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Doris and Uwe Michaels

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Atta stayed with this family on arrival in Hamburg. They had met with his father in Cairo Egypt and recruited him.

Atta may have been on a scholarship program known as the Carl Duisberg Scholarship and/or the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program.


9/11 haunts hijacker's sponsors. German couple talks of living with pilot Atta March 07, 2003

HAMBURG, Germany — The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks caused a special brand of remorse for most residents of Germany's second-largest city when investigators revealed that the hijackings were planned here.

For one Hamburg couple, the remorse remains acutely personal.

As photographs of the 19 hijackers were beamed around the world, the couple recognized the man with the impassive stare as their former houseguest, Mohamed Atta, who piloted the first plane to hit the World Trade Center.

The couple's anguish over their efforts to bring Atta to Hamburg has been so severe that the woman sought psychological counseling, and even now, a year and a half later, they still agonize over the consequences of their kindness.

This was the city where Atta forged his fateful link with Al Qaeda.

Investigators on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean consider Atta the leader of the Hamburg Al Qaeda cell, which produced three of the four pilots who crashed planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

It is possible that if he had not moved here, Sept. 11 would remain just another date on the calendar.

After agreeing to be interviewed only if their names were not used, the couple showed a visitor the cramped room where the serious, introverted young man spent his first six months in the Western society he grew to detest.

The contents of the room are banal: an ironing board, a sofa, shelves full of videotapes, a television set.

TV was repulsive

"The TV wasn't in here when he lived here," said the gray-haired man, who smiled ruefully at the memory.

Even in 1992, Atta had little tolerance for the licentious images that were constantly broadcast into this modest, single-story cottage not far from the Hamburg airport.

"He seldom watched TV," the husband said in a witness statement to German federal police. "When a somewhat explicit scene came on, he put his hands in front of his face."

The man's account and a similar one by his wife explain how Atta chose Hamburg out of all the places in the West where he could have continued his studies in architecture and city planning. Copies of their statements, made on Oct. 2, 2001, were obtained by the Tribune.

Beginning in 1985, the woman, who taught for 36 years at a local grade school, organized student exchange programs with schools in Egypt, whose ancient history was one of the subjects she taught. The couple traveled to Egypt frequently.

"Exchange is always something positive and friendly," said the 65-year-old woman, who retired in 1999.

During a visit to the Egyptian capital in fall 1991, the couple stayed with friends who knew Atta's father, who was prodding his son to pursue graduate studies aboard.

His father's friends introduced Atta to the German couple, who spoke with the family in English. Atta, who had recently graduated with a degree in architectural engineering from the University of Cairo, told the couple he wanted to study architecture in Germany, but he had no particular idea where he should go.

"In this first conversation, we suggested he continue his studies in Hamburg and offered him a place to live at our house," the wife told investigators from the BKA, the German equivalent of the FBI. "He accepted this offer right away."

After studying German in Cairo, Atta arrived in the country on July 24, 1992, according to investigators' records. He moved into a rent-free room in the couple's small house in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood where children play in the street.

Atta, then 23, had no visitors and kept to himself, displaying the intensely introverted nature recalled by others who knew him later.

"He wanted to go his own way and achieve his goals," the wife told the BKA. "As a rule, he declined our help. He said he was a grown man and must manage for himself."

Atta said that when he completed his studies, he wanted to return to Cairo as a city planner and start a family as soon as possible.

And, far from having an obsession with America or preaching violence, Atta advocated peaceful solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"He said weapons were not the way to solve problems," the wife said forcefully. "He said you should use words, not weapons. That is still clear in my ear. That tells me that later he was changed."

Their account squares with German investigators' current theory that the Hamburg cell was not made up of "sleeper" Al Qaeda agents who were awaiting a signal to carry out the attack. Instead, Atta and fellow hijacker pilots Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah apparently were radicalized after they arrived in Hamburg.

From the first, the couple recalled, Atta was a devout Muslim. He prayed five times a day in his room, washing his hands thoroughly before prayers in accordance with Muslim practice. He prepared his own meals, explaining that he could not use the family's pots because they had been used to cook pork, which Muslims are forbidden to eat.

He also adhered to strict Muslim teaching regarding sex. Over the 1992 holidays, Atta returned from a visit to Cairo with a video of his sister's wedding, but before playing it for the couple, he explained that it contained a performance of a belly dancer in a flesh-colored gown. Before this came on, Atta said, he would leave the room.

Atta's stay at the couple's house was calm until the beginning of 1993, when his observance of Ramadan, the Muslim month of daytime fasting, began to affect the peace of the household. Nighttime, when Muslims may eat simple meals, was especially trying.

"He cooked the whole night or listened to music, which meant for us that during the entire night, there was commotion in the house," the wife told investigators.

As they recall this period now, they say that despite their familiarity with Islam, their patience wore thin. Waking to the smell of mutton that Atta had cooked overnight or witnessing the frequent praying and hand-washing proved too much.

"It was not normal for us," said the husband, 66, who also retired in 1999.

In her statement to police, the wife said that the family, including their now-grown son, became increasingly unhappy with Atta's presence, and they asked him to move out. Now, the wife says she was upset in the wake of the attacks and exaggerated the strain between Atta and the family.

"We didn't send him out," she said. "When he moved in, it was clear he would stay here for only a few months until he found a place to live."

After about six months, Atta moved to student housing.

Couple watched 9/11

On Sept. 11, 2001, the couple was discussing another trip to Egypt when their son called to tell them to turn on the television. They tuned in to see the second plane hit the World Trade Center.

Two days later, after Atta had been identified as one of the hijackers, the husband contacted the police.

"It was a shock for me," said the wife, who went to a therapist to help her resolve her feelings of guilt and depression for having played such an important role in Atta's move to Germany. "Knowing him gives me a connection to this [the attacks], and that doesn't please me."

Even now, the couple can hardly believe that the serious young man they knew turned into a mass murderer.

"He talked about peace here," said the husband, standing in the middle of their living room. "We couldn't understand how he could do this. It was unfathomable."

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