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USDA official: Atta sought loan for plane

©Associated Press
June 7, 2002

MIAMI -- A U.S. Department of Agriculture official says terrorist ringleader Mohamed Atta tried to get a $650,000 government loan to buy a small airplane, telling her he intended to outfit it with a large chemical tank.

Johnell Bryant, a loan officer at a USDA office in South Florida, said Atta visited her in the spring of 2000, saying he had just arrived from Afghanistan and hoped to get his pilot's license and buy a plane to use for charter flights and for crop-dusting.

"He wanted to finance a twin-engine six-passenger aircraft and remove the seats," Bryant told ABC's World News Tonight. "He said he was an engineer, and he wanted to build a chemical tank that would fit inside the aircraft and take up every available square inch of the aircraft except for where the pilot would be sitting."

Bryant could not be reached Thursday night by the Associated Press. She told ABC the interview was against the wishes of her bosses. ABC says she passed a lie detector examination.

Bryant said Atta used his real name when she interviewed him.

"I spelled it A-T-T-A-H, and he told me, "No, A-T-T-A, as in "Atta boy!' " Bryant said.

She said she rejected Atta for a loan because he was not a U.S. citizen. Before he left, Atta tried to buy a panoramic photograph of Washington, D.C., that hung on her office wall. He pointed specifically to the White House and Pentagon and called the photo "one of the prettiest" he had seen of the capital.

"He pulled out a wad of cash," she said. "He wanted that picture really bad."

Bryant said when she explained the picture was a gift from her former colleagues, Atta threw more money down.

"His look on his face became very bitter at that point," Bryant said. "I believe he said, "How would America like it if another country destroyed that city and some of the monuments in it,' like the cities in his country had been destroyed?"

She also remembers Atta mentioning al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, saying bin Laden "would someday be known as the world's greatest leader."

"I didn't know who Osama bin Laden was. He could have been a character on Star Wars for all I knew," Bryant said.

After that meeting, Atta and members of his group began taking flying lessons. He is believed to have been piloting one of the planes that struck the World Trade Center.

Bryant said she didn't report the incident before Sept. 11, saying there is no way she could have detected Atta was a terrorist.

"Should I have picked up the telephone and called someone? You can't ask me that more often than I have asked myself that," Bryant said. "I don't know how I could possibly expect myself to have recognized what that man was. And yet sometimes I haven't forgiven myself."

Shortly after Sept. 11, Bryant recognized Atta's photo and alerted authorities. A federal law enforcement official told the AP that Bryant's information had contributed to an FBI warning about possible terrorist use of crop dusters.

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