A month after 9/11, Fouad Ajami wrote in the New York Times Magazine, “I almost know Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian [at] the controls of the jet that crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.” While the Middle East scholar had never met the lead hijacker, Ajami knew his type: the young Arab male living abroad, tantalized by yet alienated from Western modernity, who retreats into fundamentalist piety.
Eight years after 9/11, we still almost know Mohamed Atta. We can almost see him, a gaunt and spectral figure making his way through Hamburg’s red-light district en route to his radical storefront Al-Quds Mosque. We still vividly recall his ominous visa photograph. But the man in that photograph remains a cipher, his eyes vacant. How did those eyes see the world?
We’ll never know for sure, but part of the answer may liein a document he left behind, one that has strangely gone largely unexamined: his master’s thesis in urban planning. While the bulk of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi Arabian street toughs tapped for their brawn, Atta was chosen for his brains. Trained as an architect in his native Egypt, he went on to pursue a master’s degree in city planning at the Hamburg University of Technology,in Germany.
In the climate after 9/11, when attempts to understand the terrorists were often seen as apologies for them, the thesis Atta wrote was not given close scrutiny. Newsweek, among other outlets, reported that the thesis lashed out at the imposition of modernist high-rise buildings on Arab cities, but only its chilling dedication—”My prayer and my sacrifice and my life and my death belong to Allah, Lord of the worlds”—got wide coverage. When the British Prospect magazine sent a reporter to Hamburg a few months after Sept. 11, she dismissed out of hand the idea that Atta’s academic work was worth considering. After securing an interview with Atta’s thesis adviser, professor Dittmar Machule, the reporter concluded it was “ludicrous that Atta’s ideas on how to preserve an old quarter of Aleppo are regarded as a window into his terrorist’s mind.” Machule bolstered this impression, telling the Associated Press that the thesis had “no anti-Americanism, no anti-Zionism, no anti-Christianity, just good thinking.”