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Mohamed Atta: Following the trail

(CNN) -- U.S. authorities describe Mohamed Atta as a terrorist who helped hijack American Airlines Flight 11, then flew it into the north tower of the World Trade Center September 11 in the first of four deadly attacks against America.

But in the Abdeen section of Cairo, Egypt, where Atta grew up, the suspected hijacker is described as "a good boy" who was always at the top of his class.

"If he could do something like that ... then I could suspect anyone, even my brother, or my own hands," said Mohamed Hassan Attiya, a former classmate of Atta's.

Attiya said Atta was polite and "on the right path" toward his goal of becoming an engineer.

Mohamed Kamel Khamis saw the Atta family almost daily for 14 years. He runs an auto repair shop below the apartment where the Atta family lived until 1992.

The suspected hijackers are reported to have shown interest in Florida crop-dusting aircraft. CNN's David Ensor reports. (September 24)

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Khamis said Atta was very introverted and was considered a good boy in the neighborhood.

Atta moved to Germany in 1992 to study at a Hamburg university.

He appeared to be an ordinary graduate student, but German authorities said they believe Atta joined other Islamic fundamentalists to form a terrorist group.

Officials believe the plot began long before September 11, 2001.

A German news report said that in late 1999 Atta and two other suspected hijackers reported their passports had been stolen.

The German Interior Ministry said that may have been a plan to get rid of evidence they had traveled to Afghanistan.

Atta used his new passport to obtain a tourist visa for the United States on May 18, 2000, European government sources told CNN.

Less than a month later, he flew to Prague, Czech Republic, where he stayed for 24 hours before leaving for the United States.

U.S. and European intelligence sources told CNN Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence agent during the detour. Iraq has repeatedly denied having anything to do with the plot.

Atta arrived in New York on June 3, 2000.

A few weeks later, Atta and others suspected in the plot went to Norman, Oklahoma, where they toured a flight school.

"They wanted the professional pilot course, which does result in a commercial pilot's license for a single and multi-engine land[ing]," said Shirley Franklin of the Airman Flight School.

The group did not stay in Oklahoma and decided to train in Florida.

Atta and the others took flying lessons from July until December 2000. They kept a low profile, living in several short-term rental apartments, opening e-mail accounts and buying cellular phones.

In January 2001, Atta made the first of two trips to Spain. Intelligence officials told CNN that during one of the two trips, a senior Iraqi intelligence official was also in the country. Investigators do not know if they met.

Atta flew back to Miami January 10, even though his U.S. visa had expired.

An airplane mechanic in Florida said Atta came to his airstrip twice in February to look at a crop-dusting plane. Investigators told CNN Atta also went to a Homestead, Florida, bank to ask about getting a loan to buy a crop-duster.

In April, Atta was arrested in Broward County, Florida, for driving without a license. He got a license a week later.

In June, Atta flew to Las Vegas, Nevada, where investigators believe he met with other hijackers who were training on the West Coast.

In July, he went back to Spain for two weeks. There are reports that Atta went to a prison in southern Spain, where he asked to visit an Algerian being held on murder charges. The request was denied.

He returned to the United States after almost two weeks. During his trip, he reportedly drove more than 1,200 miles in his rental car.

On August 12, Atta flew to Las Vegas a second time and investigators believe he again met with other hijackers. Authorities do not know if this was a rehearsal for the attacks.

When he returned to Florida, Atta rented a car that he, or his co-conspirators, drove almost 3,000 miles. Investigators are not sure where he went.

He bought a ticket August 28 for American Airlines Flight 11 on the Internet.

The Boston Globe reported that in early September Atta's rental car was recorded on closed-circuit video at Boston's Logan Airport, where Flight 11 originated.

On September 7, Atta was seen in a bar in Hollywood, Florida, with Marwan al-Shehri, who had come from Hamburg with him. The men were drinking and boasting about being pilots for American Airlines.

The last picture of Atta was taken on the morning of September 11, at the airport in Portland, Maine. Atta had just cleared airport security before boarding a flight for Boston where he would catch Flight 11.

Atta's father, attorney Mohamed Alameer Atta, said his son hated suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and would have never have joined his organization, al Qaeda.

The elder Atta said his son was framed. He said he talked to his son after the attacks and believes he was later killed by Israeli intelligence forces.

-- CNN's Sheila MacVicar and James Martone contributed to this story.


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