Atta, alcohol, strip clubs and drugs

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Almost immediately after the 9/11 attacks, reports began to appear that the alleged hijackers had visited bars and strip clubs and drank alcohol. It would later be said that Mohamed Atta did all of these things, and used drugs as well. Many authors have commented on this: here's just some of what Nafeez Ahmed had to say on the matter.

There are certainly plenty of these reports, but it's important to realise that they're not all as they seem. Take a look at these accounts about the Pink Pony, for instance:

There's no ambiguity here. Mainstream news reports, as well as conspiracy sites, all appearing to tell a consistent story: Atta and other hijackers drank, and paid for lapdancers, at the Pink Pony. But now let’s look at the original report:

What we have here is a second-hand account, that doesn’t actually offer any evidence at all that a single one of the alleged hijackers were involved. Which would be difficult, anyway, as this was the night before the attacks and they’d left Florida. It's still an interesting story, worth investigating, as if true then perhaps it does indicate someone who had foreknowledge of the attacks. However, it doesn’t confirm what the later versions suggest is a fact, that Atta or any of the other alleged hijackers visited the Pink Pony on that night.

Other stories are better documented, however:

Three witnesses, specifically identifying two of the hijackers and suggesting the identity of a third, is a more significant story. Of course we still don’t know for sure that it’s true, and you have to be careful about the specifics. Does it prove that Atta is a “hard drinker”, for example? It seems so, unless you read this version:

The man identified as Atta is a “hard drinker” in the first story, appears to just play video games in the second. The confusion got worse when the story was retold in the Palm Beach Post, for the fifth anniversary of the attacks:

Now Atta is claimed to be the one drinking, but is described as wearing wire-rim glasses, and that sounds more like al-Shehhi. Which one of these stories is true, if any? We’ve no idea.

And there’s another, more serious issue with the Shuckums story. The accounts talk of Atta and the others spending three and a half hours there on Friday night, but the official chronology has him flying to Baltimore that afternoon, at around 3:15pm. This is taken as more support for the hijacker “doubles” theory on some web sites, just as confirmation that the official story is a lie by others, but of course it could also mean that the Shuckums story is incorrect. Without further information there’s no way to tell for sure, but this is another pointer suggesting that reports of the hijackers “un-Islamic” behaviour may not always be reliable.

You might have seen the other stories, though, especially about Atta: he supposedly had a girlfriend, drank heavily, loved pork chops and had a cocaine habit (see, for example, “Mohamed Atta loved pork chops, and 49 other things you may not know”). Big claims, but it turns out that most are based on the word of Amanda Keller, with whom Atta is supposed to have lived for two or three months in 2001. And there are a few problems with her account. Keller's landlords at the time reportedly failed to recognise Atta from photos, for instance (although apparently another photo they were shown was a close match). Members of Kellers family gave descriptions of the man that don't seem to fit Atta. And in September 2006 Keller said the Mohamed she lived with was not Atta after all. Read more here.

There are strong reasons to doubt some of the stories about the hijackers behaviour, for instance, and question others. But of course that doesn't mean we can dismiss them completely. Nafeez Ahmed has a suggestion about the implications of these accounts.

The first point to note about this argument is that not all suicide terrorists do so "for their faith". Western governments like to claim that suicide terrorism is primarily carried out by religious fundamentalists, because then it's easier to avoid looking at the reasons behind it, but the truth is surprisingly different. Robert A. Pape carried out a survey on suicide attackers between 1980 and 2003, and reported the following.

To balance this, we should point out that the survey included a large number of secular suicide bombers in the Tamil Tigers, and all that al Qaeda bombers included were placed in the religious group. However it does make the point that there are other motivations beyond religion that inspire people to kill themselves in a terrorist act, and it's unsafe to consider that only those from a "strict Islamic theology" need be involved.

Another possible explanation comes from Atta's claimed association with a sect called Al Takfir wal Hijra, run by al Quaeda second-in-command Ayman Al-Zawahiri. This is an extreme fundamentalist sect, however it doesn't always behave that way.

Could one or more of the hijackers have been Takfiri? Jacquard appears to think Atta was. Others say no, pointing to claims like this:

However, the same page lists under Takfir "Alleged members and supporters":

Which, if true, suggests that it is possible to work with bin Ladin, and be a Takfiri. Even if we take the Tafir out of this altogether, there’s evidence that al Qaeda followed a similar policy:

It seems that Muslims don’t necessarily always behave in a way befitting their religion. And reports of them indulging in similar "un-Islamic" behaviour - even when it's very different to their professed beliefs - really aren't unusual.

In 2008, for instance, General Reza Zarei, Tehran's chief of police was arrested after being caught in a brothel with six prostitutes.

Anwar Awlaki was twice arrested for soliciting prostitutes in San Diego.

And here's a report of someone apparently involved in the Madrid bombings.

Even the Muslim world can find possible explanations for such behaviour. S. Abdallah Schleifer, the publisher and senior editor of TBS Journal (, and al Jazeeras Yosri Fouda give their thoughts here:

It seems these issues aren't entirely straightforward, after all. Suicide terrorists do not always choose to die "for their faith", and religious fundamentalists may behave in ways we don't expect: there are precedents, and possible explanations, if you choose to look for them.