The Last Days of Muhammad Atta

In the Observer, Martin Amis imagines the last days of Muhammad Atta.

“No physical, documentary, or analytical evidence provides a convincing explanation of why [Muhammad] Atta and [Abdulaziz al] Omari drove to Portland, Maine, from Boston on the morning of September 10, only to return to Logan on Flight 5930 on the morning of September 11”

The 9/11 Commission Report

On 11 September 2001, he opened his eyes at 4am, in Portland, Maine; and Muhammad Atta’s last day began.

What was the scene of this awakening? A room in a hotel, of the type designated as ‘budget’ in his guidebook – one up from ‘basic’. It was a Repose Inn, part of a chain. But it wasn’t like the other Repose Inns he had lodged at: brisk, hygienic establishments. This place was ponderous and labyrinthine, and as elderly as most of its clientele. And it was cheap. So. The padded nylon quilt as weighty as a lead vest; the big cuboid television on the dresser opposite; and the dented white fridge – where, as it happened, Muhammad Atta’s reason for coming to Portland, Maine, lay cooling on its shelf… The particular frugality of these final weeks was part of a peer-group piety contest that he was laconically going along with. Like the others, he was attending to his prayers, disbursing his alms, washing often, eating little, sleeping little. (But he wasn’t like the others.) Days earlier, their surplus operational funds – about $26,000 – had been abstemiously wired back to the go-between in Dubai.

He slid from the bed and called Abdulaziz, who was already stirring, and perhaps already praying, next door. Then to the bathroom: the chore of ablution, the ordeal of excretion, the torment of depilation. He activated the shower nozzle and removed his undershorts. He stepped within, submitting to the cold and clammy caress of the plastic curtain on his calf and thigh. Then he spent an unbelievably long time trying to remove a hair from the bar of soap; the alien strand kept changing its shape – question-mark, infinity symbol – but stayed in place; and the bar of soap, no bigger than a bookmatch when he began, barely existed when he finished.