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Hamburg's Cauldron of Terror

"The group's discussions became increasingly virulent," said Nehm, citing evidence gathered from a German investigation. "The members' hatred focused on 'world Jewry' and the United States of America. To defeat these was seen as the central objective of the jihad, the fulfillment of which promised eternal happiness in paradise."

The group deepened its bonds in intense discussions. Atta, Bahaji and a third man, a Pakistani pilot named Atif bin Mansoor, applied for a room at the Technical University where Muslim students could meet and pray, citing the precedent that evangelical Christian students had a room on campus.

Authorities remove boxes from firm owned by a German Syrian in Fitzbek, northern Germany, as part of the continuing investigation into the Hamburg cell. (AP)


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The Plot: A Web of Connections
Graphic: Hamburg Cell's Path to Terror
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"As you certainly know, spirituality plays an essential role in each person's life and fosters mental productivity," the three wrote in their letter. A room "would offer the possibility of advising and helping one another."

The university rejected the request, but Atta later founded an Islamic association through the university's student government. The magazine Der Spiegel recently found a wealth of material from the association that had been stored in boxes in a closet on the campus. Included were rules, formulated by Atta, stating that whoever prayed irregularly must be killed and whoever neglects God will be punished, and declaring that TV was created by Jews.

Among the books were volumes on jihad, including one with the citation: "Osama bin Laden said: I will pay for the ticket and trip for every Arab and his family who wants to come to Jihad." According to the magazine, there was also information on airplanes obtained from the Airbus company.

These radical voices weren't heard only behind closed doors on a university campus or in a crowded walk-up apartment. Relatives of Said Bahaji were shocked by the change that had taken hold of him when they attended his wedding to a German woman at Al Quds in October 1999.

Two lambs were slaughtered for the wedding, and the guests also ate meat with baked plums, eggs, almonds and unleavened bread, followed by Moroccan sweet cakes and lemonade, according to Bahaji's widow, Neshe, in an interview at her home, her first with a journalist.

The men and women stayed in separate rooms. After prayers of thanksgiving for the food, the men were free to speak. Binalshibh said Muslims must be freed of Jews and then he and Al-Shehhi began singing of jihad, a scene that was videotaped.

Bahaji's half-brother, Daniel, who lives in Switzerland, remembers being stunned by the fervor of the participants, and how much the "religious brothers," as they described themselves, cut themselves off from others in the room. Bahaji, he said, was no longer "normal."

Bahaji's German mother, Anneliese Bahaji, in an interview at her home in Germany, said she was surprised by her son's full beard, the mark of a religious man. "I often told him, Said, the beard has to go. He said, no, the beard stays."

Plans to Use Aircraft

By the fall of 1999, members of the Hamburg cell had agreed among themselves to plan a spectacular attack using commercial aircraft, according to German investigators. This view challenges some assumptions that the Sept. 11 plot was devised entirely by the al Qaeda leadership and imparted on the hijackers during their training in Afghanistan.

"At the latest in October 1999, [the Hamburg's group radicalization] led to the idea of attacking the United States using airplanes, a concept possibly inspired by ideas from other representatives of the international network," Nehm said. "The group members then traveled to Afghanistan in order to discuss details with members of the international network and to obtain financial and logistical support."

Supporting this thesis, according to a summary of the German investigation, are witness statements and the discovery by German police of a file on flight simulators on the computer of one of the Hamburg conspirators. The material was downloaded in 1999. There is no evidence, according to the German investigation, that anyone in the Hamburg cell traveled to Afghanistan before November 1999.

But even if the Hamburg group first embraced on its own the idea of a terrorist attack using aircraft, the notion was hardly original. In 1994, Algerian terrorists planned to fly a plane into the Eiffel Tower in Paris; none of the hijackers could pilot a plane, however, and French police stormed the aircraft when it landed to refuel.

In 1995, police in Manila broke up a plot to blow up 12 U.S. airliners over the Pacific that involved one of the authors of the 1993 bombing of World Trade Center. That plan also envisioned an attack on CIA headquarters in Langley by a suicide bomber flying a plane filled with explosives.

One of the conspirators in Manila was Khalid Sheik Mohammed, a Kuwaiti of Pakistani origin known as "The Brain," who is now a fugitive described by U.S. and other intelligence services as the logistical mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. There have been reports, based on the testimony of a single intelligence source, that Mohammed visited Germany in 1998, leading to speculation that he met with the Hamburg cell.

Mohammed, whose family is from the province of Baluchistan in Pakistan, had long viewed planes as instruments of terror and assumed an increasingly important role within al Qaeda's military structure. He is the uncle of Ramzi Yousef, the Pakistani serving a life sentence for the 1993 bombing attack on the World Trade Center.

In an interview scheduled for broadcast this week by the al-Jazeera network, Mohammed said "about 2 1/2 years prior to the holy raids on Washington and New York, the military committee held a meeting during which we decided to start planning for a martyrdom operation inside America."

An article in the Sunday Times of London by the al-Jazeera journalist who conducted the interview, Yosri Fouda, cites Mohammed and Binalshibh taking credit for the Sept. 11 attacks. Mohammed said it was his idea to target prominent buildings in the United States, and he said Atta and other operatives were earmarked as pilots sometime in 1999. He said al Qaeda had first considered hitting nuclear installations.

Others in the al Qaeda leadership shared a vision of an airborne attack. According to the interrogation of al Qaeda suspects in Jordan, Muhammad Atef, bin Laden's Egyptian military operations chief, had seized on the idea in late 1999 after American investigators said an Egypt Airlines pilot had committed suicide by crash-diving his plane into the Atlantic Ocean in October 1999.

Against this background, when Atta slipped into Afghanistan from Pakistan in late 1999 in the company of al Qaeda escorts, he was carrying an idea that would resonate with his handlers.


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