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A Perfect Soldier

SUNDAY REPORT

Mohamed Atta, whose hard gaze has stared from a billion television screens and newspaper pages, has become, for many, the face of evil incarnate.

January 27, 2002|TERRY McDERMOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WILHELMSBURG, Germany — After Mohamed el Amir Atta disappeared from the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg in 1997, he turned up here on an island in the middle of the Elbe River, at a red-brick prewar housing project on a broad, bleak street that faces a ribbon-wire fence and the Hamburg harbor, gray and forbidding, beyond.

Wilhelmsburg is industrial, worn-out, so psychologically remote that it is sometimes called the Forgotten Island. It's here but hidden. If you wanted to vanish, to drop off the face of the world and yet keep the world close at hand, this would be a place to come to.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 31, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Towers' collapse--In a profile of Mohamed Atta that ran Sunday, the sequence of the World Trade Center towers' collapse was misstated. The south tower was the first to collapse.

The six-story buildings of the Wilhelmsburg projects contain hundreds of two- and three-room apartments and nobody knows how many people. The buildings are filled mainly with Turks, by far the largest minority group in Germany.

Atta rented a third-floor, three-room walk-up for $250 a month. The apartment, neighbors say, was home to a large group of Arab men who were seldom seen and, until the events of Sept. 11, not much remembered. Like the island itself, they were here but hidden, shielded by their otherness.

The men talked long into the night most nights and disappeared all day most days, said Helga Link, a neighbor. Link lived directly beneath Atta's apartment and could hear every footstep on the wooden floors. She never heard a radio or television or music. Just the footsteps and voices of men talking.

Atta's stay in Wilhelmsburg marked a turning point in his life. He had until then followed an utterly conventional middle-class path, a striving, upward arc from boyhood through prestigious university and into graduate school. When he left, he turned in directions that people who knew him still can't fathom.

In the days after Sept. 11, a narrative of the attacks emerged with remarkable speed. These were hard, dedicated men, we learned, religious zealots executing a devious plan to strike at the core of America. Central to the narrative was Atta. In numerous accounts, he was referred to as the mastermind. Osama bin Laden was said to be the evil leader who inspired and funded the plot; Atta was the brilliant acolyte who led a small, suicidal army in its execution.

Not much has altered this narrative since. Bin Laden remains the sinister presence behind the plot, taunting from a shrinking but thus far unbridgeable distance. The hijackers remain mute, unknowable ciphers. Atta, whose hard gaze has fumed from a billion television screens and newspaper pages, has become, for many, the face of evil incarnate.

He has become famous. A woman in Finland claims that he was her virtual lover. A Hamburg shopkeeper claims that she regularly sold Atta large quantities of mid-priced perfume, for what purpose no one pretends to know. A genial car repairman says Atta worked as an intermediary for Arab car-buyers. They liked Mercedes-Benzes, the repairman says.

Atta is said to have lived a double life; to have met with an Iraqi spy in the Czech Republic; to have traveled throughout Europe conferring with who knows what members of terrorist cells; to have so excelled in his terrorist training that he was chosen to form his own cell in Hamburg.

Some of these stories might be true, but as details of Atta's life are examined and new ones uncovered, a less mysterious, more mundane man emerges. It is a man drawn on a smaller, less epic scale.

The people who knew Atta best during the past decade--housemates, roommates, co-workers and classmates--say he was taciturn, introspective and zealously religious.

"I'm more fundamental than the fundamentalists," he told his first Hamburg roommate.

He was an exceptionally resolute, disciplined, stoic man. He was--particularly for a university graduate student--enormously respectful of authority. He did what he was told. Joerg Lewin, who hired Atta as a draftsman at an urban planning firm, said Atta did his job with extraordinary single-mindedness. Although already a trained architect and a prospective city planner, Atta--in four years at the company--never offered opinions of the plans he was asked to illustrate. He was assigned to make maps; he made maps.

"I think he embodied the idea of drawing," Lewin said. " 'I am the drawer. I draw.' "

It's hard to imagine that such a man could acquire the verve and daring to lead an enterprise as audacious as the September attacks. Maybe we have misconceived the nature of the attacks and built the requisite figure to orchestrate them. Maybe a brilliant general is not what was needed. Maybe the plan wasn't so much difficult as it was detailed, and what it really required was somebody with will and steadfastness to see it through.

That is the Mohamed Atta described by the people who knew him: a meticulous, dutiful believer, a man who could sublimate himself, a man who could embody a plan, who could make it his, a man who could be, as he became, a perfect soldier.

Kafr el Sheik / A STRICT, AUSTERE FATHER

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