'He Never Even Had A Kite'

When Mohamed al-Amir Atta, the father of the man thought to be at the controls of American Airlines Flight 11 when it slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, opened the door to his 11th floor apartment in Cairo last Saturday, the first thing he said was: "I'm not benefiting from these interviews. My son is gone. He is now with God. The Mossad killed him." Then he offered me a cup of tea.

Atta's son does not fit what had been the stereotype of a suicide bomber, born into a poor family and drawn into fundamentalism out of hopelessness. The family's apartment in the Egyptian capital, with a sweeping view of downtown, was filled with ornate furniture and rugs and decorated with paintings of flamingos and women in headscarves. His father, who described himself as "one of the most important lawyers in Cairo," said that he would talk, uninterrupted by questions, for 20 minutes. More than an hour later, between drags on "American blend" cigarettes, he was still talking, portraying his son as a mama's boy prone to airsickness, a dedicated architecture student who rarely mentioned politics, and a victim of an intricate framing by the Israeli intelligence agency.

The father went to great lengths to support this contention, delivering a lecture on what he saw as the ugly history of the agency and his own deductive powers as a lawyer. "The Mossad kidnapped my son," he says. "He is the easiest person to kidnap, very surrendering, no physical power, no money for bodyguards. They used his name and identity."

On Sept. 12, Atta claims, he was at his vacation home on the Mediterranean coast, shielded from the radio and television and thus unaware of the attacks the previous day, when his son called. They talked about "normal things." Only later that day, did he hear about the destruction in New York and Washington, and see his son's picture in the newspaper. He concluded: "They forced him to make the phone call after the attack to cause controversy. Then they killed him. This was done by the Mossad, using American pilots."

The contention reflects the desperation of a once-proud father who thought his 33-year-old son had merely been abroad studying-an image impossible to reconcile with the accusation that he helped murder more than 6,000 people. The father, 65, seemed to live vicariously through his son's accomplishments. "His two sisters are university professors with doctorates, and I wanted him to do the same," he said. "I thought it would be easier for him to achieve this abroad.... I urged him to learn German. I didn't tell him what to do. He was very attached to his mother. He didn't want to leave her. It was impossible for him to think about traveling abroad."

But once he decided to go to Germany, the younger Atta excelled. "He did his masters thesis in 1998," said his father. "One professor gave him [a grade of] 98 percent.... I was paying his expenses. He was also working in an engineering firm. He made two times as much as Germans, which turned out to be four times as much because he didn't pay taxes as a foreigner."

During the first 45 minutes of our interview, Atta senior recalled the mundane details of academic expeditions his son had made to Middle Eastern countries, his exam scores, and the praise he received from his advisors. His only worry, he said, was his son's shyness around women: "I started reminding him to get married. Many times I asked him to marry a woman of any nationality-Turkish, Germany, Syria-because he did not have a girlfriend like his colleagues. But he insisted that he would marry an Egyptian. He was never touching women, so how can he live? I always told him that according to religion you should get married and that you are getting older. He never extended his hand to shake the hand of a woman. He would only shake if she extended it to him. By nature he avoided problems."

That problem seemed solved when Atta visited Egypt in October 1999. "We found him a bride who was nice and delicate, the daughter of a former ambassador." But Atta said first he had to return to Germany to pursue a Ph.D. The woman's father, insisting that his daughter not leave Egypt, promised she would be waiting for Atta when he returned. But he never did.

"Every time he called, he said he had found a professor but was still negotiating. He told me, 'Dad, don't worry that I'm not visiting.' I told him, 'I'm not worried, I'm not afraid. I want to make sure you are OK. Every time he came I used to give him a lot of money. I get paid from my job very well."

The younger Atta called his family once a month. When he canceled a visit in late 2000, saying that his studies required him to stay in Germany, he worried about how this would affect his mother: "His mother was very much attached to him," said his father. "She was suffering all sorts of illnesses because of him being absent from her. I've never seen such a strong bond of love between a mother and a son."

According to his father, Atta always said he was calling from Germany and the senior Atta had no knowledge his son had ever been in the United States. More absurd to him was the idea that his son had enrolled in a Florida flight school. "Did he ever learn to fly? Never. He never even had a kite." Added Atta senior: "My daughter, who is a doctor, used to get him medicine before every journey, to make combat the cramps and the vomiting he feels every time he gets on the plane." At one point in our interview, he held up an old photograph of his son and said: "Look, he is even more handsome than the picture in the newspaper."

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