Hijacker Shuttled in and out of U.S. on Visas issued by Consulates


PARIS -- Mohamed Atta, a student of urban planning, militant Muslim and suicidal pilot, was a leader of his hijacking cell and shuttled among cities in the United States and abroad, offering investigators a trail that could lead to key managers of the conspiracy to attack America, according to records reviewed Saturday by The Times.

He traveled into the United States from countries such as Germany and Spain, which have many active terrorist cells. In the months before the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he made two trips from Miami to Spain, the records showed.

Atta's journeys fit a pattern taught by trainers for Osama bin Laden, the fugitive who runs a terrorist network from Afghanistan. The trainers teach followers to communicate instructions in person and to avoid telephones or other means subject to electronic surveillance.

Although the reasons for Atta's trips are unclear, tracing his journeys could lead investigators to middle-level handlers directing what American officials describe as isolated cells of terrorists who infiltrated the United States.

They commandeered airliners Tuesday and piloted them into the Pentagon and the trade center in the worst terrorist attack in American history.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Bin Laden is the prime suspect. U.S. and foreign counter-terrorism specialists evaluating last week's events point to disturbing developments in the Bin Laden organization: The complexity of its structure has increased. The significance of its targets has grown. Perhaps most disturbing, its operations have become more sophisticated and its operatives more skilled.

These experts fear that the logical next step is chemical, biological or nuclear terrorism. Intelligence sources said U.S. reconnaissance satellites recently spotted numerous dead animals in fields near one Bin Laden camp, suggesting that the testing of chemical weapons may already be underway.

Atta, 33, traveled on an Egyptian passport and said his family lived in Cairo. But when he registered as a student at the Technical University in Hamburg, Germany, he said he was from the United Arab Emirates.

While in Hamburg, he studied urban planning, reportedly co-founded an Islamic prayer group and shared an apartment with a cousin and another man who would become hijackers in his terrorist cell, as well as with others linked to the Bin Laden network.

Atta, older and better educated than other members of his cell, was responsible for paying the rent on the Hamburg apartment and used his credit card to lease cars for himself and at least one other hijacker in his cell.

A Frequent Visitor to Syria

Before coming to the United States, he visited Syria, long regarded by the United States as a promoter of international terrorism. It was one of many trips.

He obtained a visa at the U.S. Consulate in Berlin on May 18, 2000, and came to Newark, N.J., on June 3 on a flight from Prague. He was admitted to the United States under a temporary visitor's visa good for six months. On immigration documents, he listed his address as the Lexington Hotel in New York City.

Officials at the hotel said they have no evidence that Atta ever checked in.

He overstayed his visa by more than 30 days. Then, the records show, Atta began an array of trips that brought him to nations with terrorist cells where face-to-face conversations could frustrate the eavesdropping capability of American electronic surveillance.

On Jan. 4, 2001, he flew to Madrid from Miami.

Nearly a week later, he returned to Miami from Madrid aboard an American Airlines flight. Despite previously overstaying his visa, usually a cause for scrutiny by immigration officials, Atta was readmitted to the United States for six months.

On his entry documents, he listed two addresses in Florida: Coral Springs and Nokomis.

He and Marwan Al-Shehhi, his cousin and fellow hijacker, moved between the two cities while they attended Huffman Aviation school for several months in nearby Venice.

On July 7, just two months before the attack on the trade center and the Pentagon, Atta left Miami again, once more on a trip that took him to Spain.

He returned to the United States on July 19, flying into Atlanta aboard Delta Airlines. On his entry papers, he listed an address in Del Ray Beach, Fla. His visa was extended to Nov. 12.

On Aug. 6, he started leasing automobiles from Warrick's, a car rental agency in Pompano Beach, Fla. He presented his Visa credit card. His first rental was a 1995 white Ford Escort that he kept for a week and drove 254 miles.

On Aug. 15, he rented a blue 1996 Chevrolet Corsica. He brought it back Sept. 5 after driving it 1,915 miles. He extended the rental until Sept. 9, when Al-Shehhi brought it back with an additional 1,035 miles on it.

Atta left a rental car in Boston when he boarded American Flight 11, a Boeing 767, bound for Los Angeles. He and his fellow hijackers crashed it into the north tower of the trade center.

Al-Shehhi boarded United Airlines Flight 175, also a Boeing 767. He and his fellow hijackers flew it into the south tower.

Atta's conduct is consistent with the training terrorist Ahmed Ressam described when he testified recently as a government witness after being sentenced to more than 140 years in prison for his involvement in a failed plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. While at one of Bin Laden's Afghan camps, Ressam said, he was drilled to preserve secrets.

"When you work in a group, each person knows only what he is supposed to do--not more--to preserve your secrets," he said. "Avoid the places that are suspicious or will bring suspicion upon you."

Ressam described how he was asked by Abu Zubeida, one of Bin Laden's top Algerian-born operatives, to send back to Pakistan stolen Canadian passports "to give to other people who come to carry out operations in the U.S."

Bin Laden's organization--called Al Qaeda (The Base)--has become global in its reach, multinational in its makeup and decentralized in its structure, experts said.

Bin Laden's "network is unprecedented," said Rohan Gunaratna, a senior research associate at the Center for the Study of Terrorism at Scotland's University of St. Andrews. "We've never seen a network like that before. It's essentially a flat network. All those we have fought before have been hierarchical and vertical. But horizontal networks have a very high capacity for regeneration and for linking up with other organizations."

Atta's cell was a small, tight-knit group that had little contact with outsiders. This presents vexing difficulties for law enforcement and intelligence agencies, according to Jean Francois Daguzan, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris and an advisor on counter-terrorism to the French defense and interior ministries.

"The most difficult thing [for law enforcement] is to infiltrate networks composed of very few people which are very mobile," Daguzan said. "It's even more difficult to look at groups of three or four when they cross the border from Belgium, Germany or Sweden."

According to Daguzan, Western democracies with a traditional respect for individual privacy, particularly those with liberal travel, asylum and immigration policies, have become both havens and targets for Bin Laden's associates. They "understand very well that they can use the Western values to organize themselves," the French analyst said.

Thus, despite U.S. pressure on Bin Laden since his followers bombed two American embassies in east Africa in 1998, his network "was able to strike at the heart of America," Gunaratna said, because its flexibility allows it to quickly create cells capable of "conducting long-range reconnaissance and terrorist attacks."

"The global reach of the terrorist groups has increased despite global cooperation" against them, he said.

'A Conglomerate of Organizations'

According to Gunaratna, Al Qaeda itself is like the apex of a pyramid atop "a horizontal cell structure that stretches for miles and miles. It can recruit rapidly in London, Canada and the immigrant communities in Europe."

If authorities apprehend the leader of one cell, Gunaratna said, they may "weaken an Egyptian component. If they infiltrate the Algerians, the Egyptians will continue to work, and the Saudi part will continue to work. It's a conglomerate of organizations."

According to European and U.S. sources, Bin Laden has been planting highly compartmentalized, independently operating cells in the United States since at least 1992. "They come and form, mount reconnaissance and disappear," according to the Scotland-based scholar. "A second cell will come, get a safe house, vehicles and weapons. A third cell comes and carries out the attack."

"The U.S. intelligence community has failed not only to infiltrate the Al Qaeda parent organization in Afghanistan, but they have failed to infiltrate the Al Qaeda operational network in the continental United States. That is inexcusable," Gunaratna said. "If you can't infiltrate the network in your own country, you can't fight terrorism."

Tuesday's assault was "the classic Al Qaeda operational scheme," Gunaratna said. So too, he said, was the escalation it reflected in terrorist technology.

"They come and form, mount reconnaissance and disappear," according to the scholar. "A second cell will come, get a safe house, vehicles and weapons. A third cell comes and carries out the attack."

The two fully fueled jets struck the World Trade Center with the explosive force of a tactical nuclear weapon. "He'll want his next attack to be bigger," Gunaratna said, "to incrementally increase his operations to biological and chemical weapons."

Numerous terrorist manuals seized from Bin Laden's associates by European authorities since the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 specialize in the methods of killings and destruction, sometimes grasping at justifications from Muslim holy books. One of the manuals seized in Europe is 8,000 pages, and a recent arrest in Britain yielded a 10-volume "encyclopedia" of lessons learned from the Afghan war. A manual that fell into the hands of Belgian police contained a chapter titled "How to Kill." Along with instructions for explosives, the chapter contained formulas for biological toxins, poisonous gases and drugs.

Intelligence sources said Bin Laden's Darunta Camp near Jallalabad, Afghanistan, specializes in training recruits in how to manufacture such substances.

One of those recruits was Ressam, who testified in court that he and others were taught how to use cyanide, including how to feed it into air ducts of buildings to kill large numbers of people.

Ressam's information has helped U.S. and allied intelligence agencies flesh out their portrait of one of the networks that make up Al Qaeda, along with prominent roles by Egyptians, Saudis and Yemenis.

Nationality notwithstanding, counter-terrorism experts say that Islamic extremists who have rallied to Bin Laden share a common belief that the United States is Islam's "greatest enemy"--and a common objective: to kill as many people as possible for the greatest media impact.

Oliver Roy, a French scholar of modern Islamic politics and a consultant to France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, argues that a critical part of Bin Laden's attraction to young Islamic fundamentalists is the fact that he stands up to the West.

"Osama bin Laden is not a nationalist," Roy said. "He fights at the level of Umma," the worldwide community of the Islamic faithful. "Within the Umma, there are potentially tens of thousands of recruits--transnational fundamentalists who believe they have been betrayed by Arab governments, Christians, Jews and Communists.

"Osama bin Laden is a mystic," Roy said. "He believes the Muslim people must awaken and revolt everywhere or else they don't deserve the name of Muslims. Therefore, it's better to die and go to paradise."

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Times staff writers Josh Meyer, Richard E. Meyer, Tim Rutten and Evan Halper, and researcher Nona Yates contributed to this story.

September 16, 2001

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times