Mohammed Atta was the ringleader of the nineteen hijackers responsible for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania. An al Qaeda operative, Atta was one of the five hijackers aboard American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane that crashed into the World Trade Center. It is believed that Atta was the person who actually commandeered the cockpit.
Atta was born on September 1, 1968 in Kafr el-Sheikh, in northern Egypt. The son of Mohomed el-Amir Awad al-Sayed Atta, a civil law attorney, and Bouthayna Mohamed Mustapha Sheraqi, Atta was raised in an upper-class family that was, by most accounts, reclusive and strict. He had two sisters, Mona and Azza.
Well-educated in his youth, Atta began his higher education in 1985 at Cairo University, where he enrolled in the Engineering Department. He also studied English at the American University in Cairo. During his college years, he was exposed to, and was heavily influenced by, the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Atta graduated with a degree in architecture in 1990 and thereafter moved to Germany, where he studied urban planning at the Technical University of Hamburg from 1993 to 1999. While in Germany, Atta became particularly disenchanted with modern urban architecture, finding the skyscrapers and high-rise dwellings, which now dotted the Egyptian landscape and the Middle East at large, to be unattractive, impersonal, and at odds with the values and ideals of Islam. Atta was further angered that his family relocated into such a building in 1990. According to Newsweek columnist Evan Thomas, Atta viewed the building as a “shabby symbol of Egypt’s haphazard attempts to modernize and its shameless embrace of the West.”
The 9/11 Commission Report notes that while in Germany, Atta became increasingly vocal about his anti-Western beliefs. “In his interactions with other students,” the Report states, “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.”
Also while in Germany, Atta began worshiping at the Al-Quds Mosque, where he taught some classes and supervised a prayer group. Here he is believed to have met 9/11 co-conspirators Mounir el-Motassadeq and Ramzi Binalshibh, as well as al Qaeda recruiter Mohammed Haydar Zammar. By 1998, Atta had secured an apartment in Wilhelmsburg, Germany, which was frequented by 9/11 highjackers Marwan al-Shehhi and Waleed al-Shehri, and by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
German officials have evidence that Atta began training at al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in 1999 and 2000. By the beginning of 2000, the 9/11 plan was fully developed, and Atta began looking into flight training schools in the United States. He sent e-mails to 50-plus schools, including one to the Academy of Lakeland in Florida, which read:
“Dear sir, we are a small group of young men from different Arab countries. Now we are living in Germany since a while for study purposes. We would like to start training for the career of airline professional pilots. In this field we haven’t yet any knowledge but we are ready to undergo an intensive training program (up to ATP and eventually higher).”
In May of 2000, Atta was granted a five-year visa from the U.S. embassy in Berlin. In July, he enrolled at Huffman Aviation International in Venice, Florida, and five months later he moved to the Miami area to practice his piloting skills on a Boeing 727 flight simulator. In the summer of 2001, Atta flew to Madrid, Spain, where he met with other al Qaeda operatives to go over some final details regarding the forthcoming attack. Here, Atta was told by Ramzi Binalshibh that Osama bin Laden wanted the mission to be carried out as soon as possible.
On September 11, 2001, Atta and his accomplices boarded American Airlines Flight 11 at Boston’s Logan International Airport. Atta’s baggage, which never made it onto Flight 11, was later found by U.S. authorities. It contained airline uniforms, flight manuals, and a four-page Arabic document with 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”; and “you must make your knife sharp and you must not discomfort your animal during the slaughter.” Copies of this same document were also found among the belongings of the terrorists who had hijacked the other three planes that day.
At 7:59 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 departed the airport carrying 81 passengers. At 8:24 a.m., a voice believed to be Atta’s was intercepted by air traffic controllers, saying: “We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you will be okay. We are returning to the airport. Nobody move, everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet….”
At 8:46 a.m., Atta crashed Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing himself and all others aboard.
Three months later, on December 9, 2001, U.S. military forces in Jalalabad, Afghanistan uncovered a videotape on which Osama bin Laden can be heard saying, “We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy, who would be killed based on the position of the tower … Muhammad [Atta] … was in charge of the group.”