Bublan, head of Czech foreign intelligence, says pre-Sept. 11 meeting with Iraqi agent al-Ani unproved and implausible
The chief of the Czech foreign intelligence has cast doubt on government reports that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi agent in Prague before last year’s terrorist attacks in the United States.
It was the first time a ranking Czech intelligence figure had publicly challenged official accounts regarding whether the meeting took place.
Frantisek Bublan, director general of the Office of Foreign Relations and Information (UZSI), the nation’s foreign intelligence wing, told The Prague Post he doubted whether Atta would have met Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, a second consul at the Iraqi Embassy in Prague, so close to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Atta, an Egyptian, is believed to have piloted one of the hijacked commercial airliners used to destroy New York City’s World Trade Center twin towers.
Some officials have suggested, without proof, that he may have received logistical support from the Iraqi agent.
“If Mohamed Atta was here [in Prague], he was just passing though,” said Bublan. “If there were any meetings [between Atta and al-Ani]… they have not been verified or proven.”
That is not what government officials have said so far. They have stated repeatedly that Atta and al-Ani met at least once in Prague, suggesting the encounter occurred in early April 2001. Al-Ani, suspected of plotting an attack on the Prague headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) on behalf of Iraqi intelligence, was expelled from the Czech Republic April 22, 2001 — soon after the alleged meeting — for abusing his diplomatic status, a charge usually associated with spying or terrorism.
Bublan said that promoting a so-called “Prague connection” between Atta and al-Ani might have been a ploy by U.S. policymakers seeking justifications for a new military action against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
U.S. military officials are considering such action.
“But the question must be asked whether Atta, who was supposed to be getting ready for [Sept. 11], would risk meeting with an Iraqi diplomat in Prague. It would be even more risky if that diplomat was suspected of being an agent,” said Bublan.
Interior Minister Stanislav Gross, in an Oct. 26, 2001 press conference, confirmed at least one meeting between the two men, but refused to reveal further details. The existence of an encounter has been debated since then.
In May, American media quoted senior U.S. government sources as insisting the meeting never happened, attributing its creation to overzealous Czech officials.
These disclaimers led Prague’s envoy to the UN, Hynek Kmonicek, to reiterate in June that an encounter had taken place.
Bublan said solid evidence existed proving that Atta had entered and left Prague. “Once he arrived by bus and continued by plane, the next time he arrived by plane and left by plane,” he said.
“It may be more important that he lived in Germany and no one picked up on what was going on,” Bublan said, rejecting the idea that the reputation of Czech intelligence had lost prestige over its handling of the Atta case.
“[Atta] also traveled to Spain and Switzerland. He moved freely.”
The Washington Post, citing U.S. intelligence reports, said July 14 that Atta had met with fellow plotters in Tarragona, Spain, a Mediterranean resort, on July 9, 2001, only two months before the attacks. Prague was not mentioned.
Bublan is a veteran intelligence officer. He worked with the Security Information Service (BIS), the Czech domestic intelligence arm, for seven years before taking over the country’s foreign intelligence network in February 2001. The BIS is handling the Atta case.
He said the unpredictable nature of terrorist activities makes tracking past behavior only relatively important.
“We can use information on past events, but we have to allow space for the fact that [terrorists] will come up with something new,” he said.
Terrorist organizations are less orderly than the way they are publicly portrayed by their members, Bublan said. He said Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida organization, credited with masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks, are little more than loose trademarks for worldwide groups that act independently.
“We’ve abandoned the idea that there is a center of terrorism somewhere,” Bublan said.
His said his agents use a variety of techniques — he disclosed none — to track terrorist activities, but must adjust to unexpected opportunities.
“It’s difficult to reveal [terrorists’] intentions before they act,” Bublan said. “We have to do what we can and rely on ‘intelligence luck.'”
If Prague was ever marked for a terrorist attack, he said the target would probably be a symbol of U.S. power, such as the Prague 1 headquarters of RFE/RL. Security around the building has been reinforced since Sept. 11, with local traffic cordoned off. The government is negotiating to have the broadcaster move from the city center.
Another obvious target would be the NATO summit, set for Nov. 21 and 22 at the city’s Prague 6 Congress Center.
“But, so far, I stress that there is no indication that there will be any such real danger,” he said.
Bublan, a former Catholic priest and dissident who signed the landmark Charter 77 rights manifesto, entered the BIS in 1991, after spending years under surveillance by its communist-era predecessor. He began his agency career tracking fringe religious groups.
Still, he was chilled by the Sept. 11 events and the realization that its organizers might be preparing other attacks.
“These are people who think they are the owners of the truth and are willing to do anything to achieve that truth,” Bublan said.
“If you tell them that they are wrong, you take away the one thing that they have in life.”
It will take another generation to eliminate that way of thinking, he said. And it will involve a lengthy, unpredictable struggle.
He regrets that he and his colleagues will inevitably be unable to anticipate and prevent future terrorist acts.
“You can’t take on absolute, total responsibility,” he said. “And it’s very difficult to live with that.”
— Krystof Hilsky contributed to this report