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To: "Direct Action" <direct_action@yahoogroups.com>
From: "Miroslav Visic" <visic@pipeline.com>
Mon, 05 Nov 2001 20:46:45 -0500
Reply-to: direct_action@yahoogroups.com
Subject: Direct Action >> Atta's Illicit Meeting in Prague.
Transitions Online, 1 November 2001
"For fair use only"                 


Illicit Meeting 
            


Why was Mohammad Atta, an Egyptian-born architecture student living in
Germany, so interested in making brief trips to Prague, always right before flying to the United States?

by Brian WHITMORE


PRAGUE, Czech Republic--A terrorist in training and an Iraqi spy meet clandestinely in Prague. The first man is Mohammad Atta, the hijacker suspected of being at the controls of the first jet to slam into the World Trade Center on 11 September. The second is Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir Al-Ani, an Iraqi diplomat who Czech authorities suspect of plotting terrorist assaults against U.S. interests.

The reason for that extraordinary meeting in April 2001, just five months before the terrorist attacks that shocked and horrified the world, remains shrouded in mystery. Some have speculated the Iraqi helped Atta with logistical support like travel documents and cash. Others say al-Ani may have passed the future hijacker vials of anthrax, which he then carried to the United States.

Whatever passed between the two men, the confirmation on 26 October by Czech authorities that one of the ringleaders of the attacks in New York and Washington met with an Iraqi intelligence official has raised new questions about whether Baghdad has established secret ties with Osama bin Ladenís Al Qaeda network. It has also thrown Prague into the spotlight for investigators as a potential hub for Iraqi espionage.

Nestled in the heart of Europe, the Czech capital was more than just a convenient, centrally located city for a terrorist and a spy to surreptitiously meet. In fact, analystand officials say it was a completely logical venue.

Prague has long been a focal point for Iraqi espionage activities, terrorist planning and a transit point for weapons flowing to Baghdad. It could also hold the key to unveiling a potential Iraqi connection to the 11 September attacks, a connection Iraq has repeatedly and strenuously denied.

The meeting between Atta and al-Ani took place in a city and country where history, geography, and porous borders have combined to create what former United Nations weapons inspector Charles Duelfer called ìone of the centers of the universe for Iraqi intelligence.î And until the Czechs expelled him on 22 April, al-Ani was the master of that universe.

A STRANGE DIPLOMAT AND AN EAGER TOURIST


For a diplomat, al-Ani acted pretty strangely. The second secretary at Iraq's Embassy in Prague, al-Ani never attended diplomatic functions. What he did do, according to various Czech and U.S. media reports, was harass and threaten Iraqi exiles living in Prague. He was also known, according to the reports, as the go-to guy for Islamic extremists needing logistical assistance such as false travel documents and cash.


And he was suspected of planning terrorist strikes against U.S. targets. After Czech authorities caught al-Ani ìcasingî and photographing the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty headquarters in downtown Prague, they expelled him, having long suspected the diplomat of plotting an attack on the station.

He was seen too many times in bad places and not enough times in the places you would expect a diplomat to be seen,î Hynek Kmonicek, the former Czech deputy foreign minister and current ambassador to the United Nations, said in an interview.

The Czechs expelled al-Ani technically for 'activities incompatible with his status as a diplomat'-a typical euphemism for espionage. But not before he met at least once, possibly several times, with Atta. Al-Ani is widely believed to be a member of the Mukhabarat, Iraq's feared intelligence service. Jabir Salim, al-Aniís predecessor as second council at Iraqís Embassy in Prague, disappeared in 1998 with at least                $100,000. The money, according to media reports and officials speaking on condition of anonymity, was supposed to fund an attack Radio Free Europe.

After weeks of media speculation, Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross confirmed that Atta and al-Ani met in April and possibly on other occasions. Gross said Atta traveled to the Czech Republic from Germany on 2 June 2000 and flew to the United States from Prague the next day.

"We can confirm now that during his next trip to the Czech Republic, he did have a contact with an officer of Iraqi intelligence, Mr. Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir Al-Ani, " Gross said at a news conference on 26 September. Then, Mr. Atta was a man who did not raise any suspicion, Gross said in a television appearance 28 October. "He lived peacefully in Germany and visited the Czech Republic." But a closer look at Atta's itinerary suggests that he was eager to visit Prague and went to extraordinary lengths to do so. He tried to enter the Czech Republic on 30 May 2000 but was turned away at the border. Atta then flew back to Germany, where he was a student, got a Czech visa, and took a bus to Prague, arriving on 2 June. The next day he flew to the United States.

He flew to the Czech Republic again on 8 April of this year, when Gross said he met al-Ani, but was back in the United States three days later. Why was an Egyptian-born architecture student living in Germany so interested in making such brief trips to Prague, always right before flying to the United States?

"It is suspicious,î Kmonicek said. "Why would they meet at all?" Gross said police were investigating whether Atta and al-Ani may have met on other occasions as well. In the absence of hard facts, rumors have swirled around Prague about Atta's meeting with al-Ani. Some reports have suggested the Iraqi diplomat assisted Atta with logistical support and false documents.

Citing unidentified Israeli intelligence sources, the German daily paper Bild on 25 October reported that Atta may have carried anthrax spores, allegedly obtained from Iraqi agents in Prague, to the United States. Initially, Czech officials flatly denied this. "The unequivocal answer to that question is no way," Gross told reporters.

But in an interview published in the daily newspaper Hospodarske Noviny on 31 October, Gross backtracked, saying he could not rule it out. "We looked into whether it was possible to buy anthrax from a Czech source but it was not proven," Gross told Hospodarske Noviny in response to a journalist's question Atta acquired anthrax while in the Czech Republic. "Obviously we cannot categorically rule it out.                Responsibly I cannot say it is possible or it is impossible," Gross said.


Confirmation of the meeting seems to have bolstered the position, held by some U.S. and Western officials, that the Bush administration should expand its war on terrorism to Iraq. "The Czech confirmation seems to me very important," R. James Woolsey, the former CIA director, told The New York Times. "It is yet another lead  that points toward Iraqi involvement in some sort of terrorism against the United                States that ought to be followed up vigorously."

Likewise, Richard Butler, the former chairman of UNSCOM, the team of United Nations weapons inspectors working in Iraq after the Gulf War, said the Baghdad connection should be pursued. ìWhen you have one of the September 11th hijackers meeting with an Iraqi agent in Prague, this is a fruitful line of inquiry to pursue and intelligent men and women should follow up on it,î Butler said in an interview.

Frustrated with the authoritiesí reticence on the matter, the Czech media has stepped up criticism of the government. The Czech daily Lidove Noviny slammed security officials for doing ìtoo little too lateî to ascertain the facts about Atta's meetings with al-Ani. ìAfter heatedly denying CIA information regarding the possibility that Atta had paid two visits to the Czech Republic this year, the Czech intelligence                service has finally acknowledged that this was indeed the case," the newspaper wrote. "Since intelligence sharing is one of the few things the Czechs have been asked to do to help the allies we ought at least to do it well, not drag our feet and delay investigations."

SLEEPER CELLS, SECRET AGENTS, AND SHELL COMPANIES

While Czech authorities have been tight-lipped about Atta's meeting with al-Ani, they have been more forthcoming about the possible presence of terrorist cells in the country. The main Czech counterintelligence agency warned in a report this week that terrorists may have established a covert infrastructure in the country that dates back to communist Czechoslovakia's ties to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Terror cells in the infrastructure could ìinclude people who studied and received police training in our country,î the report, prepared by the Czech Security Information Service, or BIS, said. ìMany of them have married and settled in the Czech Republic and are thus well able to form a covert infrastructure which can be activated at any moment,î the report said.

Moreover, Charles Duelfer, former deputy chairman of UNSCOM, the United Nations team that searched for Iraqi weapons after the Gulf War, called the Czech capital "a node of some interest." "When we were investigating Iraqi weapons procurement many of the routes passed through Prague," Duelfer said in an interview.

History provides some of the reasons why. Communist Czechoslovakia had close bilateral ties not only with Iraq, but also with Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Sudan. "Czechoslovakia provided advisors, weapons, and training in guerrilla war; in fact, they successfully bred terrorists," said Pavel Bret, head of a special police task force that investigates crimes committed by the communist regime.


These old communist-era ties, combined with the freedom now enjoyed in the Czech Republic, have turned the country into a perfect stomping ground for Iraqi spies trying to procure weapons and gather intelligence. "Since the collapse of communism, it would appear that Prague is one of the cities where people have conducted black market commerce in weapons," Butler said. ìThe physical location is good, and it is a free and open place."

As the worldís seventh largest arms exporter, Czechoslovakia also routinely sold arms to Iraq. But after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, bilateral relations soured, and Baghdad was forced to resort to covert means to acquire weapons and spare parts. And they established a considerable intelligence presence to do so.

A 1999 report by the Czech Security Information Service said, "Islamic groupings continue trying to expand their contacts with the Czech government bodies and to influence their attitudes toward some Arab states, in an effort to restore mainly trade links from the time before the split-up of Czechoslovakia.î Nobody was more actively engaging in espionage than Iraq.
"There was a large parish in Prague, one of their largest stations," Duelfer said, adding that Iraqi intelligence ìwas involved in overseas arms procurement through front companies. Many of these companies were connected with Prague." The 1999 BIS report said Baghdad was ìvery active in catering for the needs of their mother countries as regards the procurement of technologies subject to embargo, especially those of military nature."

Czech police, meanwhile, said they were investigating whether Atta, using an alias, had business ties in the Czech Republic and stealthily visited the country on several occasions. One of the aliases the FBI has listed for Atta--Mohamed Atta El Sayed--resembles two names listed in Czech records with ties to businesses in Prague, the Associated Press reported.

The Czech trade register has a Mohamed Sayed Ahmed listed as owner of a Prague-based firm called the Electric Construction Company. The register also lists a Sayed Mohammad Saeed Shah as having a stake in a trading company called ANS  Holding, which has owners in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Pakistan, and Germany.  "We are investigating this, but we cannot confirm or deny anything right now," Gross said.

Brian Whitmore is a Prague-based correspondent for The Boston Globe.

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