A Careful Sequence of Mundane Dealings Sows a Day of Bloody Terror for Hijackers

The Wall Street Journal
October 16, 2001

 

On June 11, Americans were finally turning the page on the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. That morning, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was executed. Only hours later, Florida real-estate agent Gloria Irish was helping Marwan al-Shehhi and Hamza Alghamdi scout apartments.

Mr. al-Shehhi told Mrs. Irish he was visiting the U.S. for pilot training. He and his friend were looking for three-month rentals. She soon found a two-bedroom unit near a local gym, just as Mr. Alghamdi wanted. But to her embarrassment, the owner refused to rent it to him.

"I figured it was because of his first and last name," Mrs. Irish recalls. "I thought, this isn't any way to show people what Americans are like."

The embarrassment proved only temporary. Within a couple of days, she had found the two visitors apartments in separate Delray Beach country-club communities. The men secured the properties with $6,000 in cash and even walked Mrs. Irish to the bank to deposit it.

Those were just two of the countless transactions by which 19 men would turn the commonplace features of 21st century America into instruments of murder on a scale that would dwarf Mr. McVeigh's savagery. The hijackers preyed precisely on "what Americans are like": their welcoming borders, their ubiquitous technology, their thriving commerce, their culture of mobility. The hijackers came tantalizingly close on a few occasions to drawing the attention of law-enforcement agencies. But then they slipped through cracks in the system that seemed less obvious before Sept. 11.

They often displayed a conspicuous clumsiness. As student pilots, some of them struck instructors as hopelessly incompetent and obstinate. But in the face of obstacles, the plotters showed uncanny persistence. They moved on to other flight schools. They learned what they needed to know.

The hijackers often operated in complementary pairs: the jarring brusqueness of one canceled out by the affability of his partner. While apartment hunting, a glowering Mr. Alghamdi never spoke to Mrs. Irish, who concluded he was "a creep." The genial Mr. al-Shehhi apologized that his friend didn't speak English. "He was just the friendliest guy," Mrs. Irish says of Mr. al-Shehhi, who is believed to have piloted the plane that crashed into the World Trade Center's south tower. He would greet her, she remembers, with a big smile and a warm, "Good morning, Gloria."

ONE HIJACKER'S BEGINNINGS

As a boy, Mohamed Atta had a flair for English and chess. The frail, quiet son of a domineering Cairo lawyer traded letters with a pen pal in the U.S., a classmate recalls. Friends called him "Mr. Polite."

Professional achievement, not religion, was a defining theme in the relatively modern Atta family. Mohamed's father pushed him to match the attainments of his two older sisters, a physician and a professor of immunology. It wasn't enough that Mohamed earned an architecture degree from Cairo University and landed a job with a local engineering firm, the father, also named Mohamed, says today. He wanted his son to learn German -- "the language of engineers," as the elder Mr. Atta puts it -- and earn a doctorate abroad.

In 1992, the son arrived in the cold, rainy northern German port of Hamburg, where his father had decided he should study. He passed the entrance exam for the School of Applied Sciences but was told there wasn't room for him. This, he and his father concluded, was racism. The father wired money to cover the cost of a discrimination lawsuit. According to court records in Hamburg, the suit was eventually dropped, and Mr. Atta was admitted. But by that time, the embittered young man had enrolled instead at Hamburg-Harburg Technical University.

There, a former classmate, Volker Hauth, recalls Mr. Atta criticizing Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. More vehemently, he railed against the Egyptian government's oppression of fundamentalist Muslims. His country's "fat cats" were getting rich at the expense of the poor, he told his classmate. "This hurt Mohamed's sense of justice," recalls Mr. Hauth. Even opportunities for the educated Egyptian middle class were drying up in a gasping economy.

In contrast to his self-confident, often-angry views about politics, he was awkward around women, former classmates say. In 1994, he fell in love with a Palestinian woman, but his father says he discouraged his son's talk of marriage. It would be a distraction from his studies, the elder Mr. Atta told his son. The relationship collapsed, leaving the young man distraught, his father recalls. Later, Mohamed told friends the woman had been too modern for his taste.

In the mid-1990s, his involvement with Islam deepened, former classmates and his father remember. He grew a traditional beard. He interrupted his graduate studies in 1995 to make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

In 1996, at the age of 27, he made out a will, requesting a strict Muslim funeral. Women, especially pregnant women, and "unclean people" were to be excluded. Mourners were instructed not to cry. Five years later, the document would be found in luggage that never made it onto American Airlines Flight 11, which Mr. Atta is thought to have steered into the World Trade Center's north tower.

Classmates and his father agree that 1996 was a turning point for Mr. Atta. His grievances about his homeland, his heavy-handed father and his romantic failure may have reinforced the appeal of a militant strain of Islam that ascribed much of what was wrong in the Middle East to corrupt, authoritarian governments backed by the U.S.

Signaling his deepening devotion, Mr. Atta early in the year sought another pilgrimage to Mecca, this one to the Omrah shrine. Omrah has a reputation for drawing not only pious Muslims but also many militant extremists. On short notice, Mr. Atta implored his father for help with money and arrangements for the trip. By tapping an old client at the Saudi Embassy in Cairo, the elder Mr. Atta obtained travel documents permitting his son to visit in February, for the last 10 days of Ramadan. (The father says he doesn't believe his son participated in the Sept. 11 attack.)

The younger Mr. Atta didn't return to Hamburg for 15 months. At some point, a federal law-enforcement official says, he is thought to have visited Afghanistan to train at a bin Laden camp for terrorists. The FBI isn't saying what evidence it has of this visit. When Mr. Atta returned to Hamburg in 1998, two other suspected members of the Sept. 11 conspiracy -- Mr. al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah -- were also there.

Each of that pair had entered Germany two years earlier, ostensibly to attend college. Mr. al-Shehhi, then 20, was the son of a Muslim prayer leader in the United Arab Emirates. Mr. Jarrah was a 23-year-old born in Lebanon, who grew up dreaming of becoming a pilot.

Whatever brought them together, the three Middle Easterners began attending the same Hamburg mosque. So, too, did a Syrian-born trader, Mamoun Darkazanli, who was a business associate of a man indicted by the U.S. in 1998 because of his alleged role as Mr. bin Laden's finance boss. German police began watching Mr. Darkazanli and another of his friends, who was Mr. Atta's roommate in a Hamburg apartment where Mr. al-Shehhi would also come to live and Mr. Jarrah was often a visitor.

The probe, however, went nowhere. Police saw nothing suspicious in the students' behavior, nor in Mr. Darkazanli's. "We didn't know what we were looking at," says one German police investigator. He adds that police were hindered by German laws that allow surveillance of only those suspected terrorists planning an attack in Germany. Otherwise, wiretapping and other aggressive investigative action are off-limits.

In 1999, Messrs. Atta, al-Shehhi and Jarrah were joined many nights at the Hamburg apartment by four or five other men, neighbors say. Most of those in attendance wore beards and Middle Eastern robes. They left their shoes neatly lined up outside the door. On bank-transfer slips he used to pay rent, Mr. Atta each month wrote, "dar el anser," Arabic for "house of the followers."

Mr. Jarrah, for one, maintained at least one secular, personal interest outside the Hamburg circle. He spent time in Bochum, Germany, two hours away, where, according to his uncle, Jamal Jarrah, he shared an apartment with a Turkish girlfriend, Aysel Sengun. She didn't appear to be a strict Muslim, her former neighbors say. A medical student, Ms. Sengun had long dark hair and favored jeans and heels. She is now in a German witness-protection program.

In late 1999, Messrs. Atta, Jarrah and al-Shehhi prepared to move. Within a span of two months, each man separately reported his passport as lost and obtained a new one, German intelligence officials say. That would have allowed them to apply for U.S. visas without revealing past trips to countries that would raise suspicions, such as Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan.

In December, Mr. Jarrah told a friend he was leaving to fulfill a dream of studying in the U.S. "He thought America was great," recalls the friend, Michael Gotzman. Mr. Jarrah promised to keep in touch. But when his friend asked for a U.S. postal or e-mail address, Mr. Jarrah brushed him off.

ROOTS IN THE SOUTHWEST

It isn't clear yet whether the Hamburg trio came to the U.S. with a fully-formed plot or devised the hijacking scheme later. Some German federal investigators theorize that key members of the 19 knew the broad outline of the plan. These investigators point out that Mr. al-Shehhi took flight lessons in Bonn in 1999, perhaps in preparation for a hijacking. And at least one other eventual member of the suspected Sept. 11 team had been in the U.S. years earlier, eager to learn to fly airplanes.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, a wealthy young businessman named Abdul Hanjour began shuttling between Saudi Arabia and Arizona, where he exported luxury cars and cultivated a wide circle of friends. In 1990, his teenage brother came to visit.

Hani Hanjour, then 18, signed up for an eight-week course at the University of Arizona's Center for English as a Second Language. "He was very, very quiet, very shy and very religious," says Susan Khalil, a friend of Abdul Hanjour. "Hani seemed awkward socially ... a very meek, timid type of person."

He soon returned to the Middle East but in 1996 resurfaced in Ms. Khalil's life. Abdul Hanjour called from Saudi Arabia and asked Mrs. Khalil and her husband if Hani could come stay with them in Miramar, Fla., where they had relocated. "We said what any friend would say: 'Of course,' " Ms. Khalil recalls.

Hani had a goal now: to learn to fly. Ms. Khalil helped him fill out applications to flight schools. After a brief stop at a California pilot academy, he soon returned to Arizona to attend CRM Airline Training in the Phoenix area, according to CRM's president, Duncan K. M. Hastie.

He was reclusive, his English poor. As the months wore on, he didn't display much aptitude in the cockpit, Mr. Hastie says. But Mr. Hanjour didn't give up. By 1998, he had approached another Phoenix flight center, the Sawyer School of Aviation, former employees recall. Mr. Hanjour paid $300 to join the "Sim Club," providing him open access to Sawyer's flight simulator.

The following year, the Sim Club had another member: Lotfi Raissi. British prosecutors late last month accused Mr. Raissi, an Algerian, of having provided pilot training to four of the 19 hijackers. In addition to Mr. Hanjour, Ziad Jarrah also trained on Sawyer's simulator, says the school's former chief flight instructor Sylvia Stinson. She and the simulator's manager at the time, Wes Fults, say they recall Mr. Raissi teaching others, but they don't remember him with any of the 19.

At some point after his simulator work, Mr. Hanjour is believed to have spent time in San Diego, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Although the FBI hasn't been specific as to when he may have been in the area, investigators have linked his movements to those of two others who lived in the city and who would eventually join Mr. Hanjour on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon: Khalid al Midhar and Nawaf Alhazmi.

In December 1999, Mr. al Midhar, a Yemeni citizen, had been videotaped by Malaysian intelligence officials at a meeting with members of Mr. bin Laden's al Qaeda network in Kuala Lumpur, according to a senior U.S. official. Malaysia shared the surveillance tape with the U.S.

But it wasn't until after the October 2000 suicide-bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen that U.S. intelligence officials began to focus on the videotape, according to Vincent Cannistraro, a private-security consultant who headed counterterrorism efforts for the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980s and maintains contacts throughout the Middle East. Besides Mr. al Midhar, U.S. intelligence officials also were interested in Mr. Alhazmi, who may have been in Kuala Lumpur with Mr. al Midhar and was known to have traveled with him on at least one other occasion, Mr. Cannistraro says.

Ten months after the Cole attack, on Aug. 21, 2001, Messrs. al Midhar and Alhazmi were finally placed on a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service "watch list" designed to bar the entry of terrorists and criminals. By the time they were put on the watch list in August, both men had come to the U.S., arriving aboard the same flight into Los Angeles International Airport from Hong Kong on Jan. 15, 2000, according to a federal law-enforcement official. Mr. al Midhar later left and re-entered the U.S. in New York in July 2001.

The INS watch list has traditionally been used primarily at the U.S. border to block, detain or place under surveillance suspected terrorists or criminals. It typically hasn't been used to spark efforts to round up suspects who are already in the U.S.

Late last summer, when the INS determined from immigration records that Messrs. al Midhar and Alhazmi were already in the country, their names were disseminated to other U.S. agencies. But Jeff Thurman, an agent in the FBI's San Diego branch, says his office wasn't even informed of those watch-list names until after the Sept. 11 attacks.

An FBI official in Washington says the notice about Messrs. al Midhar and Alhazmi was sent to the FBI field offices in Los Angeles and New York. Messrs. Alhazmi and al Midhar, respectively, had indicated upon entering the country they would be staying separately in hotels in those cities, the FBI official says. Agents checked registries of every hotel in New York and Los Angeles, looking for the pair in the weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI official says. This official stresses that the bureau didn't realize at the time that it was looking for participants in an imminent mass-terror assault.

Had investigators started looking earlier and more broadly across the country, tracking down the two suspects might well have been possible. Mr. al Midhar was using a credit card in his own name. Mr. Alhazmi, a Saudi native, was listed in the 2000-01 San Diego phone book. They attended the city's largest mosque, the Islamic Center, in the middle-class Clairemont neighborhood.

Like Mr. Hanjour, they sought flight training. And they, too, were weak pilots. At Sorbi's Flying Club, they told employees they aimed to pilot Boeings. But they made it into the air only twice, in small single-engine planes, before instructor Richard Garza told them to give up.

They struck him, Mr. Garza recalls, as "two guys who had probably never opened up the hood of a car." At one point, when Mr. Alhazmi was practicing, Mr. Garza looked back in the plane to find Mr. al Midhar with his eyes shut, praying softly.

BANK ACCOUNTS, FLYING LESSONS

The Hanburg trio arrived in the U.S. within a month of each other, a federal law-enforcement official says. Mr. al-Shehhi flew into Newark on May 29, 2000. Mr. Atta followed on June 3. On his way over from Germany, he stopped off briefly in Prague and met with at least one Iraqi intelligence agent, says a Czech official familiar with intelligence matters. More isn't publicly known about that encounter. Mr. Jarrah arrived in Atlanta on a June 27 flight from Munich.

Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni citizen and one of Mr. Atta's Hamburg roommates, had wired $2,200 to a Florida flight-training school and tried to come as well. But in an illustration that immigration procedures can thwart suspected terrorists, Mr. Binalshibh was denied a U.S. visa, according to German federal investigators. The reason for the visa denial couldn't be determined, but German investigators had previously linked Mr. Binalshibh to the bin Laden network. In the days before Sept. 11, he left Germany for Pakistan, the investigators say.

During the 14 months after they arrived in the U.S., Messrs. Atta, al Shehhi and Jarrah lay the logistical foundation for an intricate conspiracy. Mr. Atta is believed to have held the most responsibility.

He oversaw arrangements for bank accounts and credit cards, cellphones, identification documents and frequent-flier memberships, according to U.S. investigators and various records. In the spring of 2000, Mr. Atta received $100,000 in wire transfers from a man in the United Arab Emirates who is believed to use the alias "Mustafa Ahmad" and to have arranged the financing for the conspiracy, according to people familiar with the investigation.

Transfers of that size don't necessarily have to be reported to the government by banks and, in and of themselves, wouldn't be considered suspicious by bankers or regulators, according to U.S. banking and regulatory officials. Additional transfers were made to the plotters from Middle Eastern banks during this period, according to people in the U.S. banking industry.

The hijackers, while adroit at times, also had moments of friction with Americans they met. While they tried to learn flying in Florida, Messrs. Atta and al-Shehhi rented a room with two twin beds and a bath at a modest home in the town of Venice. The two student pilots barely acknowledged their landlords, Drucilla Voss and her husband, Charles, a bookkeeper at the Huffman Aviation school, the Vosses say.

The pair were sloppy, leaving unmade beds and a lot of water on the bathroom floor. "We're not a bed-and-breakfast," Mr. Voss says. "My wife didn't appreciate it, and I didn't appreciate it." After one week, Mr. Voss told his renters to find another place to live.

In July, Messrs. Atta and al-Shehhi began a series of 200 lessons at Huffman Aviation that would cost some $20,000. Each time, they paid with a check drawn from a local SunTrust Bank branch, says Huffman owner Rudi Dekkers.

Neither man received high marks. That summer, they violated pilot guidelines by abandoning a small Piper Warrior airplane on a runway after it had stalled, Mr. Dekkers says. An instructor at another Florida flight school they attended, Jones Aviation, in Sarasota, asked them to leave after just three weeks, because of their poor attitude, says owner Gary Jones.

Flight-school operators generally say there wasn't anything in the behavior of the eventual hijackers that warranted reporting to authorities. Flight schools cater to a wide range of students, from those aspiring to careers as pilots to weekend fun-seekers. Foreign students are quite common, instructors say.

Messrs. Atta and al-Shehhi "were average students -- not bad, not good, just average," says Mr. Dekkers. "But they improved after the first month." Once they had completed their courses at his flight school, the pair took a standard oral and in-flight test from a Federal Aviation Administration-certified examiner on Dec. 21, 2000. They passed and obtained licenses. Mr. Dekkers adds: "If you come up to my store, and you pay for training, I'll train you. What can I do?"

Messrs. Hanjour and Jarrah also qualified for FAA licenses, according to Landings.com (www.landings.com), a Web site that gets data from the FAA and is considered authoritative.

In early 2001, Messrs. Atta and al-Shehhi separately traveled internationally. They returned to Germany in March and cleared out their old Hamburg apartment, German police say. In April, Mr. Atta met three Arabic-speaking men in Hamburg. Karl-Heinz Horst, a German taxi driver who recognized Mr. Atta's face from television reports after Sept. 11, says he had driven the three passengers about 400 miles, from Furth, in southern Germany, to Hamburg in the north. During the long ride, one of the passengers said in English that he was a war veteran from Afghanistan. Mr. Atta met the taxi in Hamburg and paid the $500 bill in cash, says Mr. Horst.

What Messrs. Atta and al-Shehhi were up to in Europe isn't publicly known. But by spring, the travelers were back in the U.S. to receive a wave of reinforcements.

Several of these additional members of the 19-man team arrived on U.S. visas obtained in Saudi Arabia. They came on flights originating from such cities as Zurich and London. All of them needed spending money, places to stay and forms of identification. Florida was the most common destination.

In April and May, at least nine bank accounts associated with the hijackers were opened with cash and travelers checks at SunTrust branches, according to people familiar with the situation. The amounts involved were relatively small and didn't cause bankers or regulators to raise any red flags. In July and August, Mr. Atta repeatedly visited the Shipping Post, a mom-and-pop mailing business in Punta Gorda, Fla., to obtain money orders in amounts of $100 to $200, according to the owner.

Mr. Atta, usually neat in pressed khakis and shirt, wasn't a people person. He sometimes scowled at motel and rental-car clerks. He often traveled with Mr. al-Shehhi and left the public-relations role to his chubby, sociable sidekick. Investigators speculate that the plotters moved around frequently to avoid attracting attention in any one spot.

Through the spring and summer, Mr. al-Shehhi made scores of cellphone calls to rental agents, motels, apartments, car-rental desks and the Palm Beach driver's-license office. On May 25 and 26, for instance, nearly 20 calls were placed from his phone to various real-estate owners and agents in and around Hollywood, Fla.

For all the mayhem they would later inflict, some of the men who came to the U.S. for the Sept. 11 plot were hardly robust or physically imposing. In Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Ahmed Alhaznawi joined Ziad Jarrah in the $200-a-week apartment Mr. Jarrah had rented from local resident Charles Lisa. Skinny and frail, Mr. Alhaznawi arrived with an infected gash on his left leg. Mr. Lisa recalls he directed the two men to nearby Holy Cross Hospital for treatment.

Many who encountered them now mourn their failure to discern hints of the crime-in-progress. Mr. Lisa says he checked himself into a hospital for several days in September after suffering loss of sleep and high blood pressure. "I still blame myself for not catching at least something that was suspicious," he says.

Like their counterparts in Germany and U.S. federal law enforcement, police in Florida had at least one fleeting opportunity to pick up a member of the Sept. 11 conspiracy. On April 26, in Tamarac, near Fort Lauderdale, Mr. Atta was stopped on the road by Broward County sheriff's deputies, who were randomly inspecting drivers' licenses and registration. At the wheel of a red 1986 Pontiac, he had no license and received a citation.

Mr. Atta obtained a Florida license a week later but failed to show up for a May 28 court appearance to resolve the citation. As is routine in such instances, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest. But as is also routine in most jurisdictions, there isn't any indication that police tried to find him to enforce the minor charge.

Groups of hijackers rendezvoused in several places, including Las Vegas last spring and summer, for what federal law-enforcement officials believe were planning sessions. They also met in cyberspace. Mr. al-Shehhi used a computer in the Delray Beach public library to go online, according to library employees. A senior FBI official says investigators have obtained hundreds of e-mails in English and Arabic, reflecting discussions of the planned Sept. 11 hijackings.

Some of the hijackers showed an appetite for Americana. During months spent in Paterson, N.J., Ahmed Alghamdi visited a small grocery store several times a day. Each time, says the grocer, Alfonso Then, the young man bought a half-dozen individually wrapped glazed doughnuts for 25 cents apiece.

For much of last summer, a group of four of the hijackers rented scooters by the hour from AAA Car Rental in Ft. Lauderdale. They killed time tooling up and down the city's famous beaches, much as countless college students do during Spring Break, according to the company's owners, who ask not to be identified. "For guys that hated America, they sure looked like they were having a great time here," says one owner. "They didn't seem to have a care in the world."

The men assumed to have steered the planes on Sept. 11 continued practicing their flying. In August, Messrs. Atta, al-Shehhi, Hanjour and Jarrah flew aircraft in Maryland, Florida and Georgia. On Aug. 19, an instructor at Palm Beach County Airport in Lantana heard Mr. Atta speaking in Arabic over the airplane's radio. The instructor, who speaks Arabic himself and asks to remain anonymous, believes Mr. Atta intended to turn on the craft's intercom to talk to his passenger. Instead, Mr. Atta keyed the plane's radio. He exclaimed, "God is Great!"

IDENTITIES AND PLANE TICKETS

As summer drew to a close, the conspirators moved toward their points of attack. Some who were bound for American Airlines Flight 77 shifted from California or New Jersey to within easy driving distance of the flight's point of origin, Washington's Dulles Airport.

One priority was obtaining local government-issued identification, which is least likely to draw attention from airlines. In the Washington area, the plotters tapped into the thriving false-documents market that serves conventional illegal immigrants.

On Aug. 1, according to the FBI, Messrs. Hanjour and al Midhar pulled a van into a 7-Eleven parking lot in suburban Falls Church, Va. There, they met Luis Martinez-Flores, himself an illegal immigrant from El Salvador.

In return for $100 in cash, withdrawn from an ATM by Mr. al Midhar, Mr. Martinez-Flores rode with the Middle Easterners to a nearby state-government office and signed forms attesting to their permanent residence in Virginia, according to the FBI. That is all that Virginia then required to obtain a state identification card.

Messrs. Hanjour and al Midhar were then able the very next day to sign attestation forms for fellow suspected hijackers Majed Moqed and Salem Alhazmi at another government office in Arlington, according to the FBI. Hijackers slated for other flights used the same method. Mr. Martinez-Flores faces federal charges of fraudulently helping several suspected hijackers obtain identification documents. An attorney representing Mr. Martinez-Flores notes that the government hasn't linked his client to the hijacking plot but otherwise declines to comment.

Next, there was a flurry of ticket purchasing, some by means of frequent-flier accounts Mr. Atta and other hijackers set up in late August. Messrs. al Midhar and Alhazmi, the two men who had shown up on the U.S. immigration watch list, signed onto Travelocity.com (www.travelocity.com), an Internet travel site, to order tickets for United Flight 77 from Dulles to Los Angeles, a Travelocity official says. Placing those orders, the pair would have viewed a screen showing a seating diagram of the Boeing jet they would eventually hijack.

In Paterson, N.J., Messrs. Moqed and Hanjour went to the ATS travel agency to purchase a seat for Mr. Hanjour on American Airlines Flight 77. But Visa declined to approve the transaction, says an ATS agent who requests anonymity. The pair left, returning later with an envelope stuffed with $1,842 in cash -- and got the ticket, says the travel agent. Mr. Moqed, who did the talking for the duo, asked that Mr. Hanjour be seated as far forward as possible. Mr. Hanjour was assigned seat 1B, near the cockpit.

That large cash ticket transaction wasn't the only clue near the end of something peculiar going on. But no one put them together. On Sept. 9, Mr. al-Shehhi and Mohand Al Shehri became the last of at least seven of the hijackers to leave the Panther Motel in Deerfield Beach, Fla. Curious about what the pair had left behind, the proprietor, Richard Surma, dug into his motel's Dumpster and found a black tote bag containing aeronautical maps of the eastern U.S., a protractor, a German-English dictionary and three martial-arts books.

Mr. Surma says he found these items interesting enough to hold onto, but they didn't seem particularly ominous. Only after Sept. 11 did he realize their potential significance. He called the FBI.

Other hijackers displayed a fastidious efficiency as they wrapped up their business. In the last week before the attacks, the FBI says Messrs. Atta, al-Shehhi and Waleed al-Shehri wired some $15,000 in unused funds back to Mustafa Ahmad, the alleged bin Laden paymaster in the United Arab Emirates. Mr. Alhaznawi's final bank statement, opened after Sept. 11 by his former landlord, showed that he left behind just $14.

ENDGAME

A few days before Sept. 11, some of the 10 hijackers who would destroy the World Trade Center began casing Logan Airport in Boston. Garage surveillance records obtained by investigators show that a white Mitsubishi sedan rented by one of them moved in and out of the airport's parking garage at least four times between Sept. 5 and Sept. 11. After the hijackings, the car would be found in a Logan garage.

As they prepared to strike, the hijackers split up and stayed in moderately priced hotels in Boston. At around 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 8, Fayez Banihammad, who would join Mr. al-Shehhi on United Flight 175, showed up at the Milner Hotel on the edge of Boston's downtown theater district. Accompanied by another man, Mr. Banihammad asked a hotel employee to fill out a registration card for him, explaining that his English was poor, the employee says.

The next day, Messrs. Atta and al-Shehhi rented the room next to Mr. Banihammad's. They made a call from their rooms to Western Union, which authorities believe was one final attempt to refund unneeded cash to their contact in the United Arab Emirates.

On Monday, Sept. 10, a man resembling the FBI-released photo of United Flight 175 hijacker Hamza Alghamdi checked into the Days Hotel in Boston's Brighton neighborhood, according to front-desk employee Joe Williams. Mr. Williams signed the guest in as "Ghamdi."

During their stay in the U.S., some of the hijackers had shunned images of American sexuality. Mr. Surma, the Deerfield Beach, Fla., motel owner, says his former guests used towels to cover pictures of women in bathing suits that decorated their rooms. On this night, though, the Days Hotel guest watched a pornographic movie on the in-house video system, according to a law-enforcement official.

In New Jersey, meanwhile, a person familiar with the investigation says at least one of the men preparing to hijack United Flight 93 from Newark indulged himself on his final weekend by visiting an exotic-dance club in nearby Elizabeth.

Despite the occasional last-minute splurge, the FBI says the hijackers operated on a tight budget in their final days. Receipts investigators found in garbage bins near the conspirators' Boston hotels showed they often ate pizza or canned food from supermarkets. Cab drivers and waiters remember them as stingy tippers.

Mr. Atta left the Milner on Sept. 10 and, with his partner on American Flight 11, Abdulaziz Alomari, headed two hours north to Portland, Maine. They drove a blue Nissan Altima rental car to a Comfort Inn within sight of Portland International Jetport. Surveillance cameras picked them up as they visited a Wal-Mart and a bank's automated teller machine. As he used the ATM, Mr. Alomari was smiling broadly.

Investigators say they don't know why two of the 10 Boston hijackers drove to Portland a day before the attack, risking a missed connection. Some investigators theorize that the hijackers thought they would attract less suspicion if they originated from separate cities. Others believe Mr. Atta viewed the Portland flight as a final test run for the plan to carry small knives onto planes.

The Portland airport's security checkpoint, which the two men passed through at 5:45 the next morning, was one of the last opportunities for law enforcement to thwart the attack. A security camera snapped their photo, but no one tried to stop the two neatly dressed men with computer bags slung over their shoulders. As the sun rose on a cloudless day in Portland and throughout the Northeast, the pair sat by themselves in the waiting area by Gate 11, leaning forward in their seats and talking quietly, other passengers recall.

Walking to his seat on the plane, passenger Vincent Meisner remembers accidentally bumping Mr. Atta with his bag and saying, "Excuse me." Mr. Atta silently hunched his shoulders and looked away. "I thought he just hadn't had his morning coffee yet," Mr. Meisner says.

All 10 Boston-departing hijackers reached Logan airport in time. American Flight 11 and United Flight 175 were scheduled to leave for Los Angeles from different terminals, within minutes of each other. Just before passengers boarded the flights, a single cellphone call was placed between the hijack teams, according to investigators. It lasted only a few minutes -- long enough, authorities believe, to declare that the operation was on.

Mr. Atta's luggage, which failed to make it onto American Flight 11, was later found to contain a hand-held electronic flight computer, a simulator-procedure manual for Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft and a copy of the Quran. It also held a letter of exhortation for the hijacking. The unidentified author directed readers to sharpen their knife blades for the attacks and to frighten their victims by calling out in Arabic, "God is Great!"

Mr. Jarrah, preparing for his own mission in Newark airport, made a final personal gesture that morning. He telephoned his girlfriend in Germany, Aysel Sengul. Mr. Jarrah sounded perfectly normal and said he loved her, Ms. Sengul later told Jamal Jarrah, Ziad's uncle.

When she saw news reports later that day that hijacked planes in America had crashed into the twin towers, the Pentagon and a rural Pennsylvania field, killing thousands, Ms. Sengul became worried, she told Jamal Jarrah. She called her boyfriend's cellphone. There was no answer.



The following Wall Street Journal staff reporters contributed to this article:

MIDDLE EAST: Christopher Cooper in Cairo; James M. Dorsey in Beirut; Yaroslav Trofimov in Dubai.

EUROPE: William Boston in Bochum, Germany; Neal E. Boudette in Frankfurt, Germany; Mahmoud Kassem and Marcus Walker in Hamburg.

U.S.: David Armstrong in Delray Beach, Fla.; James Bandler in Elizabeth, N.J.; Douglas A. Blackmon and Rick Brooks in Atlanta; Andrew Caffrey in Portland, Maine; David S. Cloud and Gary Fields in Washington; Daniel Golden in Boston; Tom Hamburger in Laurel, Md.; Laura Johannes in Newton, Mass.; Kathryn Kranhold in Paterson, N.J.; Nicholas Kulish in Falls Church, Va.; Carrick Mollenkamp in Venice, Fla.; Evan Perez in Miami; Will Pinkston in Tampa, Fla.; Chad Terhune in West Palm Beach, Fla.; Maureen Tkacik and Rick Wartzman in San Diego.

 

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