Who were the September 11 hijackers?

A picture of Mohamed Atta taped to the inside of a car once rented by the hijacker.
David Friedman/Getty Images

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, left America and much of the world wondering: Who could have been responsible for the devastating terrorist attacks that left nearly 3,000 people dead?

On that fateful day, 19 hijackers took over four commercial airplanes in flight, piloting two into New York City's World Trade Center towers, one into the Pentagon, and one into an abandoned strip mine in Pennsylvania, the latter failing to reach its intended target. Three of the flights carried five hijackers each, while a fourth flight (the one that crashed in Pennsylvania) carried only four hijackers. In this article, we'll focus on the pilots of the hijacked planes, three of whom stemmed from a group that originally consorted in Hamburg, Germany. The other hijackers were less prominent, and their presence was meant to subdue the passengers and crew.


Terry McDermott, the author of "Perfect Soldiers," which explores the paths of these central hijackers, believes that they were surprisingly unremarkable men. Mohamed Atta, the leader of the hijackers, did not come from an especially religious family, but led a sheltered life in Egypt until moving to Germany.

In contrast to the serious Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, from the United Arab Emirates, was more laid back, though he grew up with a stricter Islamic upbringing, and often sang and laughed about the joy of being a martyr. Al-Shehhi soon became Atta's shadow after they met, and the two took flight lessons together. Al-Shehhi would eventually follow Atta to death, piloting a plane into the South Tower of the World Trade Center shortly after Atta flew his into the North Tower.

The pilot of Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, was a Lebanese named Ziad Jarrah. Jarrah was apparently the most jovial of the group. After taking flight lessons in the United States in preparation for his mission, he returned to Germany to see his girlfriend. While there, he reportedly almost changed his mind about going through with the plan.

The man who allegedly convinced Jarrah to go through with it was Ramzi bin al-Shibh, another member of the original Hamburg cell, who, had he been approved for a visa, would have become the fourth pilot. Instead, that job went to a Saudi named Hani Hanjour, who was already a licensed pilot in the United States. Hanjour joined Al Qaeda after failing to get a job, eventually flying Flight 77 into the Pentagon.


Mohamed Atta and the Formation of the Hamburg Cell

Mohamed Atta, the eventual ring leader of the hijackers who flew his plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, also helped plan the scheme. Having grown up in Egypt in a strict household, he is described as having had a very serious demeanor. From a young age, he excelled at his studies and was seldom allowed to play. Although his family wasn't particularly religious, experts believe that once he moved to Hamburg, Germany, his religious beliefs intensified. Atta was known to leave the room when lurid entertainment like belly dancing came on TV, and was likely disgusted with women's revealing clothing and prostitution, both common in Hamburg [source: McDermott].

After getting a degree in architecture in Cairo, Atta moved to Germany to further his studies and ended up at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg. Upon arrival in Hamburg in the early '90s, he wasted no time looking for a mosque, eventually finding one called Al Quds. It was through this mosque that Atta formed a prayer group with like-minded Muslims, including Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah.


The group met at an apartment at Marrienstrasse 54. Impressed with Al Qaeda's bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, they soon sought involvement with the organization. By late 1999, they succeeded. After coming to Al Qaeda, the members of the Hamburg cell soon met Osama bin Laden himself. Although unexceptional and unremarkable, these members of the Hamburg cell were exactly the kind of men bin Laden had been looking for. They were dedicated and willing to become martyrs, but most importantly, they had clean backgrounds and would have a relatively easy time getting into the United States.

Bin Laden asked them to become martyrs for the "Planes Operation," which was a plot crafted by the infamous terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. The idea involved hijacking planes and crashing them into high-profile buildings. Members of the Hamburg cell were ready and willing. They soon went to work, returning to Germany, getting replacement passports, requesting visas and, finally, taking flight lessons in the United States.

With Al Qaeda supplying funding, instruction and 15 "muscle terrorists" to join them on the planes, the members of the Hamburg cell simply had to follow orders.


Lots More Information

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  • Bazerman, Max H. "Predictable Surprises." Harvard Business Press, 2004. (June 3, 2011)http://books.google.com/books?id=tkHw6CG1hhwC
  • Corbin, Jane. "Al-Qaeda." Nation Books, 2003. (June 3, 2011)http://books.google.com/books?id=RIHHWWQy-xYC
  • History Channel. "The 9/11 Hijackers -- Inside the Hamburg Cell." The History Channel, 2007.
  • McDermott, Terry. "Perfect Soldiers." HarperCollins, 2006. (June 3, 2011)http://books.google.com/books?id=4Oufo58esZAC
  • Smith, Hedrick. "Inside the Terror Network: Reporter's Notebook." Frontline. Public Broadcasting Station. (June 3, 2011)http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/network/etc/notebook.html