What is the status of the meeting in Prague between
September 11th hijacker Mohamed Atta and Iraqi embassy
intelligence officer, Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir Al-Ani?
The basic information has not changed: Czech counter
intelligence determined that an Iraqi official under
its surveillance met Atta in April 2001. The interpretation
of it, however, has undergone a number of vacillations.
Here is the chronology:
1. October 13, 2001. Based on an apparent
leak from the Czech foreign ministry in Prague, Czech
newspapers reported that Czech foreign minister Jan
Kavan had briefed Secretary of State Colin Powell
in Washington about a trip Atta had taken to the Czech
Republic in April. Kavan said that Czech intelligence
had observed Mohamed Atta meeting in Prague with Iraqi
Counsel Al-Ani. Since Ani worked as a case officer
for Iraqi intelligence, the liaison implied a connection
between the hijackers and Iraq.
After the leaked story was confirmed by the State
Department, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers
published the story about the liaison.
2. On October 20th, John Tagliabue wrote in
the New York Times that Czech officials had denied
such a meeting had ever taken place.
3. On October 26th, Stanislav Gross, the Minister
of Interior of the Czech Republic, called a press
conference to clarify what was known about the meeting.
Gross was in a position to do so because the Czech
counterintelligence service, the BIS, reported to
him, not to Parliament or the President. He explained
that Atta had been in the Czech Republic at least
twice: on June 2, 2000 and in early April 2001. During
his brief June visit, Gross said Atta was not observed
by Czech intelligence, but in April, "We can confirm
now that during his trip to the Czech Republic, he
did have a contact with an officer of the Iraqi intelligence,
Mr. Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al Ani."
Since Gross had full access to the records of the
BIS, which uses both electronic surveillance and visual
surveillance, his confirmation sent shock waves around
4. In Baghdad, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister
Tarik Aziz denied that the meeting had taken place.
In case he was proven wrong, however, he said: "Even
if such an incident had taken place, it doesn't mean
anything. Any diplomat in any mission might meet people
in a restaurant here or there and talk to them, which
is meaningless. If that person turned out to be something
else, that doesn't mean he had a connection with what
that person did later."
5. On October 27th, the New York Times published
an extraordinary refutation of its October 20th story,
co-written by Patrick E. Tyler and John Tagliabue
. This piece asserted that, contrary to the prior
denial, sources confirmed that the meeting had in
fact taken place.
The Times story provided a number of new details,
such as a Czech member of parliament, who had been
briefed by the Czech intelligence services on this
issue, said he “believed the meeting with Atta may
have been captured by airport surveillance cameras.”
This would imply that the meeting took place at the
Prague airport. It also reported that on Friday April
20th, Hynek Kmonicek, the deputy foreign minister
of the Czech Republic, had al-Ani expelled from the
Czech Republic for activities incompatible with his
Kmonicek, who was quoted in the Times story, explained
Al-Ani’s expulsion was connected to his meeting with
Atta. "It's not a common thing for an Iraqi diplomat
to meet a student from a neighboring country.” Atta
had been a student in Hamburg. If al-Ani’s expulsion
proceeded from his meeting with Atta, then clearly
Czech intelligence had identified Atta some four months
before the September 11th attack.
The New York Times did not, however, rely solely
on Czech sources to publish such a corrective story.
Tyler and Tagliabue also confirmed the story with
US ‘law enforcement officials’ and the White House.
By that time, the FBI had pieced together Atta’s movements
from INS files, car rental records, vehicles, airlines
reservations data and other documents. These files
showed Atta’s entries into the US when he used his
passport, when he rented and returned vehicles, and
some flights he had booked.
The story stated “Federal law-enforcement officials
said the Prague meeting fits into Atta's itinerary
this way: On April 4 he was in Virginia Beach. He
flew to the Czech Republic on April 8 and met with
the Iraqi intelligence officer, who was identified
as Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani. By April 11,
Atta was back in Florida renting a car.”
The New York Times also said “A senior Bush administration
official Friday night indicated the Czech decision
to go public with the information about the meeting
took Washington by surprise. “As for the meeting itself,
the official said, "We are not sure we know exactly
the full meaning of this, but we have known about
it for some time." So presumably the President had
known that one of the September 11 hijackers was observed
by the Czech intelligence contacting an Iraqi official
in Prague in April 2001.
6. In November, Czech Prime Minister Milos
Zeman added another element to the story. He said
that when Czech intelligence determined Atta had contacted
Al-Ani, it raised the “hypothesis” that the purpose
of the meeting might be to discuss an attack on the
Prague the headquarters for U.S.-funded Radio Free
This hypothesis was based on information provided
by Jabir Salim in December 1998. Salim, like Al-Ani,
had been the Iraq Consul in Prague, and had defected.
When debriefed by western intelligence services, he
revealed that Iraq had been planning a car bombing
of Radio Free Europe. So when al-Ani took Salim’s
place at the Iraq Embassy, Czech intelligence assumed
that he might be continuing that mission, which accounted
for the surveillance on al-Ani.
Although the hypothesis about the Radio Free Europe
target proved wrong on September 11th, it raised another
potentially embarrassing intelligence concern: Did
the Czechs pass on information about the al-Ani encounter,
and the reasons for his expulsion, to other intelligence
services prior to September 11th?
Heightened security at Radio Free Europe and the
Al-Ani expulsion that April were highly visible moves.
Since Radio Free Europe, was a prime US target in
the Czech Republic, the Czechs had reason to explain
the security precautions to US intelligence. After
all, the US they had capabilities for surveillance
unavailable to the Czech intelligence. Since al-Ani’s
predecessor, Salim, was being handled by the British
intelligence service, the Czechs also had reason to
brief the British on al-Ani expulsion, if only to
get Salim’s views.
7. In December, 2001, Czech newspapers reported
that President Havel saying “it was only 70 percent
certain” that the identification of Atta was accurate.
Havel, who was not privy to BIS reporting, subsequently
explained the “70 percent” figure was his personal
assessment based on his past experience.
8. On December 17th, Gross, in response to
these questions, re-confirmed the meeting. The AP
reported: “Interior Minister Stanislav Gross, responding
to the report, said he stood by his original statement
that Atta and Al-Ani met at least once in Prague and
said it was based on a reputable account from BIS,
the Czech counterintelligence agency.”
9. On May 1st, 2002, the status of the case
changed radically when first Newsweek and then the
Washington Post declared the meeting a fictoid. Walter
Pincus in the Washington Post (based on a story a
few days earlier by Michael Isikoff in Newsweek) stated
“There is no evidence that the alleged leader of the
Sept. 11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta, met in April 2001
with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague, a finding
that eliminates a once-suggested link between the
terrorist attacks and the government of President
Saddam Hussein, according to a senior administration
Without giving a further source, Pincus explained
that false reports that such a meeting had taken place
were based not on BIS surveillance but a claim by
“a Middle East informant” after September 11th that
“he had seen the hijacker five months earlier meeting
with al-Ani.” Pincus thus dates the identification
as Atta to after the September 11th attack (which
is inconsistent with the deputy foreign minister’s
assertion that he had ordered al-Ani expelled in April
2001 because of his inappropriate contact with Atta.)
According to the anonymous “senior administration
official,” Pincus writes “the Czechs said they were
no longer certain that Atta was the person who met
The same “senior administration official” was also
quoted as saying that FBI and CIA analysts concluded
that "there was no evidence Atta left or returned
to the U.S." at the time he was supposed to be in
Prague. (Neither the FBI, the New York Times nor anyone
else had claimed that there was evidence Atta had
used his own passport to travel to the Czech Republic
in April 2001. The assumption was that, if Atta was
in Prague in April, he traveled there under a false
Neither Pincus nor Isikoff identified the deep-throated
“senior administration official,” nor specified which
“Czechs,” according to this anonymous source, doubted
the identification of Atta.
10. Czech intelligence responds. In, fact
there never was a retraction, or even modification,
from the relevant officials in and supervising the
Czech intelligence service. On December 17th, 2001
Gabriela Bartikova, the spokeswomen for the Minister
of the Interior, had said "Minister Gross had the
information from BIS, and BIS guarantees the information,
So we stick by that information." On May 3rd, 2002
referring to the Washington Post-Newsweek allegation,
Interior Minister Stanislav Gross stated "I believe
the counterintelligence services more than journalists.
I draw on the Security Information Service [BIS] information
and I see no reason why I should not believe it."
He further explained that he had consulted with BIS
chief Jiri Ruzek on May 2nd in order to find out whether
the Czech intelligence service had any new information
that would cast doubt on the meeting. "The answer
was that they did not. Therefore, I consider the matter
closed,” Gross concluded.
In other words, to date, Czech intelligence, the
only agency anywhere that claimed to monitor the meeting,
stood by its guarantee that the atta-al-Ani had taken
What changed in this ping-pong journalism therefore
was not any new revelations— or retractions— but the
introduction of an anonymous “senior administration
source” with an unknown agenda, whose claim that “the
Czechs” doubted the meeting took place, has now been
directly denied by the relevant officials.