Jihadist and Young Archaeologist

Did Mohamed Atta,  the man who flew American Airlines Flight 11 into a World Trade Center tower, pay for his  flying lessons by selling looted antiquities? It now looks like a distinct possibility. According to The Art Newspaper,  a senior Italian official has stated publicly on several occasions that Germany’s secret service, BND,  possesses testimony documenting Atta’s attempt to sell looted Afghan artifacts to a German archaeologist in 1999.

Atta, as you may recall, was born into a wealthy Egyptian family and graduated from the University of Cairo in 1990  with a degree in architecture.  After a short stint as an architectural planner in Cairo,  the young Egyptian  moved in 1992 to Germany,  where he enrolled at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg.   There Atta studied under Dittmar Machule, an expert on Middle Eastern architecture who was conducting an archaeological excavation at a Bronze-Age site in northern Syria.

So interested did Atta become in archaeology that Machule invited him to visit the Syrian dig in 1994.  The German professor later recalled what happened  in an interview with ABC television.   Atta,  said Machule,   “slept in the tent as we all slept and he was very interested in the excavation.  I explained to him what we are doing, the methods of archaeology, the research and I remember that he wanted to help.”

Five years later,  in 1999,  says Guiseppi Proietti,  secretary general of Italy’s Ministry of Culture, Atta approached a University of Goettingen archaeologist with a business proposition.  He offered to sell the unnamed archaeologist Afghan artifacts,  explaining that he needed the money to pay for flying lessons he wanted to take in the United States.   The archaeologist declined the offer.

How might Atta have obtained these artifacts?  As investigators have now established, Atta became increasingly radicalized during his studies in Germany and disappeared for lengthy periods of time.  During the university’s winter break in 1997, for example, he vanished for three months, and applied on his return for a new passport,  claiming he had lost his–a common strategy that jihadists employed to conceal their travel to a terrorist camp.

With his newfound knowledge of archaeology,  Atta may have spent his spare time in Afghanistan looting remote sites and collecting antiquities.  And it certainly seems possible that he sold the plunder privately or through auction houses  in order to finance the flying lessons that ended in such terrible tragedy.

This is an appalling scenario–European collectors financing one of the worst terrorist attacks in recent memory.   I sure would like to know more about this.


  1. Intriguing post, Heather. Illegal antiquities trade is bad enough, but I would never have guessed it was also downright evil.

  2. Thanks, Quentin. I’ve also heard a several stories from an archaeologist who worked in Iraq about how the looting of antiquities there is financing terrorists in that country. And in the American Southwest, the illegal antiquities trade is closely linked to the trade in crystal meth. Archaeology magazine did a good investigative piece on this last year. I’m going to quote a bit of it:

    “In the Southwest, antiquities are what a stolen car stereo might be in New York–an untraceable commodity of the criminal underground. ‘This is what the West has, so this is what the West gives up for its drugs,’ says N. Artifacts can be looted from remote public lands near impoverished communities with acute drug problems, and there is an infrastructure of shady galleries and trading posts that can “launder” them for sale. A kind of strange synergy is developing with meth in particular that puts every archaeological site and collection at greater risk. Law enforcement officials in the Southwest even have a term for those who combine tweaking and digging–‘twiggers’.”

    The magazine posted the article online and here’s a link:


  3. Twiggers! That’ll be the name of my next Emo band.

    That is a great article, Heather — I’ll probably use it when we talk about Cultural Resource Management and site destruction in my “introduction to archaeology” class. Nothing gets a class’s attention like the whiff of crystal meth.

    1. Am a firm believer in anything that makes archaeology seem more relevant today!

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