Mohammed Atta

Some are born to greatness, others have greatness thrust apon them. Then, there are the assholes who hijack airplanes and fly them into skyscrapers. Mohammed Atta probably thought he fit into one of the first two categories, but with the cold eye of scientific history, we can clearly see he belongs in the third.

Of all the 19 September 11 hijackers, Atta boasts perhaps the most distinctions. For one thing, as an Egyptian, he was one of only four men who hailed from a country other than Saudi Arabia. For another, he piloted the first airplane to hit the World Trade Centers. And Atta was the first of many, many people to be designated the mastermind of 9/11.

atta1a As it turns out, mastermind is an awfully vague term. So let's run down what we know about Atta, arguably the most successful supervillain since Lex Luthor, and you can decide for yourself.

Atta grew up in a strict, but religiously moderate Egyptian family. According to his father, interviewed after 9/11, Atta was a mama's boy.

Although the family wasn't known to be mixed up with the extremists who ran rife through Egyptian life in the 20th Century (the shadowy Muslim Brotherhood was active in the area, as was Ayman al-Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad), they were political in the typical way of the average Egyptian family, i.e., with opinions that would sound reactionary and radical to Western ears but falls short of demanding holy war, resulting in the label of relative moderate. (For example, like many French people, Atta's father believes the Sept. 11 was part of a Mossad plot to incite the U.S. against Arabs.)

Atta's college classmates thought he was a nice guy. He majored in architecture and engineering-related sciences, like many other terrorists (Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi Yousef, just for instance). After graduation, he moved to Hamburg, Germany, on an exchange program that offered an opportunity to further his education.

Atta started out on what seemed like a healthy track, learning about archaeology and the preservation of ancient Islamic cities, but his Christian foster family soon threw him out over his excessive chastisement of their morals. Not unlike many people, Atta was angry about the plight of the Palestinians. Not unlike many Arabs, he was very angry about it.

Between 1995 and 1996, Atta made the Haj, the traditional Muslim trek to Mecca and a second pilgrimage overseas. On his return, the nice guy turned out to be way deep into his religion, in a way that he hadn't before.

Nice guy? Hmm...

Germany has played host to rather a lot of terrorist activity, Islamic and otherwise, including comfortably hosting some of the biggest names in al Qaeda. If you're thinking that this is because of Germany's track record regarding Jews, you may be on to something.

Once Atta ditched the Christians, his roommates in Hamburg were a more eclectic bunch. Notable among them was Ramzi Binalshibh, a top al Qaeda operational planner. Atta and Binalshibh were also frequently visited by Binalshibh's boss, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the terror network's third-in-command (inasmuch as that means anything when describing a group that isn't really organized along hierarchical lines).

khalid-jeremy Khalid Shaikh enjoyed the discos in Germany, which must have annoyed the hell out of the straitlaced Atta, but KSM's visits at least as much work as play. Both Khalid Shaikh and another frequent visitor, Mohammed Haydar Zammar, were tied to both al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Starting no later than 1996 (and probably more like 1994), Khalid Shaikh had been working to execute a Big Plan on behalf of his spiritual guru, Osama bin Laden. The Big Plan was to hijack as many as 10 U.S. airliners on the same day and send them crashing down on the heads of American landmarks and government buildings.

The Hamburg al Qaeda cell which coordinated the attacks was rather large, probably accommodating upwards of 30 plotters at various times, and those are just the ones we're pretty sure we know about. Figure twice that number, as a lowball estimate. After all, the plan was 10 planes manned by five guys per plane, so that's 50 people just as muscle, not counting logistics, fake I.D.s, financing, and so on. Much of the cell's activities took place around a radical Hamburg mosque known as al Quds, located in the red light district (just in case the worshippers were having trouble getting sufficiently outraged).

Most terror analysts lay odds on Atta traveling to Afghanistan some time around 1998, where he likely had the de rigueur training camp experience that is al Qaeda's version of basic training. In Afghanistan, Atta learned all the basic the skills — unarmed combat, bomb-making, assimilation... Everything you need to know to enter the glamorous world of international terrorism.

Atta's misogyny deepened as he became further enmeshed in the workings of Islamic extremism. While in school, he'd displayed attitudes ranging from mild discomfort to outright dismay at the women he was forced to interact with, according to the 2003 investigative book, "The Cell." In the late 1990s, Atta drew up a will specifying that no women were to attend his funeral, nor to visit his grave... EVER, because it offended him. (He also left instructions on how his corpse's genitals should be handled, a moot point as it turned out, due to his decision to atomize himself.) Various accounts described reactions to women running from disdain to disgust to outright hostility.

Clearly, the "mama's boy" had some issues.

After this first phase was complete, the most important training of all must have seemed positively dull. But Atta, ever the good soldier, packed off dutifully to sinful Florida and sordid New York, where he took lessons in piloting, as the 19 hijackers spread out across the U.S. to lay the groundwork for their attack from 1998 through 2000 (although some had moved to America much earlier).

Atta bopped in and out of the country, to pick up more detailed instructions from Khalid Shaikh, collect and arrange financing for the attack, and other related tasks.


Atta's role in America has been the subject of numerous iterations. After 9/11, the first media reports were placing him in the same league as uberterrorist superstars like Yousef and Carlos the Jackal, crediting him with dreaming up the attack and leading it to its conclusion.

It's a reflex action on the part of the U.S. government to immediately limit the scope of the conspiracy behind any given terrorist attack. In just one example, Yousef's 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center was initially characterized as a lucky break by a group of stupid and incompetent amateurs acting on their own. By the time the first WTC trials were opened, the view had changed to accommodate Yousef, expanding the description to a group of stupid, incompetent amateurs being manipulated by a rogue terrorist super genius.

world-trade-center_full Now, of course, the attack is seen as an al Qaeda operation, including a detailed plan drawn up in advance and wide financial and logistical support al Qaeda terror operations all over the world.

The September 11 attack went through the same cycle, only much more quickly. Within hours, bin Laden had been pinpointed as the likely source of the attack. It took longer for investigators to figure out Atta's role, but the more information that emerged, the less important Atta looked.

A flurry of early reports also alleged that Atta met with Iraqi intelligence officials in Prague in April 2001. While these reports were just as quickly discredited, they formed the initial core for a stilll-widespread yet entirely unfounded (as of this writing) belief that Iraq was "behind" September 11. This implied connection was implied to be a factor driving the U.S. invasion of the country in 2003. (The alleged Prague meeting is just one among a solid handful of unsubstantiated "facts" repeatedly cited by Dick Cheney in a series of speeches from 2002 through the present day seeking to justify the invasion.)

Once the mythology of Atta's role began to recede, it became clear that he was not the brains of the operation. Khalid Shaikh, by his own confession, proposed and designed the operation, and he closely managed its execution, possibly using a blueprint first devised by Yousef.

As for Atta, there's some doubt about whether he can even be fairly characterized as the team leader, but he was certainly industrious and appeared to work on his own initiative at times. At various points during his stay in the U.S., he seemed to be researching possible angles for an attack, inquiring about possible targets including power and chemical plants, and repeatedly trying to purchase or rent a crop-duster airplane for purposes unknown. Various (mostly unconfirmed) reports suggested Atta and his cohorts may have been playing around with anthrax.

On Aug. 28, however, all this dabbling came to a stop as Atta booked himself and an accomplice on American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles. After a side trip to Maine which has never quite been explained, Atta and four accomplices boarded Flight 11 on the morning of September 11, 2001.

atta3 Atta instructed all 19 hijackers to shave off all of their body hair before the attack so they would be clean when they got to heaven.

Three hijackers sat in business class, the other two (including Atta) were in first class. Atta himself was sitting across the aisle from David Angell, executive producer of "Frasier." Perhaps they exchanged a few words about that cute little dog before Atta and his team pulled out knives shortly after takeoff and started stabbing passengers and flight attendants.

They seized the cockpit, killing or otherwise rendering useless the pilots, and turned the plane toward New York City.

The rest, as they say, is history. Mohammed Atta's misogynist, fucked-up, Oedipally scarred and otherwise forgettable life ended in flames. An Arabic text thought to be penned by Atta just before the attack exhorted his accomplices to remain steadfast:

"And know that the Gardens of Paradise are beautified with its best ornaments, and its inhabitants are calling you. And if . . . do not let differences come between you, and listen and obey, and if you kill, then kill completely, because this is the way of the Chosen One." However, has learned that the inhabitants trying to reach Atta and Co. may have been calling collect from another location entirely.

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