Hijacker tried to get U.S. loan to buy plane

MIAMI — A Department of Agriculture official says Sept. 11 terrorist ringleader Mohamed Atta tried to obtain a $650,000 government loan to buy a small plane, saying he intended to outfit it with a large chemical tank, and asked questions about Seattle and other U.S. cities.

Johnell Bryant, a loan officer in South Florida, said Atta visited her in the spring of 2000, saying he had just arrived from Afghanistan and hoped to earn his pilot's license and buy a plane to use for charter flights and for crop-dusting.

"He wanted to finance a twin-engine, six-passenger aircraft and remove the seats," Bryant told ABC's "World News Tonight" in an interview broadcast yesterday. "He said he was an engineer, and he wanted to build a chemical tank that would fit inside the aircraft and take up every available square inch of the aircraft except for where the pilot would be sitting."

Bryant said Atta also asked about security at the World Trade Center and about Seattle, Chicago and Los Angeles. He showed particular interest in Texas Stadium, home of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys, she said.

Law-enforcement officials said Bryant passed a lie-detector exam and that parts of her story were corroborated by captured Osama bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zabaydah, ABC said.

Bryant said Atta used his real name when she interviewed him.

"I spelled it A-T-T-A-H, and he told me, 'No, A-T-T-A, as in Atta boy!' " Bryant said.

Bryant said she rejected Atta for a loan because he was not a citizen. Before he left, Atta tried to buy a panoramic photo of Washington, D.C., hanging on her wall. He pointed specifically to the White House and Pentagon and called the photo "one of the prettiest" he had seen of the capital.

"He pulled out a wad of cash. He wanted that picture really bad."

Bryant said she explained that the picture had been a gift.

"His look on his face became very bitter at that point," she said. "I believe he said, 'How would America like it if another country destroyed that city and some of the monuments in it' like the cities in his country had been destroyed?"

She recalls Atta mentioning al-Qaida and bin Laden, saying he "would someday be known as the world's greatest leader."

"I didn't know who Osama bin Laden was. He could have been a character on 'Star Wars' for all I knew," Bryant said.

Bryant said she never reported the incident before Sept. 11.

"Should I have picked up the telephone and called someone? You can't ask me that more often than I have asked myself that," she said. "I don't know how I could possibly expect myself to have recognized what that man was. And yet sometimes I haven't forgiven myself."