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Europeans Describe Hijackers As Elite, Sophisticated Group

By Peter Finn

European investigators say they increasingly believe that the Sept. 11 hijackers and their support network in Europe made up a carefully chosen and tightly insulated group that had little if any contact with other al Qaeda terror cells in Europe and learned from past terrorist failures while planning the attacks.

Better educated, less visible because of their comfort in the West, and firmly committed to a goal over years, the hijackers were a group apart from the young, poorly educated men who nurtured their anger in European slums but repeatedly failed to pull off plans for atrocities in Paris, Rome, Los Angeles and Strasbourg, France.

Mohamed Atta, suspected as a leader of the hijacking plot, was a city planner, fluent in German, English and Arabic, who held advanced degrees. During the years he lived in Hamburg, Germany, he supported himself with a variety of legitimate jobs. Members of a terrorist cell broken up in Milan, Italy, typically supported themselves through such crimes as drug dealing, Italian authorities say.

For investigators, the hijackers’ isolation, even within the world of al Qaeda, makes the Sept. 11 plot more difficult to deconstruct and potential attacks more difficult to avert. “It's like a ghost in front of you,” said a senior French official.

While Western investigators say they believe the Sept. 11 plot was approved by al Qaeda, they continue to struggle to piece together its internal organization. Who specifically conceived the plot. How did the group of 19, coming from different parts of the world, with some already in the United States, coalesce? What was the internal command structure among the 19 members and between them and Afghanistan?

“Clearly, there was a very good analysis of the United States and what can be achieved” there, said Roland Jacquard, a French terrorism expert with close ties to his country's intelligence services.