Czech Spies Still See Iraqi Connection to Sept. 11
Mohammad Atta’s Decisive Meeting
|Footage from a closed-circuit camera shows Mohammad Atta (R) passing through security at the airport in Portland, ME, Sept. 11, 2001 (Photo: Portland Police Dept./AFP-Getty Images).|
Immediately after the occupation of Baghdad, the CIA succeeded in obtaining nearly the complete archive of the Foreign Ministry and some of the material belonging to the Iraqi secret service. Czech security organs now have access to documents from Iraq’s embassy in Prague. This summer, the Iraqi consul to Prague, Ahmed al-Ani, was detained by American soldiers in Baghdad. Although it has not yet been proved whether the consul met with the terrorist Mohammad Atta [suspected leader of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States], new information from the American, the German, and the Czech [intelligence] services indicates that Atta’s visits to Prague were important. For the terrorist operations of Sept. 11, they may have been decisive.
Money for a Terrorist
Muhammad Atta, 33, an Egyptian, the leader of a 20-member group that committed the attack against the United States in September 2001 that left nearly 3,000 dead in its wake, flew to Prague for the first time on May 30, 2000. He had applied for a visa four days earlier and sat on a plane in Hamburg, although his application had not yet been acted on, and he must have known that Czech officials would not admit him to Czech territory. And, indeed, they didn’t: Atta spent six hours in the duty-free zone of the Prague airport and then flew back to Germany. “As far as I know, U.S. officials are intensively looking into this visit. Atta must have been brought to Prague by a genuinely urgent and important matter, when he flew with the knowledge that they would not let him leave the airport,” says Edward Jay Epstein, a well-known U.S. journalist and author of respected books on the activities of intelligence services who has been researching the case for two years. Still, despite persistent efforts, neither Czech nor American officials know the purpose of Atta’s trip.
Similarly, they know little about Atta’s second visit [to Prague]. During that visit, the future terrorist arrived by bus on June 2, 2000. According to a closed-circuit camera and information from the Security Information Service (BIS) [the Czech intelligence agency], Atta lingered for a while at the Happy Day casino at Prague’s Florenc station and departed the next day on a Czech Airlines flight to New York. No record, however, has been found of his having spent the night at any Czech hotel; hence it appears he stayed at a private residence. What is interesting is the fact, unpublicized until now, that three days after this Prague visit, tens of thousands of dollars were transferred from several accounts to Atta’s own American and German bank accounts (officials have not made public the precise amount, and it is not available from unofficial sources).
The CIA is convinced that Atta’s terrorist group must have been led by professionals from an intelligence service, perhaps Iraq’s. U.S. experts believe that during the two aforementioned Prague visits, the execution of the terrorist action was to be confirmed. Atta was to visit Prague a third time in April 2001. The Czech secret service received from one of its informers a warning that Al-Ani, the Iraqi consul, was to meet with a “distinguished Arab student” from Hamburg—this is information that up until now was top secret. BIS monitored the meeting: The men met in a Prague restaurant on the evening of April 8. To this day, it remains unclear whether this “Hamburg student” was Atta. Yet again, three days after that meeting, $100,000 arrived in Atta’s Florida account.
In his report a year ago, Glenn A. Fine, the inspector general of the U.S. Justice Department, rejected the possibility of Atta’s April visit. In the document, he asserted that two days before the supposed Prague meeting, Atta flew from Virginia Beach to New York and, 70 hours later, was again in Florida. Atta could have managed the Prague meeting only with difficulty. Yet, according to new and as yet unpublished information from U.S. security services, there exists no record of Atta’s movement from the beginning of March 2001 to the end of April of that year.
“At first we checked only two days around April 8, when Al-Ani had the meeting with the supposed student who is believed to be Atta. Considering new information from the United States about Atta’s six-week disappearance, we have broadened our inquiry to an extended time frame; that means checking tens of thousands of records of airplane passengers and hotel guests,” a BIS operative asserts. “Atta could have simply come here a lot sooner than when he met with Al-Ani. He could have had a series of meetings in Germany and then in Prague, where the final details of the action were worked out,” he adds.
The Capture of Al-Ani
On July 9 of this year, the Americans captured Ahmed al-Ani in Baghdad, and he has been held since then in a temporary jail at the Baghdad airport. “Al-Ani refuses to make a statement. We have information that he was an intelligence officer with the power to direct foreign operations,” is the terse and only report from American authorities, published some time ago by AFP. Epstein says: “My American colleagues and I are very much interested in Al-Ani’s statement. Despite all sorts of contacts, we haven’t learned anything. Either the CIA and FBI don’t know anything, or they are keeping it top-secret.”
Iraq’s liberators obtained an array of documents from offices there. The most important was material from the Foreign Ministry and the secret police. A portion of the archives was destroyed, and the allies supposedly don’t have any proof yet that Iraq directed terrorist operations abroad. Nor, according to secret service sources, have any documents been found that would prove that Iraq was actually planning an attack against Prague-based Radio Free Europe. Iraqi spy Jabir Salim informed the BIS of such a plan at the end of 1998 and later informed Britain’s MI6 [intelligence service]. Saddam Hussein supposedly gave him an order to attack the radio station and provided him with $150,000 to carry out the action. Salim (whom the British hastily brought to London from Prague in 1998, after former Foreign Minister Jan Kavan scandalously blew his cover) went to the side of his “enemy,” supposedly because he did not want to have innocent lives on his conscience, and his testimony was regarded by both secret services as absolutely credible. “We have come to the conclusion that either the Iraqis destroyed important papers or hid them someplace,” representatives of the secret services assert.
At the end of this March, right after the beginning of the allied attack on Iraq, the Czech Foreign Ministry expelled the last two Iraqi diplomats serving at the local embassy from Prague. They had only 40 hours to leave. The deadline was deliberately difficult: Officials wanted to give the Iraqis the least possible time to destroy documents. What remained at the embassy is now in the hands of local [Czech] security units. “There are a lot of interesting things there, but I can’t go into any greater detail,” says one Czech diplomat. But he will say that no documents were found in those archives proving a meeting between Atta and Al-Ani or an Iraqi role in the terrorist attacks of September 2001.
Thus, so far, there exists only a single official statement linking Iraq, Atta, and Al-Ani with Sept. 11. This May, Manhattan U.S. District Judge Harold Baer allowed damages in the amount of $104 million for the families of two victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center. The families named Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and Saddam Husein and his regime as parties to pay damages. Although the decision is a formality, it is nevertheless important, for in the United States, the word of a court carries weight. One of the pieces of evidence supporting Saddam Hussein’s participation in the Sept. 11 attack was the information of the Czech Interior Ministry regarding Atta’s visit to Prague and his alleged meeting with Al-Ani.