I now see that the February number of the Art Newspaper has also taken up the story (Cristina Ruiz, "9/11 hijacker attempted to sell Afghan loot: Mohammed Atta offered artefacts to German archaeologist", January 27, 2010). Ruiz gives credit to the Journal of Art Crime.
If this story is accurate, based apparently on a security report from the German intelligence services, then there are more serious issues at stake. Archaeologists have been raising the issue of the looting on archaeological sites to provide material for the market. And there have been concerns about the way that archaeological material has been used to fund organised crime (or, in this case, terrorism).
What if those buying looted antiquities derived from Afghanistan inadvertently (or "in good faith") helped to fund the attacks on the Twin Towers? It makes the provocative comments of a senior North American academic, quoted in an interview in the New York Times (Robin Pogrebin, "$200 Million Gift Prompts a Debate Over Antiquities ", April 1, 2006), seem more than inappropriate. In talking about archaeologists who hold an ethical position, the archaeology professor is reported to have said:
''The jihadists, as I would call them now -- who think that to even publish anywhere an item that doesn't have a provenance is forbidden -- this is an utterly ridiculous position,'' he continued. ''If you took that position, we wouldn't know anything about the Dead Sea Scrolls. Those were found by Bedouin in caves beside the Dead Sea. None of them were found by archaeologists. If you followed the purists, you would totally ignore it.''I have commented before on one of the responses to this debate.
Imagine a collector of antiquities justifying an acquisition in these (fictitious) terms: "This sculpture may have been sold by jihadists who needed money to fight NATO forces in Afghanistan".