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The making of a terrorist

Panorama examines what drove the hijackers to kill themselves and thousands of civilians on September 11th and traces how Mohammed Atta came to mastermind the attacks.

A small flat in Germany, many miles from New York, became the headquarters of a terror cell responsible for killing over 3,000 people in America - the moment the hijackers called The Zero Hour.

Mohammed Atta, who flew the first hijacked plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, formed the terror cell in Hamburg. But what made him do it?

He was born and raised in Egypt where there is widespread anger against the government which is seen as undemocratic and corrupt.

Rage against America

But there is also anger against America who has supported Egypt's government and is seen as Israel's strongest ally.


The pulse of the Arab streets says that America is a filthy thug...who wants to hit the Islamic nations

Atta's father
Atta's rage with the US and Egyptian Governments was increased by a crack-down on Islamic extremists in Egypt. He was afraid that because of his political views he would be arrested if he returned to live in Egypt.

His father, Mohammed El Amir, also had sympathies with a militant Islamic organisation - his views have not changed to this day.

Mohammed El Amir: "The pulse of the Arab streets says that America is a filthy thug! America is a filthy thug who wants to hit the Islamic nations!"

Atta moved to Hamburg in Germany in 1992 to study town planning. Here he discovered the Al Quds mosque and grew a beard - a sign of religious devotion but also a sign of radicalization.

Radical fundamentalists

Investigators believe he met other young men with extreme views at the mosque. It is also thought he may have been directly recruited there by a Bin Laden agent.

A fireball explodes from one of the World Trade Center towers
A fireball explodes from one of the towers
German intelligence Islamic expert Herbert Muller: "One or two mosques have small groups of activists - radical fundamentalists prepared to use terrorism. And they look for capable people among the visitors to the mosque, fellow believers, to try to recruit them."

Atta spent time at the Al Quds with two other young Arab men - Marwan al-Shehi and Ziad Jarrah - who would also take part in the terror attacks.

Al-Shehi flew the plane into the World Trade Center's South Tower and Jarrah's plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.

Al-Qaeda training

In the summer of 1997 he disappeared from his university for a year saying he had problems back home. Panorama has now established he went to Afghanistan to train at al-Qaeda camps - he was followed there by al-Shehi and Jarrah.

Mohammed Atta
Mohammed Atta
In Bin Laden's camps recruits were trained in terror tactics - using weapons, explosives and poisons. They also learned to forge documents and how to carry out covert activities.

Leadership qualities

It is believed Atta was singled out as having leadership potential and received special training.

By the time he returned to Hamburg in the autumn of 1998 he was one of Bin Laden's operational commanders and was already planning the US terror attacks - as yet three years away.

Following the blueprint laid down in al-Qaeda's manuals he formed a small, secret terror cell and found an apartment, No 54 Marienstrasse, which would be the terrorists' meeting place.

Panorama has also revealed that another cell member, Ramzi Binalshibh, was to have been the fourth pilot on September 11th.

When asked how terror groups are founded Atta's father said: "One person convinces another, who convinces another, who convinces another, who convinces another of a "valid" reason to kill himself, taking away the most precious possession a human being has through a strong belief. He stops thinking about himself."

See also:

12 Dec 01 | Americas
An unlikely suicide pilot

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