- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2001

Two months before flying a jetliner into the World Trade Center, Mohamed Atta went on a European road trip.
He flew from Miami to Spain, rented a car and drove 1,190 miles in 12 days, paying a brief visit to Switzerland.
Spanish police say Atta's papers were in order and they had no reason to suspect he would emerge as the ringleader in a suicide hijacking plot that killed more than 5,200 people on Sept. 11.
Spanish authorities now are trying to determine if Atta met with associates of Osama bin Laden or with members an Algerian terror cell during that trip, or if he avoided passport controls by flying from Barcelona to another European country to meet with organizers of the attacks.
"He could have simply taken a plane at Barcelona airport and gone to any country, Germany, France or whatever," said Spanish National Police Chief Juan Cortino.
Atta's European trip is one of four known overseas visits by suspected hijackers in the months before the attacks.
The search overseas is critical because U.S. law-enforcement officials increasingly believe the hijackers received their instructions and financing from masterminds of bin Laden's al Qaeda network, who remained behind in Europe and the Middle East.
"It's logical to think that the guys going back and forth were giving updates on the progress they were making so they could get the assets they needed in place," said Rep. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee's terrorism subcommittee.
The movements of the hijackers, as detailed through public records and interviews, suggest there were two distinct groups. Six were leaders who arrived last year, and most had pilot's licenses. Thirteen others arrived just months before the attacks and provided the muscle to keep passengers on the hijacked planes at bay.
Three of the six leaders left the United States for brief trips abroad during the past year, or met with suspected terrorist collaborators just before arriving stateside.
And as Sept. 11 approached, the six leaders increasingly crossed paths with one another and the 13 other hijackers.
"They needed the older, more mature, more dedicated people who've been around," said Clint Van Zandt, a retired FBI agent.
In January 2000, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, two of the five who commandeered the plane that slammed into the Pentagon, met in Malaysia with a bin Laden associate later implicated in the plot to bomb the USS Cole in Yemen.
In January, Atta traveled to Spain, and stayed about a week. Spanish authorities say they don't know what he did there.
Atta traveled abroad at least twice more. U.S. officials say he met with a suspected Iraqi intelligence agent in Europe in April. He returned to Spain for 12 days in July.
Stateside, Atta met frequently with the other five suspected hijacking leaders. Soon, the six began to be seen more often with the other 13 collaborators.
Each team of hijackers moved closer to their targets as the attack date neared. There's evidence some even flew planes on possible trial runs past the World Trade Center.

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