Czech and US security officials are tracing suspected hijacker Mohamed Atta's steps in Prague in hopes of learning more about a possible Iraqi connection to the Sept. 11 terror attack.
Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross stated for the first time on the record Friday that Atta went twice to the Czech Republic and met with an Iraqi intelligence agent at least once.
Gross said Atta - believed to have piloted one of the commercial jets that smashed into the World Trade Center - first entered the Czech Republic by bus from Germany on June 2, 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 the Iraqi intelligence, Mr. Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani," Gross said.
The Czech interior minister said that meeting took place several weeks before al-Ani was expelled from Prague in April 22, 2001, for conduct incompatible with his diplomatic status.
Czech investigators are looking at both Atta and Al Qaeda, the terrorist network of Osama bin-Laden. Al Qaeda's record in the Czech Republic may have included a foiled nuclear heist.
Weeks earlier, Gross had said police are probing whether Atta may have had business interests in Prague while studying architecture in Germany in the mid-1990s. Czech media reports note that a Mohamed Sayed Ahmed is listed in the Czech trade register as owner of a Prague-based firm called Electric Construction Co., founded in 1995.
Gross told Czech television Sunday night that several weeks ago, Czech security officials gave their US counterparts a report on Atta's activities in Prague. US officials have cautioned that Atta's meeting does not prove an Iraqi connection to Sept. 11.
Investigators are following up on at least three other suspected meetings between Atta and al-Ani, in Prague, including one in June 2000. "The key to the Prague meeting [with al-Ani in June 2000] is that it comes right before Atta travels for the first time to the United States and the planning for the terrorist attacks entered what I'd call the 'active phase'," says Laurie Mylroie, author of "Study of Revenge: The First World Trade Center Attack and Saddam Hussein's War against America," published last year. "Before entering in June, Atta made at least one other attempt to get to Prague, but was turned away. From that, it's clear he made a serious effort to get to Prague. It's obvious he needed to travel there," says Mylroie, who says she believes Iraq is behind the Sept. 11 attacks in the US.
Czech security officials had said Atta had flown to Prague on May 30, 2000, but was turned away because he lacked a visa. A few days later, on June 2, he entered, as confirmed by Gross, by bus.
Though Czech security officials had little, if any, suspicions about Atta, they had been monitoring al-Ani. He reportedly had been involved in an aborted Iraqi plan to attack the Prague headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, whose Iraqi broadcasts have angered Baghdad since going on the air in 1998.
Mylroie says she believes the Iraqis forwarded "instructions" to Atta in planning the September 11 attacks.
Did Iraq offer something else?
The (London) Observer reported on Oct. 14 that Atta may have met al-Ani to obtain anthrax, igniting a firestorm of speculation. Similar charges were leveled by German public television, which quoted Egyptian sources saying police in Cairo had arrested two suspected members of Al Qaeda who reportedly admitted their organization had obtained vials of anthrax in the Czech Republic.
Asked if Atta or Al Qaeda had obtained the potentially deadly bacteria in Prague, Gross, the Czech interior minister, said earlier this month: "The unequivocal answer to that is, no way."
Iraq denies any link with the Sept. 11 attacks or the subsequent anthrax scares in the United States. Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz has accused Washington of seeking a pretext to attack Iraq.
Others have their doubts about any Iraqi role in the anthrax cases in the US. "What do you have? A series of meetings and not much else. You can connect the dots any way you want," says Michael Moody, director of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute in Washington.
But Richard Butler, who headed UNSCOM, the UN's former weapons-inspection program in Iraq, says he believes investigating reports of a possible Iraqi relay of anthrax in Prague could be a "fruitful line of inquiry."
Al Qaeda reportedly tried in the past to exploit Prague's relatively lax security and location at the crossroads between East and West to steal nuclear materials, says arms expert Friedrich Steinhausler of Stanford University's Institute for Security and Cooperation Studies. In December 1994, police in Prague arrested three men in a car with almost 6 pounds of highly enriched uranium 235. Two were ex-Soviet nuclear workers and the other, a Czech nuclear physicist.
"This operation was organized by criminal groups in Belarus, Russia, the Czech Republic, and Germany," says Mr. Steinhausler, who says the would-be purchaser of the enriched uranium was Al Qaeda.