Mohamed Atta

Mohamed Atta was the operational leader of al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks and the hijacker-pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, flown into the World Trade Center’s north tower as the first of the four 9/11 plane hijackings.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 4; 88; 434, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. Atta was personally selected by then-al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to organize and lead the attacks in the United States. Atta was responsible for overseeing flight training for himself and the three other al-Qaeda pilots, coordinating all logistics and living arrangements for the hijackers, and selecting the date and many of the attack details.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 165-166; 243-244, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf.

The 9/11 Commission Report summarizes Atta’s upbringing and some details regarding his path to radicalization. According to the report, Atta was born and raised in a middle-class family in Kafr el Sheikh, Egypt. After graduating from Cairo University in 1990 with a degree in architectural engineering, Atta spent several years working as an urban planner in Cairo before traveling to Germany to continue his studies. While in Germany, Atta linked up with a group of Islamists who would later comprise the Hamburg contingent of the 9/11 plot.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 164-165, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. The group included hijacker-pilots Marwan al Shehhi (Flight 175) and Ziad Jarrah (Flight 93), as well as German-based Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who would later serve as the go-between for Atta and al-Qaeda’s headquarters in Afghanistan. Also belonging to the plotters’ social circle in Hamburg were fellow extremists Said Bahaji, Zakaria Essabar, Mounir el Motassadeq, and Abdelghani Mzoudi, some of whom were later found to have helped the cell as they planned and coordinated the attacks.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 164-165, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf.

The 9/11 Commission could not determine how each member of the Hamburg cell met each other. The Commission did, however, successfully determine that Atta first met Ramzi bin al-Shibh at a mosque in Hamburg in 1995.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 161-162, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. Of the group, Atta was known in particular for propagating anti-Semitic, anti-American, and occasionally violent rhetoric, peddling stereotypes that the Jews controlled the global financial system and the media, and positing that Saddam Hussein was a puppet of the U.S. government. Atta also advocated for violent jihad, telling an acquaintance on at least one occasion that he was “ready to fight for [his] belief” and that those who were not ready to do so were weak.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 161, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf.

In 1998, Atta began sharing an apartment with two members of his extremist circle: bin al-Shibh and Shehhi. In their shared apartment, the group hosted discussions with the rest of their extremist social circle three to four times per week, sharing opinions later characterized by the 9/11 Commission as “extremely anti-American.”National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 164, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. At some point in the late 1990s, the group also joined up with Lebanese-born Ziad Jarrah, who first met bin al-Shibh in the Quds mosque in Hamburg.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 162-163, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf.

In 1999, four members of the Hamburg group—Atta, bin al-Shibh, Shehhi, and Jarrah—became committed to participating in violent jihad. The four decided to leave Germany to fight in Chechnya against the Russians, but were encouraged to travel to Afghanistan after a chance encounter with fellow extremist Khalid al Masri.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 165, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. According to bin al-Shibh, Masri connected the cell to an al-Qaeda contact in Duisburg, Germany—Mohamedou Ould Slahi—who recommended that the group travel to Afghanistan for training before traveling to Chechnya. Upon agreeing to Slahi’s suggestion, the group was instructed to obtain Pakistani visas and travel through Karachi to the Taliban’s office in Quetta.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 165-166, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf.

Atta, bin al-Shibh, Shehhi, and Jarrah left Germany for Afghanistan in November 1999. When the group arrived at the Taliban office in Quetta, they were shuttled to Kandahar and introduced to then-al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. According to findings from the 9/11 Commission, after meeting privately with bin Laden, each of the four swore an oath of loyalty to bin Laden and volunteered to participate in a martyrdom mission. The group then met with al-Qaeda military commander Mohammed Atef, who told them that they had been assigned to a highly secretive mission. As the first part of the assignment, Atef instructed the group to return to Germany and enroll in flight training school. They were told that they would eventually be joined in their operation by fellow al-Qaeda operative Nawaf al Hazmi, who would help hijack Flight 77 and serve as Atta’s second-in-command.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 166; 242, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf.

During this visit, Atta was personally selected by bin Laden to lead the attack cell, according to bin al-Shibh. Atta met with bin Laden on several occasions to receive further instructions, including a list of al-Qaeda targets: the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the U.S. Capitol.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 166, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. By early 2000, Atta and his cohorts had begun staggering their return to Germany, each traveling through Karachi. There, they met with 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), who had first conceived of the plot—approved bin Laden in late 1998 or early 1999—to weaponize airplanes and crash them into buildings in the United States.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 149; 167, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. During Atta and bin al-Shibh’s joint meeting with KSM in January 2000, the pair was given practical instructions on how to evade government detection as well as more basic instructions on how live in the United States. Atta returned to Hamburg in late February with his cohorts joining him around the same time.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 167, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf.

Upon returning to Germany, the four al-Qaeda members began researching flight schools in Europe and worked to conceal their extremist behavior. Atta started wearing Western clothing, shaving his beard, and avoiding extremist mosques. Ultimately, the group decided to receive flight training in the United States, where flight schools were less expensive and required fewer training hours.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 167-168, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. In March, Atta emailed 31 U.S.-based flight schools to enquire about the cost of training. Meanwhile, the four submitted requests for new passports, claiming that their old ones had been lost.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 168, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf.

Although bin al-Shibh’s request was denied, Atta, Shehhi, and Jarrah each received replacement passports by late May 2000.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 168, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. Atta traveled to the United States the next month, and by mid-June, he, Shehhi, and Jarrah had settled in apartments in Florida and enrolled in the Huffman Aviation flight school in western city of Venice.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 224, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. In mid-September, after attending flight school for several weeks, Atta applied with Shehhi to change their immigration statuses from tourist to student, saying that they planned to continue studying at Huffman until September 1, 2001. In late September 2000, the two briefly enrolled at the Jones Aviation center in Sarasota, but returned to Huffman after failing their exams. They each earned certificates from the FAA that November and received their licenses in December.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 227, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf.

Atta and other members of the Hamburg cell traveled outside of the United States in early 2001. Atta traveled to Germany for a progress meeting with bin al-Shibh in January, informing him that the three Hamburg pilots had completed their flight training and were awaiting further instruction from al-Qaeda.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 227, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. After the 9/11 attacks, an unnamed Czech intelligence source claimed that Atta traveled to the Czech Republic in April 2001 and met with an Iraqi diplomat there on April 9, a tip contradicted by virtually all other available evidence collected by the 9/11 Commission. Although the Commission could not entirely rule out the possibility of Atta’s travel abroad, findings by the Commission concluded that Atta was likely in Virginia Beach, Virginia, at this time.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 228-229, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. Two days later, on April 11, Atta and Shehhi moved into an apartment in Coral Springs, Florida, where Atta stayed to await the arrival of the “muscle hijackers,” who would help al-Qaeda’s pilots—Atta, Jarrah, Shehhi, and Saudi-born Hani Hanjour—take over the 9/11 planes.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 230, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. In the months that followed, these hijackers began arriving in the United States, with most living near Atta and Shehhi in Florida.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 241, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. The hijackers did reconnaissance flights in the summer of 2001, traveling in first class to case their aircraft-types and determine the feasibility of bringing and using box cutters to hijack the plane. At the end of June, Atta flew from Boston to Las Vegas via San Francisco on a Boeing 767.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 242, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. Around this time, he is believed to have first met with his second-in-command, Nawaf al Hazmi, who traveled round-trip from Newark to Miami.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 243, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf.

In July 2001, Atta traveled to meet with bin al-Shibh for the second time since leaving Germany. The two met in Spain for a little over a week, spending the time discussing attack details. By his own account, bin al-Shibh, relayed a request from bin Laden during this time to execute the attacks as quickly as possible. Atta responded that he would need five to six more weeks before providing an attack date, in order to continue organizing arrangements for the remaining muscle-hijackers, and determine the timing of the flights so that the crashes would occur simultaneously. Atta was informed of the need to withhold the attack date from the hijackers until the last minute, but to provide bin al-Shibh with one week’s advance notice of the date so that he could travel to Afghanistan and relay the date to bin Laden directly.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 244, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. Atta also told bin al-Shibh during this meeting that although he understood bin Laden’s preference to target the White House over the U.S. Capitol, the Capitol was a more feasible target. Atta told bin al-Shibh that he had tasked Hazmi and Hanjour to determine whether it might be possible to attack the White House, per bin Laden’s preference.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 244, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf.

Atta relayed other attacks considerations to bin al-Shibh during this meeting, including his belief that box cutters would be sufficient to hijack the plane and that the hijacking should take place 10 to 15 minutes after takeoff, when the cockpits were typically opened for the first time. Explaining his plans for selecting flights, Atta said that he was looking for longer flights to ensure the aircraft was filled with fuel and that he would select Boeing as opposed to Airbus aircraft, which were hard to fly and had an autopilot feature.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 245, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. Atta also relayed his hijacker-pilot assignments, which he said were subject to change: Hanjour would attack the Pentagon, Jarrah would attack the Capitol, and he and Shehhi would attack the World Trade Center.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 244, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf.

Before the meeting ended, bin al-Shibh gave Atta requested jewelry from Bangkok. According to bin al-Shibh, Atta believed that if the hijackers were well-dressed, clean shaven, and appeared well-off, passengers and flight personnel would mistake them for wealthy Saudis, attracting less attention.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 245, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. Concerned about detection, Atta also instructed bin al-Shibh to purchase new phones upon his return to Germany. Bin al-Shibh purchased two phones: one to communicate with Atta and one to communicate with KSM. He relayed details of his meeting with Atta in code to KSM in mid-July 2001.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 245, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf.

In the final weeks before the 9/11 attacks, Atta coordinated further with bin al-Shibh, discussing in code the difficulty of targeting the White House and Atta’s preference for targeting the U.S. Capitol. Atta also discussed the best way for operatives to purchase tickets, the assignments of the muscle-hijackers to the four teams, and Atta’s preference to hold off on the 9/11 attacks until U.S. Congress reconvened in early September. The hijackers did a second test run on flight in late August 2001, with Atta, Hazmi, and Hanjour flying into Las Vegas in mid-August.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 248, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. Around this time, Atta contacted bin al-Shibh, sending him the date of the attacks—9/11—in code. From August 25 to September 5, the 19 hijackers began purchasing their plane tickets.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 249, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. Atta traveled between the teams of hijackers in the days leading up to the attacks.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 253, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf.

On September 11, 2001, Atta and one of his fellow hijackers—Abdul Aziz al Omari—boarded a 6:00 a.m. flight from Portland, Maine, to Boston’s Logan International Airport. After arriving in Boston at around 6:45 a.m., Atta joined up with the other three hijackers from his team at Logan airport: Waleed al Shehri, Wail al Shehri, and Satam al Suqami. Although several of the hijackers were randomly selected for additional screening in either Portland or Boston, the five hijackers ultimately managed to board American Airlines Flight 11, scheduled to depart at 8:00 a.m. with nonstop service from Boston to Los Angeles.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 2, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf.

At around 8:14 a.m. or shortly thereafter, Atta and his team of hijackers are believed to have successfully hijacked the aircraft. At 8:46 a.m. American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, killing everyone on board and an unknown number of people in the tower.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 6-7, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. In concert, the attacks planned by Atta—including attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the thwarted attack headed for the White House or Capitol—left nearly 3,000 people dead in the single deadliest attack in U.S. history.National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Thomas H. Kean, and Lee Hamilton. 2004. The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. (Washington, D.C.): 311, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf.

Return to Full Database

Take action:

Help Counter Extremism

Stay updated on the latest

Daily Dose

Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.

View Archive

CEP on Twitter