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In January of this year, Atta hopped a flight from Miami to Madrid. It's unclear why he went, and when he returned to Miami International Airport on Jan. 10, he was allowed back in the country despite his expired visa. He didn't bother to list his flight or carrier, yet sailed through immigration. The next month, Atta and Al-Shehhi rented a single-engine Piper Warrior from a Gwinnett County, Ga., flight school. Like many other pilots, they were honing their skills. Atta inquired again about crop dusters--this time in Belle Glade, Fla. He and some men with him wanted to know how much fuel and chemicals the yellow 502 Air Tractors could carry and whether special skills were needed to pilot them.
On April 26, Broward County sheriff's deputy Josh Strambaugh stopped Atta for a traffic violation. Atta didn't have his license with him and was given a citation. He did not show up for his hearing, and on June 4 a warrant was issued for his arrest. But it was too late. By this time, Atta and his men were moving every couple of months, drifting from one low-rent dwelling to the next. Nearing the final stages of their plotting, they had become very careful. They kept to themselves and seem not to have even attended a mosque. Only occasionally would somebody notice them. One observer was Jim Woolard, owner of a World Gym in Delray Beach, Fla., who recalls Atta as "driven" on the weight machines (perhaps one reason that the folks back home would have trouble recognizing the newly beefy Atta in photos released after Sept. 11).
On June 29, Atta traveled to Las Vegas, where he stayed in a cheap room, with the DO NOT DISTURB SIGN constantly dangling from the door. While in town, investigators told the Associated Press, he met with two other hijackers, Salem Alhazmi and Hani Hanjour. His Hamburg pals Al-Shehhi and Jarrah were also there, which suggests a planning session. Four of the five men were on separate flights on Sept. 11, and one theory is that the four leaders of the four hijacked planes were there to work out final details.
On July 9, Atta made another trip to Madrid. He spent 10 days in Spain, running up 1,250 miles on his rental car. His time there remains murky, but last week six men suspected of belonging to a group financed by bin Laden were arrested in Spain on charges unrelated to Sept. 11. Investigators are tracing Atta's steps to see whether he met with them.
Atta returned to the U.S. on a business visa. He made another quick trip to Las Vegas but spent most of his time in Florida. Sources have told TIME that in the 10 days before Sept. 11, Atta received at least two wire transfers of money from a man investigators have linked with bin Laden. But the last days weren't all business. On Sept. 7, Atta, Al-Shehhi and another man visited Shuckum's Oyster Bar and Grill in Hollywood, Fla. Contrary to earlier reports of his carousing, Atta was the only one of the three who didn't drink alcohol. Instead, he downed cranberry juice all night, sugary fuel for the pinball machine--Golden Tee '97--that he played for 3 1/2 hours.