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Woman premonition { July 5 2002 }

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A premonition of evil

Jane Corbin reveals why three women had suspicions about chief hijacker Mohamed Atta

Friday July 5, 2002
The Guardian

It was lunchtime on September 11. Ann Greaves was having lunch at home in Kent when she heard the news that a plane had flown into the north tower of the World Trade Centre. Horrified, she watched the TV pictures of the smoking building and said to her husband: "My God, I hope this has nothing to do with those two Arabs at Huffman Aviation!" A feisty grandmother, Greaves had just fulfilled a lifelong ambition by learning to fly at the training school in Florida. Two men from the Middle East, Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehi, had been fellow pupils. As she spoke, a second plane smashed into the south tower. Immediately, before the names of the two suicide pilots had even been made public, Greaves was reaching for the phone to call the FBI. No men that I came across in my researches made similar calls.
Call it female intuition, but Greaves had been suspicious of Atta and his friend from the moment she met them. "The striking feature was Atta's eyes. They were extremely cold and arrogant and never wavered," she says. He made it clear he despised the woman who shared his Cessna trainer and even physically shrank away if he thought she might touch him. "I couldn't help but be suspicious as to why he was there," says Greaves. "There was no love of flying in him - he just saw the plane as a means to an end." She decided at the time that Atta was probably a drug runner.

Her suspicions were not shared by the male staff at Huffman. "We had no obligations to do a background check on them," says Rudi Dekkers, the Dutch owner of the flying school. The instructors found Atta unlikeable and arrogant, but did not question further.

A year earlier, another woman had been struck by Atta's strange behaviour. Chrilla Wendt, a trim German in her 60s, had been assistant to the professor who taught Atta at Hamburg University. She had been asked to help him turn his thesis into accurate German. "His attitude became increasingly strained. He seemed afraid of getting physically close at the desk where we worked," says Wendt. She also noticed that the student who had been clean-shaven when he arrived now sported a thick beard- a sign of his new militancy.

Atta had by now secretly become the operational commander of an al-Qaida cell in Hamburg and written a will, a sign of a would-be Islamic "martyr", in which he obsessed about his sexual purity and the contaminating effect of women. "I don't want women to go to my grave," he commanded. "The person who washes my body near my genitals must wear gloves on his hands."

At the ceremony to award his thesis, for which Atta gained the highest possible mark, he refused to shake the woman examiner's hand. "It was embarrassing," Wendt recalls. "She was standing with her hand out and he turned away. She was very upset." Professor Machule hastily covered up the faux pas, explaining that it was a "cultural matter". Machule had a view of Atta that contrasted sharply with those of his female colleagues. "I was impressed with him. He was somehow special, very reserved and intellectual."

The third woman who felt her spine chill when she saw Atta was businesswoman Jan Shineman. She was waiting for a flight to Los Angeles at Boston airport on September 9 when she noticed someone, "aloof, with very penetrating eyes" staring at her in a hostile way. Two days later she recognised the cold face featured in between the endless replays of the twin towers collapsing. It was Atta. He had been taking notes on the day Shineman saw him, watching the pilots complete their flight checks through the window. "I told my friends when I got to California that if he had boarded I would have told the captain about him, he was so odd and frightening," she says. Shineman was fortunate: Atta turned back that day after checking out the flight.

The men who manned the security machines did not notice Atta, or detect the knives that his team smuggled on to the plane. No travel agent questioned why 19 young Arab men without luggage bought one-way tickets on four US long-haul domestic flights that day.

Only one man noted the behaviour of a group of hijackers on a plane. The Hollywood actor James Woods was people-watching on his flight home to Los Angeles in August when he noticed four Arab men treating a steward rudely. "They ignored her like she didn't exist," he said later. With an actor's instinct he thought they were behaving as if they were on an undercover mission and he told the first officer he was afraid that they were hijackers. Nothing was done, and nothing happened to the flight that day. The men would later be among the hijackers on September 11.

These three women - Greaves, Wendt and Shineman - whose intuition fastened on the strangeness of a fanatic, are haunted by their failure to make more fuss about their suspicions. Perhaps the people around them should have listened more to the doubts that they did express.

Jane Corbin's book, The Base; In Search of al-Qaida, is published this month by Simon and Schuster, price 18.99. Her report for Panorama, The Hunt for Bin Laden, will be shown on BBC1 on Sunday at 10.15pm.

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Woman premonition { July 5 2002 }

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