during his trip to the country.
In mid-August 2001, the young German Shahid had his final encounter with an officer of Atta's army. Ramzi bin al-Shibh ran into him before he went underground in Spain, four weeks before the attacks. Bin al-Shibh had put on a few pounds and was dressed like a Westerner, his white shirt tucked into gray pants. He was fumbling around with two cell phones. They shared a meal at the "Hähnchenland Lades" snack bar. When bin al-Shibh noticed he had left one of his phones there, he ran back panic-stricken.
Bin al-Shibh was the No. 2 in Atta's army. He had a sense of humor and a passion for life. But he would turn strangely serious anytime Atta was around. The Yemeni bin al-Shibh had four U.S. visa applications turned down ("Please send me the visa to this address: c/o Ahmed Al Shibh, P.O. Box 10784, Sana'a, Yemen, quickly as you can"), preventing him from piloting one of the planes. He was chosen as the terrorists' coordinator and money man by al Qaeda's leadership. On September 25, 2000, for instance, he deposited 9,629 deutschmarks to a Hamburg account, "for private use." The next day, Shehhi withdrew $4,118.13 in Sarasota, Florida.
After the others had left Europe, bin al-Shibh and Mohammed Haydar Zammar recruited new fighters for the Afghan camps. The last two volunteers headed to Afghanistan on Sept. 10, 2001.
Bin al-Shibh, who has since been arrested and imprisoned at an unknown location by the Americans, was more personable and more popular among the group than Atta, and the perfect recruiting agent. He maintained a network of contacts in Berlin, Munich, Bonn and Frankfurt am Main, and gave talks in Hamburg mosques.
Bin al-Shibh was responsible for making the group's travel arrangements. He was the only one who had come to Germany illegally. He managed to stay by submitting forged -- but deceptively realistic -- enrollment papers from Hamburg University to the city authorities.
The third man in the cell was Marwan al-Shehhi, who was born in Ras al-Cheima in the United Arab Emirates. He was effectively Atta's adjutant and court jester. Shortly before Christmas 1999, al-Shehhi terminated his cell phone contract: "I wish to cancel as I am planning to leave the country. I apologize for any inconvenience."
In the spring of 2000 he had returned from Afghanistan and was due to leave for the United States. During a conversation with a librarian he made a sinister prediction: "Thousands will die. You will all remember me." He reportedly even mentioned the World Trade Center. And he made sure that the Hamburg apartments were spic and span when they moved out, and that any incriminating evidence had been destroyed. Even the bathroom light bulbs were removed. These tasks were delegated to his friend al-Motassadeq, who may have been the cell's No. 4.
Said Bahaji, No. 5, handled the administrative chores. Bahaji, who had been raised in northern Germany, was streetwise in the country that remained so alien to Atta. Bahaji terminated all the cell phone contracts and canceled the leases. He created folders for the others on his hard drive: Atta was allocated the subfolder "My Documents/Brother/Amir."
When Atta wasn't around, Bahaji took over the teaching. He urged the group never to drink cola or smoke Marlboros. And once he said it was his duty to convert non-believers, if necessary by means of violence, even murder. One of the doubters in Atta's army objected that no son of God should kill another son of God. Bahaji replied that anyone who wasn't a Muslim wasn't a son of God.
It was Marek's mother who saved her son from the terror network. The beatings had grown more and more frequent; she was addicted to opiates. It wasn't until she found herself at the airport one day with her children, hoping to escape to somewhere, anywhere, that she realized running away was not the answer. She separated from her husband. During her five-week drug rehabilitation, medical staff kept the ranting Jordanian at bay.
It was over. From one day to the next, Marek's mother had rescued her two sons from Atta's clutches.
When the family saw the pictures of the attackers on television after 9/11, Marek was short on words. "Lucked out this time," was all he said.
KLAUS BRINKBÄUMER, DOMINIK CZIESCHE, GEORG MASCOLO, CORDULA MEYER, ANDREAS ULRICH
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2006
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with permission