Daniel Brook: What Can We Learn About Mohamed Atta From His Work as a Student of Urban Planning?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Daniel Brook is a journalist whose writing has appeared in Harper's, Dissent, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. Brook was a finalist in the 2003 Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and won the 2000 Rolling Stone College Journalist Competition while a student at Yale. He lives in Philadelphia. He is the author of The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America.]

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 lie in 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."

Perhaps the subject—the architecture of a little-known Syrian city—sounded too esoteric to be relevant. But it always struck me as a missed opportunity to understand Atta—and, perhaps, to understand what led him to commit his hideous crime. So I went to Hamburg to see what I could learn about the thesis. I then retraced Atta's academic research across three continents, interviewing those who knew him as an urban-planning student and trying to see the places I visited through Atta's eyes—those of a keen architectural observer wearing ideological blinders.

I met with professor Machule at his office in Hamburg, where he keeps the only known copy of Atta's thesis under lock and key. While Machule acknowledges that publishing the document would be in the public interest, he worries Atta's father, a retired EgyptAir attorney who maintains his son's innocence, would sue if the document were published without family consent. But Machule was willing to walk through the thesis with me. I sat in the spot where Atta gave his thesis defense in 1999, and together we made our way through the German document section by section. Machule translated portions of it and responded to my questions. The thesis was also heavy on visuals—photographs, maps, and sketches of proposed redevelopments...

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