What brought Mohammed Atta -- allegedly among the hijackers in September's World Trade Center attacks -- to Prague last year? Security officials in the Czech Republic and the U.S. want to know. They are now in the process of tracking Atta's steps through the Czech capital. Some say his contacts with Iraqi officials there could point to an Iraqi role in the attacks or in the growing number of anthrax cases reported in the U.S.
Prague, 17 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Western and Czech media reports are citing unnamed Czech security officials as saying terrorist Mohammed Atta met "three or four times" in Prague with an agent of Iraqi intelligence who was then a consul based in the Czech capital, Prague.
An investigation into Atta's time in Prague is still in its early stages and not much can be said with certainty. But his key rendezvous with the Iraqi agent may have come in June 2000 at Prague's Ruzyne airport, where Atta had a stopover before boarding a trans-Atlantic flight to Newark, New Jersey.
What Atta and Ahmed Samir al-Ahani discussed will never be divulged -- at least not by Atta. He died on 11 September after allegedly hijacking and piloting one of the planes that crashed into New York's World Trade Center. Al-Ahani is no longer in Prague. Czech officials in April expelled him for allegedly engaging in activities "incompatible with his status as a diplomat."
Czech police appear to be concentrating on two possible ties between Atta and the Czech Republic. Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross said recently that police are investigating the possibility Atta may have had business interests in Prague while studying in Germany in the 1990s. The other is the meeting or meetings that Atta had with Al-Ahani and possibly another Iraqi official, Farouk Hijazi, the former director of Saddam Hussein's external secret services. According to the British newspaper "The Observer," Czech police are probing whether Atta may have met Hijazi in Prague sometime last spring.
A meeting between Atta and Hijazi could provide a further link between those who actually carried out the plane hijackings on 11 September and Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind behind the attacks. Hijazi is known to have met bin Laden.
Another British newspaper, "The Independent," quotes Vince Cannistraro, the CIA's former counterterrorism chief, as saying Saddam was so "impressed" by the 1998 terrorist attacks on two U.S. embassies in Eastern Africa that he sent Hijazi to meet bin Laden, who was largely believed to be behind those attacks as well. The paper reports the CIA believed Hijazi offered bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda terrorist network permanent refuge in Iraq. Bin Laden allegedly turned down the offer.
In the case of Atta, "The Observer" says his Baghdad connection may have offered him a passport and logistical support linked with the September attacks.
But did Iraq offer more?
Western news reports -- including a two-part series airing this week on German public television -- say Egyptian authorities have arrested two suspected members of Al-Qaeda who say their organization obtained vials of anthrax in the Czech Republic.
That report could not be independently confirmed.
Czech Interior Minister Gross says neither Atta nor agents of Al-Qaeda purchased anthrax from Iraqi agents during meetings in Prague. He told reporters on 16 October, "The unequivocal answer to that [question] is 'no way'."
Prague, which serves as a major transit point between Eastern and Western Europe, has already been the site of a risky attempt to ship dangerous materials into the West. In December 1994, police in Prague arrested three men carrying 2.7 kilograms of highly enriched uranium allegedly originating in the former Soviet Union. The CIA says it was the largest recorded seizure of such material.
Richard Butler, who headed UNSCOM, the UN's weapons-inspection program in Iraq, says he doesn't have any special information on Prague, but he finds the reports of a possible anthrax transfer "credible" based on what he knows of Iraq's weapons programs.
"All I've really said about Iraq, given the meetings between Mohammed Atta and Iraqi intelligence agents in Prague and what has been reported about that meeting, as the police say, [is that] I think this is a fruitful line of inquiry. And the thing that also backs it up is [that] we all know Iraq had its own anthrax."
Iraq denies it is supplying anthrax, as Foreign Minister Naji Sabri recently stressed to reporters in Baghdad in not-so-diplomatic terms.
Reporter: "Is there no way that Iraq could have been the source of the anthrax?
Sabri: "Bullshit, that is my response."
Michael Moody, of the non-profit Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute in Washington, says there should be no rush to pass judgment on Iraq's role in the 11 September events or the current anthrax scare: "I'm not suggesting this couldn't have happened. I am just suggesting certainly that the Bush administration will need very convincing evidence to present to other members of the [international] coalition [against terrorism] if Iraq is involved [in order to] provide a rationale for collective action or, if necessary, individual action by the United States. That evidence, I think, is going to have to be very definitive."
No U.S. official has publicly accused Iraq of supplying the anthrax.
Yesterday, Tom Ridge, who heads a newly created U.S. Homeland Security office, says it is too early to draw any links between Iraq and the mail parcels in the U.S. found to contain traces of anthrax. Dozens of people in the U.S. are being treated for exposure to anthrax, and one man has died after opening a letter containing spores of the bacteria.
Former UNSCOM head Butler says Iraq is a legitimate target of any investigation, given its ability to produce biological weapons -- including anthrax.
"[Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister] Tariq Aziz, for example, said a couple of weeks ago that Iraq has absolutely no biological and chemical weapons -- absolutely none. Now that's simply not true. It's not true. In fact, it is not accepted by the international community. When I finished at UNSCOM, we reported that there were remaining weapons. The Security Council, which was very hostile to UNSCOM at the time [and] led by Russian concerns, conducted [its] own independent inquiry, and three years ago the Security Council decided -- as Iraq got rid of UNSCOM -- that nevertheless it was the case that Iraq continued to have weapons of mass destruction and something they had to account for, including in the biological and chemical area."
Al-Qaeda does have a track record of trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
Arms control expert Friedrich Steinhausler is a professor at the University of Salzburg who is currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation. He tells our correspondent that Al-Qaeda three years ago turned to rebels in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya to try to acquire nuclear warheads.
He says Al-Qaeda operatives first went to South Africa to acquire nuclear material and when that became too cumbersome they turned to the Chechens.
"And so [Al Qaida agents] eventually instituted a second phase, which culminated in the 1998 series of attempts to acquire nuclear warheads, and finally in the Grozny deal, where $30 million was offered for 20 nuclear devices plus two tons of drugs for the Chechen rebels."
Steinhausler says that deal between Al-Qaeda and the Chechens was foiled by Russia's Federal Security Bureau.
Asked if it was possible that Al-Qaeda could have purchased biological weapons, including anthrax, Steinhausler's answer is direct: "Of course."