Kmonicek says Al-Ani, Atta spoke in Prague
The Czech envoy to the UN has confirmed that an Iraqi agent met with suspected Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta, in the latest rebuke to widespread U.S. media reports dismissing the Prague encounter as a fabrication.
“The meeting took place,” Hynek Kmonicek, a former deputy foreign minister, told The Prague Post flatly in a New York City interview.
Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross announced last fall that Atta and Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, a second consul at the Iraqi Embassy in Prague, had conversed at least once, in April 2001. Gross would not rule out other encounters.
The controversial meeting became known as “the Prague connection” and was mentioned frequently as a possible pretext for renewed hostilities between the United States and Iraq.
Al-Ani was expelled from the Czech Republic April 22, 2001 — less than a month after the conversation — for “engaging in activities beyond his diplomatic duties,” a phrase usually reserved for allegations of spying or terrorist-related activities.
Kmonicek, the Czech Republic’s UN envoy since October, is the most senior government official to openly confirm the encounter since unnamed U.S. intelligence officials began challenging it in anonymous comments reported last month by Newsweek magazine, The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Kmonicek, considered a Middle East expert, once directed the Middle East department of the Foreign Ministry.
In the interview, Kmonicek said he ordered al-Ani’s expulsion after failing to receive answers from the Iraqi chief of mission regarding al-Ani’s role in Prague.
“He didn’t know [what al-Ani was up to],” Kmonicek said. “He just didn’t know.”
Kmonicek refused to label al-Ani a spy, however.
Last fall, international media widely reported that Atta, a 33-year-old Egyptian who allegedly piloted one of the hijacked Sept. 11 jetliners, and al-Ani had spoken in Prague — though the subject of their meetings was never positively revealed.
The rendezvous between the al-Qaida operative and the Iraqi intelligence agent was confirmed by Prime Minister Milos Zeman, who told CNN in October that the two men were scheming to destroy the headquarters of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Zeman later backtracked, saying he was describing only one possible scenario.
In recent weeks, unnamed U.S. law enforcement and intelligence sources have been quoted as saying the Czechs may have made up the encounter or at the very least confused the dates.
Although Atta flew from Prague to the United States in June 2000, the sources said that the Czech intelligence apparatus, the Security Information Service (BIS), had failed to convince them Atta and al-Ani ever came face to face.
The Newsweek report hinted that the Czech government might actually have retracted the allegation and apologized to the United States for making the error.
But Kmonicek, a government official with top security clearance, was adamant that al-Ani and Atta met in April 2001, as Czech officials have stated repeatedly.
“At the time [of the meeting] I was in Prague,” he said. “It’s not like they [the Czech government] sent me a cable saying, ‘Say this because you are our ambassador.’ It’s not like that. I was the person who had to [expel] al-Ani.”
Last October, in an interview with The Times of London, Kmonicek raised alarm bells about the possible significance of the meeting. “It is not a common thing for an Iraqi diplomat to meet a student from a neighboring country,” he said. He made similar remarks to Newsweek, which apparently did not seek him out when it reported the recent U.S. rebuttals.
Atta was an architecture student and draftsman in Hamburg, Germany, during the 1990s. He is believed to have visited Prague at least twice in 2000 and 2001.
One senior Czech official familiar with details of the Atta/al-Ani matter and who requested anonymity speculated that the media reports dismissing the meeting were the result of a “guided leak.”
This source said officials determined to influence President George W. Bush away from entering into renewed conflict with Iraq could have provided such a leak.
The Prague meeting has been mentioned as a possible smoking gun directly linking Baghdad with the Sept. 11 attacks, though Bush said as recently as May 28 that the U.S. had no immediate plans to strike at Iraq.
Kmonicek said the Czech government collected detailed evidence of the al-Ani/Atta meeting, but declined to elaborate on the nature of the evidence.
At the same time, Kmonicek dismissed recent news agency reports that al-Qaida and members of Afghanistan’s deposed Taliban regime had regrouped in Eastern Europe, including the Czech Republic.
“The Interior Ministry opened an investigation and found nothing,” he said.
Kmonicek was unhappy at recent characterizations of the Czech Republic as a terrorist hub.
“If I wanted to set up an Arab spy network, I would go to Queens,” he said, referring to a borough of New York City with a sizable Middle Eastern population.
Prague, he said, has a small-town feel where “everybody knows everybody” and Arabs don’t blend in the way they might in Queens.