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A trail of contradictions

Two of the men authorities suspect are linked to Tuesday's attacks leave behind conflicting clues as to who they were and how they arrived in Florida.

By KATHRYN WEXLER, ADAM C. SMITH, DAVID ADAMS and SYDNEY P. FREEDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2001


Two of the men authorities suspect are linked to Tuesday's attacks leave behind conflicting clues as to who they were and how they arrived in Florida.

VENICE -- Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi wanted to blend into this sleepy little beach community, but it wasn't easy.

They wore American clothes and drove a red 1989 Pontiac. But they also flashed large wads of cash, complained angrily about Israel and spent a lot of time reading news web sites in Arabic.

Even among the large community of foreigners who flocked here to Huffman Aviation, a pilot's school that offers training in small planes, Atta and Al-Shehhi stood out.

"They seemed different, moody," said Richard Nyren, a British student who knew both men authorities suspect were among the terrorists who crashed commercial airplanes into the World Trade Center.

"You would never see them smile," Nyren said.

On their road to what federal agents say was mass murder, Atta, 33, and Al-Shehhi, 23, crossed several continents.

Records and interviews show they began in the Middle East, continued into Germany then moved last year through central and south Florida. That's where investigators say the men spent several months learning to fly planes.

Sometime in the past week, their path took them to the Northeast. Atta has been traced to Portland, Maine. Both men arrived at Boston's Logan Airport early Tuesday and boarded separate planes.

Atta was aboard American Airlines 11, the first plane that crashed into the World Trade Center, according to published reports. Al-Shehhi was aboard United Airlines Flight 175, the second plane.

In the months leading up to the fatal attack, the men cut portraits that were colored by contradiction.

Though they seemed to embrace many American comforts, they were firmly grounded in their Islamic heritage, said Azzan Ali, who befriended them last year when all were students at Huffman Aviation in Venice. Atta claimed to be from Egypt; Al-Shehhi told students he was from the United Arab Emirates.

"They were very religious," Ali said.

Yet several days before the attack, the two men went to a bar in the southeast Florida city of Hollywood and got "wasted" on rum and vodka shots, according to a Hollywood bartender. Then Atta argued with the manager over the bill.

Neither man had jobs. "We don't want to work," Ali said they told him in Venice.

But they always had plenty of money. Both paid $10,000 for their flying lessons, said Rudi Dekkers, owner of the aviation school.

Charles Voss, a former Huffman Aviation staffer who let the two men stay at his Venice home for several days in July 2000, said they paid cash for the use of his spare bedroom.

Voss said they had virtually no conversations beyond quick greetings in the hall. They kept the room sloppy, he said, and barely acknowledged the presence of his wife.

"There was no way that me or anybody else could have picked up on why they were here or what they were doing," Voss said.

Voss said he finally asked the men to leave. They moved north to a two-bedroom house in nearby Nokomis.

"I never saw them, and when you don't see them you don't worry about them," said Jeff Duignan, who lived next door to the men last summer.

Atta and Al-Shehhi eventually earned commercial flight ratings at Huffman, then moved to South Florida. Records show that Atta listed a Coral Springs apartment building as his address when he obtained a Florida driver's license in May.

In December, Atta and Al-Shehhi received training at Simcenter Inc., a Dade County aviation facility owned by pilot Henry R. George. The school has a Boeing 727 flight simulator, which would have allowed the men to familiarize themselves with a jet.

NBC News reported Thursday that both men paid $1,500 in cash for six hours of simulator lessons.

"We're sick about what happened," said Brian George, the owner's son.

But the investigation into Atta and Al-Shehhi extends much wider than Florida.

Federal agents are looking at a trail that includes Germany and Canada, two countries in which groups of radical Islamic fundamentalists have ties to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born millionaire authorities have linked to the attack.

German authorities said Atta lived with Al-Shehhi in Hamburg. The two men, along with a third suspect, studied electronics at the Technical University in the port city, officials said.

Hamburg is home to about 80,000 Muslims of various nationalities. Germany has long been regarded as a safe haven for Islamic extremist groups.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, acting on information from the FBI, said it was checking whether up to five of the suspects, including Atta, entered the United States via Canada.

The Mounties are apparently focusing on two border points: Jackman, a remote site near Armstrong, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. At least two of the terrorists spent Monday night at a Comfort Inn in Portland, Maine, about a mile from the Portland International Airport.

Atta was one of them, the Portland Press-Herald reported. It said a videotape taken at a security checkpoint shows Atta boarding a shuttle flight the next morning for Boston, where he connected with American Airlines Flight 11.

Authorities think Atta may have guided that plane into the first of the two New York towers. The calamity is expected to claim thousands of lives.

Baggage belonging to Atta never got on Flight 11. Investigators found it after the attack. The luggage contained a copy of the Koran, an instructional video on flying commercial planes and a fuel consumption calculator.

It's unclear how Atta and Al-Shehhi qualified for flight instruction in the first place.

As foreigners studying at Huffman Aviation, the men would have been required to obtain student visas. Rudi Dekkers, Huffman's owner, said the school helps students obtain the visas.

"We send them the paperwork and they go to their embassies," Dekkers said.

But Richard Nyren, the men's British classmate, said it's not easy to get a student visa, even with the help of the school. He said he had to provide bank statements to show he had money to cover his lessons and living expenses and a house mortgage to prove he would return to the United Kingdom.

He said his student visa was rejected the first time he applied because he hadn't submitted enough information.

Foreigners are drawn to flying lessons in the United States for several reasons. None, however, is more important than cost. Pilots and students say instruction here is much cheaper. In the United Kingdom, for example, flying a Cessna for an hour would cost about $140, Nyren said. At Huffman, the cost is about half that.

- Times staff writer Barry Klein and Times researchers Cathy Wos, Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report.

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