WAR ON TERROR: SUSPECTS SLIP NET: LUCK OF THE DEVIL; EXCLUSIVE: Police Caught Terrorist Leader Atta for Driving Offence but Let Him Go MOHAMED ATTA Skipped Court but a Warrant for His Arrest Was Never Followed Up MARWAN AL SHEHHI Maps and Flight Manuals Found in His Room Two Days before Attack
Byline: STEVE DENNIS in Florida and JEREMY ARMSTRONG in Hamburg
IN the rearview mirror, Mohamed Atta saw the red and blue flashing lights and heard a siren beckoning him to stop.
It was shortly after 11pm in Florida nearly five months ago, and the man now believed ringleader of the hijack terrorists had police on his tail.
Atta, 33, must have cursed as he pulled over in his red 1986 Pontiac. Everything had gone to plan so far. He had kept on the move, paid attention to every detail and avoided trouble under cover of the sunshine state.
He was already on US files after being implicated in a bus bombing in Israel in 1996. His name was on a federal "watch list" of people tied to terrorist activity.
The routine traffic stop on Inverrary Boulevard, Broward County, southern Florida, had all the potential for an extraordinary catch.
But Atta not only had the most evil of minds. That day, April 26, he also had the luck of the devil.
He was arrested for not having a driving licence, bailed to appear in court and allowed to drive away.
Atta gave an address the FBI have now searched - apartment 122 at 10001 West Atlantic Boulevard in Coral Springs. It is not known whether it was checked at the time. He was supposed to appear at Broward County West Satellite Courthouse, near Miami, at 8.45am on May 28. Predictably, he never showed.
A warrant was issued by the court but never followed up by police.
Atta fled Coral Springs, moved to Hollywood 15 miles south and honed his piloting skills with lessons on a Boeing 727 simulator.
He then re-emerged last Tuesday, it is believed, in charge of four hijackers who crashed the first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, into Tower One of the World Trade Center.
It has become clear Atta spent years planning the operation, was its lynchpin, and that his mission was the "flagship" assault.
Just who took control of the Boeing 767 from Boston may never be known.
All the evidence points to Atta himself. It is thought he took command of the cabin after handcuffing an air hostess.
Another Florida-based suspected hijacker, Ahmed Alghamdi, lost his driving licence in 1995 for not paying traffic fines in Orange County. But it is the way Atta slipped through the net that has shocked the state.
Broward clerk of courts Howard Forman, said: "I have given the FBI everything we had. They are now doing a thorough investigation.
"Police in southern Florida seldom track down people accused of relatively minor violations. We should enforce our laws more seriously."
County sheriff Ken Jenne said his office was aware of "the one that had received a ticket".
A police spokeswoman said: "No police agency has the luxury to go out and hunt for people for every violation."
Despite being named on the federal "watch list", no connection was made to Atta's State Department visa application.
To the standard question, "Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organisation?", Atta ticked the 'no' box.
Of the 19 hijackers, at least 15 had Florida ties. Seven were believed to be pilots. Passing themselves off as computer buffs or pilots, they went unnoticed in southern Florida, where Americans mix with Cubans, Jamaicans, English and Arabs.
Atta and fellow suspect-in-chief Marwan Al Shehhi, 23, spent part of the 14 months before Tuesday at flight schools there.
In the weeks leading up to the assault, they used a Boeing 727 flight simulator at Opa Locka Airport, Miami. They paid $1,500 (pounds 1,070) for a six-hour course. …