Did September 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta meet an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague five months before he slammed a Boeing 767 into One World Trade Center? Fresh evidence suggests the attack on America may have featured Baathist fingerprints.
Pointing to Prague
Edward Jay Epstein, best-selling author of 12 books on politics and history, has followed “the Prague Connection” since its outlines emerged in autumn 2001. His findings on this topic appear at edwardjayepstein.com.
Epstein and other Prague-Connection proponents believe Mohamed Atta met on April 8, 2001 with Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, Consul and Second Secretary at Iraq’s Czech embassy between March 1999 and April 22, 2001. Al-Ani, a suspected intelligence officer, allegedly handled several agents, possibly including Atta.
According to his May 26, 2000 Czech visa application–submitted in Bonn, Germany–Atta called himself a “Hamburg student.” He had studied urban planning for seven years at Hamburg-Harburg Technical University and launched an Islamic club there in 1999.
Atta apparently had pressing business in Prague. With his visa application pending until May 31, Atta nonetheless flew to Prague International Airport on May 30 and remained in its transit lounge for about six hours before flying back to Germany. Czech officials suspect he may have met someone there. Two days later, on June 2, he returned to Prague by bus on Czech visa number BONN200005260024. He stayed there for some 20 hours, and then flew to Newark, New Jersey, on June 3.
During the summer of 2000–as the Los Angeles Times detailed on January 20, 2002–at least $99,455 flowed from financial institutions in the United Arab Emirates into a Florida SunTrust account Atta shared with his roommate and fellow hijacker, Marwan Al-Shehhi. That August, they began flight lessons at Venice, Florida’s Huffman Aviation.
On April 4, 2001, the FBI says, Atta departed Virginia Beach’s Diplomat Inn with Al-Shehhi and cashed a SunTrust check for $8,000. No American eyewitness saw Atta again until April 11.
Atta next was observed April 8 by an informant of BIS, the Czech Secret Service, who reported that Al-Ani met an Arabic-speaking man in a discreetly located restaurant on Prague’s outskirts. Atta is believed to have returned to America the following day.
While skeptics dismiss this encounter, Czech intelligence found Al-Ani’s appointment calendar in Iraq’s Prague embassy, presumably after Saddam Hussein’s defeat. Al-Ani’s diary lists an April 8, 2001, meeting with “Hamburg student.” Maybe, in a massive coincidence, Al-Ani dined with a young scholar and traversed the nuances of Nietzsche. Or perhaps Al-Ani saw Mohamed Atta and discussed more practical matters.
For his part, Al-Ani was jettisoned from Prague on April 22, 2001 for allegedly plotting to blow up Radio Free Europe’s headquarters there, also home to Radio Free Iraq. (Al-Ani’s predecessor, Jabir Salim, defected to England in December 1998. He said Baghdad gave him $150,000 to arrange the car bombing of RFE, but he could recruit no one to complete the mission.) American forces arrested Al-Ani last July 2 in Iraq. Not surprisingly, he denies meeting Atta.
As is well known, on June 18, 2002, CIA Director George Tenet told the Congressional Joint Inquiry on 9/11 that his agency could not “establish that Atta left the US or entered Europe in April 2001.” But Tenet also admitted: “It is possible that Atta traveled under an unknown alias.”
Spanish police last February arrested Algerians Khaled Madani, 33, and Moussa Laour, 36, on suspicion of furnishing phony passports to, among others, al Qaeda operatives Ramzi Binalshibh and Mohamed Atta. According to a February 29 Associated Press dispatch, Binalshibh revealed Madani’s identity to interrogators at the American military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
For the Record
Czech authorities have defended their story despite the American media’s valiant efforts to discredit it.
On October 21, 2002, the New York Times reported on its front page that “The Czech president, Vaclav Havel, has quietly told the White House he has concluded that there is no evidence to confirm earlier reports that Mohamed Atta, the leader in the Sept. 11 attacks, met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague just months before the attacks on New York and Washington, according to Czech officials.”
Havel quickly spurned the Times’s creative writing. Within hours, his spokesman, Ladislav Spacek, dubbed the Times story “a fabrication.” He added, “Nothing like this has occurred.”
That same day, Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross reasserted his government’s finding, complete with unique spellings of the names of two key characters:
“In this moment we can confirm that during the next stay of Mr. Muhammad Atta in the Czech Republic, there was the contact with the official of the Iraqi intelligence, Mr. Al Ani, Ahmed Khalin Ibrahim Samir, who was on the 22nd April 2001 expelled from the Czech Republic on the basis of activities which were not compatible with the diplomatic status.”
Two days later, America’s so-called “Paper of Record” retreated. On October 23, 2002, it quoted Spacek, Havel’s spokesman. “The president did not call the White House about this. The president never spoke about Atta, not with Bush, not with anyone else.”
Hynek Kmonicek booted Al-Ani from Prague. He was then the Czech Republic’s deputy foreign minister, and today is its United Nations ambassador. As Kmonicek tersely insisted in the Prague Post in June 2002: “The meeting took place.”
Epstein also disputes news accounts that Atta was in Virginia when he was supposed to be in Prague. The New York Times, quoting “federal law enforcement officials,” said Atta was in Virginia Beach on April 2, 2001 and “was back in Florida, renting a car” by April 11. According to Newsweek, “The bureau [FBI] had his rental car and hotel receipts.”
“There were no car rental records in Virginia, Florida, or anywhere else in April 2001 for Mohamed Atta,” Epstein responds, “since he had not yet obtained his Florida license. His international license was at his father’s home in Cairo, Egypt (where his roommate Marwan al-Shehhi picked it up in late April).”
Without a driver’s license, Atta could not have been “back in Florida, renting a car,” as the Times claims. Anyone who has rented an automobile knows the first words out of every car rental agent’s mouth: “Driver’s license and credit card.”
So how did Atta get around the Sunshine State?
As Steve Bousquet and Alisa Ulferts explained in the September 16, 2001 edition of Florida’s St. Petersburg Times, Al-Shehhi already had a Florida license issued in 1997. Al-Shehhi could have chauffeured Atta.
Also, Atta drove by himself. As the St. Petersburg Times points out, “on April 26  at 11 p.m., Atta was stopped in Broward County by a deputy for an unknown traffic stop. Atta gave a Coral Springs address, but he didn’t have a driver’s license.”
Atta ignored a notice to appear in court the next May 28, prompting a judge to issue a criminal arrest warrant when he failed to show. Nonetheless, Atta quickly got his papers in order. According to Germany’s Der Spiegel, Atta received Florida driver’s license No. A 300540-68-321-0 on May 2, 2001.
Why do U.S. spooks seem so cool to the Prague Connection? Embracing it could pinpoint a great, big, unconnected dot. As then-Czech foreign minister and intelligence coordinator Jan Kavan told Epstein, it could be embarrassing “if American intelligence had failed before 9-11 to adequately appreciate the significance of the April meeting.”
“I think that the indication that Al-Ani’s digest included a reference to a ‘Hamburg student’ at exactly the time Czech intelligence says the meeting took place greatly strengthens the original reports of those meetings–which, to the best of my knowledge, have never been disavowed by Czech intelligence, despite reports to the contrary.” So says Richard Perle, an American Enterprise Institute national-security strategist and co-author with David Frum of An End to Evil. Perle described the Prague Connection at a May 19 Hudson Institute dinner at Manhattan’s Harvard Club.
Spotlight on Shakir
Additional records further illuminate Iraqi complicity in the September 11 massacre. As a May 27 Wall Street Journal editorial reported, Ahmed Hikmat Shakir’s name appears on three different rosters of the late Uday Hussein’s prestigious paramilitary group, the Saddam Fedayeen. A government source told the Journal that the papers identify Shakir as a lieutenant colonel in the Saddam Fedayeen.
Shakir worked as a VIP airport greeter and facilitator for Malaysian Airlines at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, a position reputedly arranged by intelligence officers at Iraq’s Malaysian embassy. On January 5, 2000, Shakir allegedly welcomed Khalid al Midhar and Nawaz al Hamzi to Kuala Lampur and escorted them through immigration and on to the Kuala Lumpur Hotel. That’s where these September 11 hijackers met with 9/11 conspirators Ramzi bin al Shibh and Tawfiz al Atash. Five days later, according to The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes (he is also author of the new book The Connection), Shakir vanished.
On January 15, al Midhar and al Hamzi quietly flew from Hong Kong to Los Angeles. Nearly eight months later, they very loudly smashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.
Saddam Fedayeen Lieutenant Colonel Shakir resurfaced on September 17, 2001, in Qatari handcuffs. His pockets and apartment yielded, among other things, phone numbers for the contacts and safe houses of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers. Shakir also possessed information on “Operation Bojinka,” al Qaeda’s 1995 conspiracy to explode 12 passenger jets simultaneously over the Pacific. Shakir passed from Qatari to Jordanian custody before being released after three months of Iraqi pressure. He reportedly returned to Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad.
Papers pulled from the Mukhabarat’s Baghdad headquarters indicate that Saddam Hussein’s intelligence operatives have known Mohamed Atta’s former boss for years.
“The following is a summary of the main activities and opportunities of the working party, following the orders issued by Excellency on 4/1/1992″ (January 4, 1992). So reads a March 28, 1992 letter from “Republic Presidency” to “Mr. M.A.A.S.” designated “Top Secret” by the Iraqi Intelligence Service. The 12-page, Arabic-language document– translated into English and shared by a U.S. Senate staff member– describes Baathist espionage from Tunisia to Kuwait.
Under “Saudi front/M4,” the letter says, “Contacted and continued relations with (4) of our old sources which still live in Saudi Arabia, and they are…d- Saudi Osama Bin Ladin/ he is well known Saudi businessmen [sic] founder of Saudi opposition in Afghanistan, had connection with Syrian division.” Bin Laden, in fact, left Saudi Arabia for the Sudan in April 1991, but this need not have precluded “continued relations” between Baghdad and bin Laden.
Absent surveillance footage of Saddam Hussein driving Mohamed Atta to Portland, Maine’s airport en route to American Airlines Flight 11, war critics and Bush bashers refuse to believe that Iraq’s deposed dictator might have been involved in 9/11. Still, Baathist files keep offering clues that the carnage of September 11 might not have caught Saddam Hussein totally by surprise.