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Story Publication logo September 8, 2009

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


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As an urban planning graduate student at the Hamburg University of Technology, Egyptian architect...

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Cairo's Islamic Quarter, as seen from one of the district's medieval gate towers. The trash-strewn roofs testify to the city's inadequate sanitation system.

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.

The subject of the thesis is a section of Aleppo, Syria's second city. Atta describes decades of meddling by Western urban planners, who rammed highways through the neighborhood's historic urban fabric and replaced many of its once ubiquitous courtyard houses with modernist high-rises. Atta calls for rebuilding the area along traditional lines, all tiny shops and odd-angled cul-de-sacs. The highways and high-rises are to be removed—in the meticulous color-coded maps, they are all slated for demolition. Traditional courtyard homes and market stalls are to be rebuilt.

For Atta, the rebuilding of Aleppo's traditional cityscape was part of a larger project to restore the Islamic culture of the neighborhood, a culture he sees as threatened by the West. "The traditional structures of the society in all areas should be re-erected," Atta writes in the thesis, using architectural metaphors to describe his reactionary cultural project. In Atta's Aleppo, women wouldn't leave the house, and policies would be carefully crafted so as not to "engender emancipatory thoughts of any kind," which he sees as "out of place in Islamic society."

The subtitle of the thesis is Neighborhood Development in an Islamic-Oriental City, and the use of that anachronistic term—Islamic-Oriental city—is telling. The term denotes a concept rooted in 19th-century European Orientalism, according to which Islamic civilization and Western civilization are entirely distinct and opposite: The dynamic, rational West gallops toward the future while the backward East remains cut off from foreign influence, exclusively defined by Islam, and frozen in time. In his academic work, Atta takes the Orientalist conceit of two distinct civilizations, one superior, the other inferior, and simply flips the chauvinism from pro-Western to pro-Muslim.

Today, the "Islamic-Oriental city" is a teetering intellectual edifice that survives only on the right-wing fringes of academic Middle East studies, in the imagination of tourists seeking to experience the "authentic" Thousand and One Nights Arabia, and, as Atta's work makes clear, in the minds of Islamist radicals. Ironically, there could hardly be better evidence for the fallaciousness of the "Islamic-Oriental city" concept than the urban history of Aleppo and specifically of its Bab al-Nasr neighborhood, the old city quarter that Atta describes—and egregiously misinterprets—in his thesis.

Professor Machule told me he found Atta's reactionary plans for the neighborhood impractical but not objectionable. "He made a proposal for a design which seems to be from the 17th century," Machule said. "I would say this is not realistic, these are dreams. But why should young people not have dreams?" Atta's ideas about the role of women conflicted with Machule's sensibilities, but the professor said he saw the benefit of training a talented Egyptian who could bring Western urban planning techniques—if not Western architectural styles—back to the Arab world. When Atta refused to shake the hand of the lone woman on his thesis defense committee, Machule explained to her that he meant no offense by it, that this was simply his strict Muslim practice. Atta received high marks.

Degree in hand, Atta left Germany. A few months later, over a Ramadan feast in Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden informed him that he would be a martyr. Atta did not choose the World Trade Center as a target; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mechanical engineer now commonly called "the architect of 9/11," did that, likely because his nephew Ramsi Youssef had tried and failed to level the buildings in 1993. But when Atta was told he would lead a mission to destroy America's tallest and most famous modernist high-rise complex—the apotheosis of the building type he dreamed of razing in Aleppo—he may have felt the hand of divine providence at work.


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