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America's New War: Tracing a Terrorist's Footsteps

Aired September 25, 2001 - 05:46   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We know very little about suspected terrorist Mohamed Atta.

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: That's right, but investigators believe that he was probably the hijacker who flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center.

But CNN's Sheila Macvicar backtraps Atta's moves long before September 11th.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SHEILA MACVICAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): What he know about Mohamed Atta is not very much and certainly not enough to answer the question why. But there is a portrait emerging that offers clues to him and to the plot.

In Hamburg, he seemed a very ordinary student, but during the more than seven years he spent here, something changed. And the quiet graduate student became making plans.

We suspect that at least since the start of this year, says this German prosecutor, these people of Arabic background, Islamic fundamentalists, lived in Hamburg and formed a terrorist organization.

In fact, investigative sources say they had started much earlier. German news reports say late in 1999, Mohamed Atta and the two other named hijackers then in Hamburg, all reported their passports stolen. That, says the German Interior Ministry, may have been a device to get rid of evidence of travel to countries like Afghanistan, travel that could set off alarm bells.

European government sources say on May 18, 2000 in Berlin, Mohamed Atta obtained a tourist visa for the United States in a brand new passport. The evidence strongly suggests he already knew what he was going to do and how he was going to die.

He was still registered as a student in Hamburg, but those on campus cannot recall seeing him again. Less than a month later on his way to the United States, Mohamed Atta went to Prague. He stayed just 24 hours.

Flying from Germany via Prague of the Czech Republic to the United States is not the most direct route. The question for investigators is why the detour. U.S. and European intelligence sources say that Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Europe.

A source tells CNN that that meeting place in Prague during that 24-hour layover. Iraq's government has repeatedly denied all knowledge of or complicity in the plot. If the meeting did take place, we cannot know what was said.

We do know that on June 3, 2000, Mohamed Atta flew to New York. From Newark Airport, he would've been able to see the twin towers. He began his life of hiding in plain sight.

Within a month, he had been to Norman, Oklahoma, to the Airman Flight School. He inspected the planes and took a tour.

SHIRLEY FRANKLIN, AIRMEN FLIGHT SCHOOL: They wanted the professional pilot course, which does result in the commercial pilot license for single and multi-engine land.

MACVICAR: For some reason, Oklahoma didn't suit Mohamed Atta. With others accused in the plot, he went to Florida. From July through December, he and some of the other accused hijackers focused on learning how to you fly, moving from one short term rental apartment to another, opening e-mail accounts, buying cellphones, and doing nothing to attract the attention of authorities.

They were polite, studious, and had very little do with anyone else.

(on camera): By January 2001, Mohamed Atta had already overstayed his U.S. visa. That month, he made the first of two trips to Spain. Spanish police say they don't know very much about what he did there that week. And on January 10, Mohamed Atta flew back to Miami. A source close to the investigation has told CNN that during one of his trips to Spain, a senior Iraqi intelligence officer was also in that countries. Investigators do not yet know if they met.

(voice-over): In February, he was spotted checking out crop dusting planes and even say investigative sources, going to a bank to ask about a loan for one.

JAMES LESTER, CROP DUSTER MECHANIC: Whenever they come around, we just try to get them away because we were working at the time. And we were cleaning airplanes. They sitting around. They wanted to know how to crank the airplane, want to get in there. We would never let them get in the airplane.

MACVICAR: All through last spring, Mohamed Atta and the other men flew a little, worked out, and walked the beaches. In April, he was arrested for a traffic violation in Broward County, Florida, driving without a license. With one of the other hijackers named by federal authorities, Ziad, got a license a week later.

On June 29, Mohamed Atta flew to Las Vegas. He stayed here at the Econolodge. He used his new Florida driver's license as identification. He told hotel management he didn't want to be disturbed, but he did ask for a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He answered it right away, which means he was probably awake at 3:30 a.m.

MACVICAR: It was just in time for dawn prayers.

On the 6 of July, Mohamed Atta went back to Spain. He rented a car at Madrid's Airport. What he did his first week there, the police have not yet said. But they are investigating conflicting reports that he went to this prison in the southern Spanish province of Tarragona.

Guards there believe Mohamed Atta arrived at the prison on July 15 and asked to see a prisoner, an Algerian, being held on murder charges. Mohamed Atta wanted to give the prisoner money. He was not allowed to see him.

The next day, Spanish police say he was in the beach resort of Salou. He was traveling alone. He spent two nights in the town in two different hotels. On July 19, he was back in Madrid. His rental car was reported to have had more than 1200 miles on it.

That night, he flew back to U.S. on American Airlines. Less than a month later on August the 12, Mohamed Atta returned to Las Vegas. Based on flight records, investigators believe he met there with other hijackers.

Now they want to know was this meeting a month before the attack a rehearsal? After two days, he was back in Florida. He rented a car and either he or another person began to do a lot of driving, nearly 3,000 miles in three weeks.

Investigators are still not sure where he went. On August 28, he bought a ticket for American Airline flight 11 online. "The Boston Globe" says in early September, Mohamed Atta's rental car was reported by closed-circuit video cameras in the parking lots of Boston Logan's Airport, where flight 11 originated.

On Friday, September, he was at Chuckums bar in Hollywood, Florida with Marwan al-Shehhi, who has come to from Hamburg with him. They were drinking vodka and boasting about being pilots for American Airlines.

This is the last picture we have of Mohamed Atta. It is early in the morning of September 11 at the airport in Portland, Maine. Clean shaven, his hair cropped short, Mohamed Atta has just cleared airport security. We know what happened next.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Holy (sic)!

Sheila Macvicar, CNN, London.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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