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With One Month to Go Before 9/11, Mohammed Atta Took a Meeting in New Jersey

In this series, Newsweek maps the road to 9/11 as it happened 20 years ago, day by day.

Mohammed Atta was in Fort Lee, New Jersey, on August 12 when he stopped to use an Internet cafe called "Web Station." He was on his way to Washington DC, where he boarded a flight the next day to Las Vegas. On his agenda: one last face-to-face meeting with Hani Hanjour, the only pilot not of the Hamburg group and the only one not living and training in Florida.

As "emir" of the American plot, Atta was chief planner, trainer, financial and logistical manager, and part psychologist, keeping everyone on track and motivated over a period of 19 months. Most important, he ultimately had the authority to choose the targets and the date of the attack. Al Qaeda central in Afghanistan said it wanted to hit one military, one political and one financial target—and Osama bin Laden was particularly interested in hitting the U.S. Capitol building—but Atta had the final say based on the conditions on the ground.

Atta's journey to radicalism began in 1996 when, during the Israel invasion of southern Lebanon, civilians were accidently killed inside a U.N. compound at a small village named Qana. The incident at Qana became a rallying cry for Islamists. In his August 1996 "fatwa," Osama bin Laden said, in addressing his fellow Muslims, "Your blood has been spilt in Palestine and Iraq, and the horrific images of the massacre in Qana in Lebanon are still fresh in people's minds." Atta, then in Hamburg as a student, pledged his life on behalf of bin Laden.

In Hamburg, Atta was leader of a group of young Arab men that included the two other pilots of the so-called "Hamburg Four," Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah. The four—including Ramzi Bin al-Shibh—went to Afghanistan in 1999 and met with bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders. There they were told of the planes operation and the role al Qaeda would like them to play: to become the pilots to attack America. They received training from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Pakistan before returning to Germany and their home countries to get new passports and start the process of disconnecting from their lives and preparing to move to America.

In addition to learning to fly, the pilot hijackers needed to become familiar with the layout and routines of the specific models of the airliners they would hijack, and in addition to watching training and promotional videos, each took multiple flights in First Class to observe the ebb and flow of the typical domestic flight. On June 28, Atta made the first of two trips to Las Vegas, a flight that originated from Boston Logan, his first reconnaissance from the airport that he would ultimately use to board American Airlines Flight 11 and fly into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

9/11 hijackers terrorism WTC Mohammed Atta
Surveillance camera photographs of suspected hijackers Mohammed Atta (R) and Abdulaziz Alomari (C) passing through airport security September 11, 2001 at Portland International Jetport in Maine. They then flew to Boston and boarded AA11, which crashed into the WTC. U.S. Navy/Getty Images

When Atta arrived in Las Vegas the second time, he met up with Hanjour, evidently to discuss the makeup of his team and his target of attack (the Pentagon). The 9/11 Commission would later write, "Beyond Las Vegas's reputation for welcoming tourists, we have seen no credible evidence explaining why, on this occasion and others, the operatives flew to or met in Las Vegas."

This is an odd statement because the flight to Las Vegas was obviously also another leg on the extensive familiarization flights Atta took. They evidently started on June 27, when he flew from Miami to Boston. The next day he flew from Boston to San Francisco, continuing on to Las Vegas. On July 1, he left Las Vegas and flew to Denver and then on to Boston. From Boston, he flew to New York JFK and then from Newark back to Miami on July 3rd. He continued to fly on orientation flights in July, from Atlanta to Ft. Lauderdale, from Ft. Lauderdale to Newark, from Washington National to Las Vegas on August 13, returning to Miami the next day via Houston. The orientation flights ceased at the end of August. Atta and the other hijacker teams positioned themselves and readied for 9/11.

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Newsweek is reconstructing the road to 9/11 as it was constructed 20 years ago, day by day. Each day a new story will be published here. On September 11 we'll live tweet the events of the day, minute by minute, starting at 4:45 a.m. EST, @RoadTo911.