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Hamburg's Cauldron of Terror

Training and Meetings

The first to leave Hamburg for Afghanistan was Jarrah on Nov. 25, 1999. He flew to Karachi, Pakistan, via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. Four days later, Atta followed, taking the same route. Al-Shehhi and then Binalshibh went next, although German investigators have not uncovered exact routes for the last two. Bahaji, Essabar and Motassadeq would not follow until spring 2000, according to German officials.

In Afghanistan, the new arrivals were taken to a guesthouse in Kandahar, called the Al-Ghumad House after the Saudi Al-Ghamdi tribe, according to the al-Jazeera interviews. There they met three Saudis in what Binalshibh described to al-Jazeera as a shura, or council, of the future pilots and key players.

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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Waiting in Kandahar was Khalid Almihdhar, a former Red Sea fisherman who came from Mecca, and Nawaf Alhazmi, a merchant also from Mecca, according to interviews with officials at the Saudi Interior Ministry's offices in Jiddah.

Both of them would die on American Airlines Flight 77, which struck the Pentagon. Also present in Kandahar, the Arab network reported, was the pilot of that flight, Hani Hanjour, from Naif, southeast of Jiddah. A former resident of the United States, he was frustrated in his desire to become a pilot for Saudi Airlines.

Around these three Saudis and the Hamburg group, the plot would be constructed by al Qaeda. Al Qaeda would make up the rest of the teams of hijackers with 12 recruits drawn from Saudi tribes that bin Laden was familiar with and another hijacker from the United Arab Emirates, Fayez Rashid Ahmed Hassan Al Qadi Banihammad, also known as Fayez Ahmed.

Mohammed claimed these 13 men were drawn from al Qaeda's Department of Martyrs. They would become known by U.S. investigators as "the muscle," whose mission was to subdue the passengers and crew of the aircraft while the planes were commandeered by the plot's leaders.

In January 2000, as Atta underwent training in Afghanistan, a further meeting occurred that tied the Hamburg cell to the rest of the hijackers. Binalshibh, Almihdhar and Alhazmi met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in the presence of another al Qaeda operative, Tawfiq bin Atash, a one-legged veteran of Afghanistan.

Binalshibh, a Yemeni, is a relative of Almihdhar's wife. Almihdhar came from a prominent Yemeni family with longtime links to al Qaeda, and obtained Saudi citizenship in 1996, according to Interior Ministry officials in Jiddah.

The January meeting was photographed by Malaysian intelligence and al Qaeda is believed to have discussed an attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, which occurred later that year, as well as a strike on American soil.

By now the plot was accelerating.

Immediately after the Malaysian gathering, Almihdhar and Alhazmi flew to Los Angeles and quickly enrolled in a flight school north of San Diego.

In late February 2000, Atta and the other Hamburg pilots began to return to Germany from Afghanistan. They declared their passports stolen to cover incriminating stamps and began to contact flight schools in the United States to obtain visas to enter the country.

The members of the cell already knew they would attack New York, according to German officials, citing a statement by Al-Shehhi. In April or May, Al-Shehhi mentioned the World Trade Center as a target in a conversation in Hamburg with a female librarian, said Nehm, the prosecutor.

"There will be thousands of dead," Al-Shehhi told the librarian, according to Nehm. "You will all think of me."

The librarian later came forward as a witness, according to the federal prosecutor's office, which declined to identify her or say when she provided the information.

In the interview with al-Jazeera, Binalshibh said that Al-Shehhi, even before he learned of the operation, "used to have beautiful visions that he flies in the sky with huge green birds and crashes into things."

"What things?" asked the al-Jazeera interviewer.

"Just things," Binalshibh said.

Binalshibh also wished to participate in the attacks, as did Essabar, but both had their U.S. visa applications rejected. The indictment of Zacarias Moussaoui, a 34-year-old French national, alleges that Moussaoui was picked to replace Binalshibh in December 2000. That month, Binalshibh flew to London to meet Moussaoui, who then left Britain for Pakistan.

Binalshibh told al-Jazeera that the pilots scouted their targets and assigned them code names: The twin towers were called the Faculty of Town Planning, an apparent coy reference to Atta's studies, in which he railed against skyscrapers. The Pentagon was the Faculty of Fine Arts.

And the Capitol, which Binalshibh told al-Jazeera was the target of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, was the Faculty of Law.

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