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Czechs Confirm Key Hijacker's
'Contact' With Iraqi Agent in Prague
Atta Communicated With
Diplomat Who Was Later Expelled
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign
BERLIN, Oct. 26 --
officials publicly confirmed today that Mohamed Atta, one of the
key hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, had
contact with an Iraqi intelligence agent during a trip Atta made
to the Czech Republic early this year.
Interior Minister Stanislav
Gross declined to say whether investigators know what Atta and
the Iraqi discussed -- a critical piece of information in a
debate about the possibility of Iraqi complicity in the attacks.
At a news conference in Prague
today, Gross said the "contact" between Atta and Iraqi
diplomat Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir Al-Ani took place several
weeks before Al-Ani's expulsion from Prague on April 22 for what
was then described as conduct incompatible with his diplomatic
Investigators have devoted
much time to reconstructing the movements and contacts of the
Egyptian-born Atta before the attacks, hoping they will help
identify other members of the hijacking conspiracy. He lived in
Hamburg for much of the 1990s before moving to the United States
last year to attend flight school. From the United States, he
made a number of trips back to Europe, visiting Spain twice and
the Czech Republic at least twice.
Western intelligence agencies
have long suspected Prague to be a hub for Iraqi intelligence in
Europe. Al-Ani was regarded as a central figure in those
operations, sources in Prague said in recent interviews there.
Before his expulsion, Al-Ani
and other members of the Iraqi mission in Prague were seen
casing the building housing the U.S. government-funded radio
services Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty in the heart of the
city. Al-Ani was warned about his activities, officials said,
but continued his surveillance, leading the Czechs to expel him.
At the time, U.S. intelligence
had received "credible threats" against the Radio Free
Europe building, where broadcasts to Iraq and Iran originate,
sources said. U.S. officials feared a mortar attack on the
building or some form of suicide attack, sources in Prague said.
Iraqi diplomats are under
constant surveillance in the Czech Republic, and the Czechs said
that from reviewing records they had established that there had
been "contact" between Atta and Al-Ani. News
organizations have reported that contact for weeks, based on
leaks from intelligence sources. Gross did not say that Atta and
Al-Ani had met face to face, nor did he reveal the nature of the
There have been unconfirmed
reports that the Czechs have a surveillance video showing the
two men together. Other sources have said there was a
face-to-face meeting in Prague.
Atta may have attempted to
enter the Czech Republic in May 2000, a government source said,
but was turned away at the Prague airport because he did not
have a visa. According to a source in the Czech government, Atta
then obtained a visa at the Czech consulate in Bonn and took a
bus to the Czech Republic, entering on June 2, 2000. He flew to
Newark, N.J., the next day to begin his U.S. preparations for
the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
There is no evidence, Gross
said, that Atta met with any Iraqis during that June visit to
But "we can confirm now
that during his next trip to the Czech Republic, he did have a
contact with an officer of the Iraqi intelligence, Mr. Ahmed
Khalil Ibrahim Samir Al-Ani," said Gross, referring to this
year's meeting with Al-Ani.
Iraq has denied that it was
involved in the attacks and that its intelligence service had
any contact with Atta.
"We have no relation
whatsoever with groups that are being accused by the U.S.,"
Foreign Minister Naji Sabri said last month. And Deputy Prime
Minister Tariq Aziz said Iraq had no links with Afghanistan's
Taliban regime or suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.
The Bush administration has
also said there is no intelligence linking the Sept. 11 attacks
to Iraq. Asked in a TV interview after the attacks if Iraq was
involved, Vice President Cheney answered with a flat
But a number of American
commentators, including former CIA director R. James Woolsey,
have argued that the sophistication of the attacks required
sponsorship beyond the logistical capabilities of bin Laden's al
Qaeda network and that the possibility of Iraqi involvement
deserves much greater scrutiny.
"Intelligence and law
enforcement officials investigating the case would do well to at
least consider another possibility: that the attacks -- whether
perpetrated by bin Laden and his associates or by others -- were
sponsored, supported, and perhaps even ordered by Saddam
Hussein," wrote Woolsey in the New Republic magazine before
Atta's trip to Prague was confirmed.
The anthrax attacks -- and
reports that only the United States, Russia or Iraq could have
produced a chemical additive enabling the anthrax spores to
become airborne -- have heightened speculation about Iraq's
If proven, an Iraqi connection
would force the White House to dramatically widen its declared
war on terrorism, which is focused on bin Laden's network and
the Taliban authorities in Afghanistan who provide bin Laden
But any proof of Iraqi
involvement, and a consequent U.S. military response, could
complicate the administration's alliance-building effort in the
Arab world, which some analysts argue would find it much more
difficult to support an assault on Iraq than one on the Taliban.
© 2001 The Washington Post