Government stands by ‘Prague connection’ despite U.S. denials
By James Pitkin
Officials are insisting that one of the Sept. 11 hijackers met with an Iraqi agent in Prague, after reports in the international press have cast doubt on their claims.
“We have no new information,” government spokesman Libor Roucek told The Prague Post. “What’s been said, we stick to it.”
Intelligence agencies here claim that Mohamed Atta, an Egyptian national who flew one of two hijacked Boeing 767s that slammed into New York’s World Trade Center, visited Prague twice and met with an Iraqi agent here just five months before the Sept. 11 attacks.
The agent was Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, a second consul at the Iraqi Embassy in Prague who was expelled on April 22, 2001, for suspected espionage.
Reports of the meeting appeared to link Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to the Sept. 11 attacks, and the so-called “Prague connection” made global headlines last fall.
That such a meeting took place was considered particularly delicate as Washington again contemplated measures aimed at removing Hussein from power. Some pundits suggested it might even represent a pretext for a new attack on Iraq.
Prime Minister Milos Zeman emphatically told CNN in November that Atta and al-Ani were scheming to destroy Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) headquarters in downtown Prague. Hussein was reportedly enraged after RFE/RL began pro-American broadcasting into Iraq in 1998.
But Zeman later backtracked, saying such a plot was only one of many possibilities. Later, al-Ani was described as a relatively minor figure in Iraqi intelligence, incapable of hatching a plot of such magnitude on his own.
Now unnamed U.S. officials are saying Atta and al-Ani never met at all — ironically confirming what the Iraqi mission in Prague said in a statement last fall.
“Neither we nor the Czechs nor anybody else has any information he [Atta] was coming or going [to Prague] at that time,” Newsweek quoted a U.S. official as saying.
According to the April 29 Newsweek report, Czech officials acknowledged several months ago that they may have been mistaken about Atta’s whereabouts and his encounters.
Atta, whose European activities have been the subject of intense media speculation for months, is known to have been in Prague in June 2000, when he spent one night in the capital before flying to Newark, New Jersey, on a commercial flight. What he did on that visit is unknown.
But U.S. investigators say Atta — a student and draftsman in Hamburg, Germany, during the 1990s — was actually in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and Florida in April 2001, when he is alleged to have met al-Ani in Prague.
“We looked at this real hard because obviously, if it were true, it would be huge,” one U.S. law enforcement official told the magazine. “But nothing has matched up.”
According to The New York Times, a senior official in President George W. Bush’s administration appeared to close the matter, saying that FBI and CIA analysts had firmly concluded that no meeting ever occurred.
Neither Newsweek nor The New York Times revealed its sources. Both publications have extensive back-channel contacts in the U.S. government.
Here, Interior Minister Stanislav Gross insisted there was no reason to doubt initial reports of the meeting by the Czech intelligence service (BIS).
“Right now I do not have the slightest information that anything is wrong with the details I obtained from BIS counterintelligence,” Gross said. “I trust the BIS more than journalists.”
Jan Vidim, chairman of the Chamber of Deputies commission for military intelligence, said the Zeman Cabinet should never have made public information on the Atta affair.
“Intelligence services work with a lot of data that they then put into perspective,” he added. “Zeman took that information and drew his own conclusions.”
Intelligence officials on both sides of the Atlantic have indicated that Prague is a major hub for Iraqi intelligence in Europe.
In 1998, another Iraqi second consul, Jabir Salim, defected to England with $100,000, which he claimed was earmarked for blowing up RFE/RL.
Communist Czechoslovakia maintained close ties with the Arab world, especially so-called rogue states such as Iran and Iraq, which were major buyers of Czechoslovak arms.
Arms control advocates accuse Czechs of continuing to make murky deals with embargoed states, with local firms playing go-between for ex-Soviet sellers and Arab buyers.
In an April 29 interview in The Guardian newspaper, two Iraqi defectors said that a major weapons shipment destined for Baghdad reached the Syrian port of Latakia under a Czech export license on Feb. 23.
They said the shipment included anti-aircraft missiles, rockets and guidance systems for Iraq’s long-range variants of the old Soviet Scud missile — all illegal under the UN embargo.
According to the defectors, the weapons, which cost Iraq $800,000, came from the Czech Republic under export licenses for Syria and Yemen but were to be diverted by road to Iraq.
Iraqi Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan rejected the report.
“It is not true,” Agence France-Presse quoted him as saying. “The Czech government is known for its hostile position against Iraq. … The Czech President [Vaclav Havel] is a friend of Zionists.”
Officials at the Czech Industry and Trade Ministry said none of the weapons named in the report had been exported to Syria this year.