Suspected suicide hijacker Mohamed Atta, believed to be a key organizer of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, met with an alleged Iraqi spy in Prague this spring, Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross said Friday.
Confirmation of the meeting--previously revealed only in anonymously sourced reports--provides the first evidence that one of the skyjackers had dealings with Iraq five months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Some former U.S. government officials, nongovernmental experts and commentators have cited contact between Atta and Iraqi diplomat Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir Ani as a reason to expand the anti-terrorism campaign against Afghanistan to include military action against Iraq.
U.S. officials have cautioned, however, that such a meeting does not necessarily mean Iraq had any involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Speaking at a news conference in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, Gross said the meeting between Atta and Ani “is not regarded as proof” of any Iraqi connection to the attacks.
Atta, an Egyptian, is suspected of flying one of the two planes that crashed into the World Trade Center. Iraq has vehemently denied any connection to the attacks and has said that Atta and Ani never met.
“This meeting did not take place,” Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz told The Times in Baghdad last week. “It is a lie. We checked with him: ‘Did you ever meet somebody called Atta?’ ”
When asked if the question was posed differently to Ani, such as whether Atta met with him using a different name, Aziz 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.”
Gross said Friday that records show Atta entered the Czech Republic by bus from Germany on June 2, 2000, and that he flew to the United States from Prague the next day.
Atta’s second confirmed visit to Prague, during which he met Ani, came a few weeks before the Iraqi diplomat’s April 22 expulsion from the Czech Republic, Gross said. “We can confirm now that during his [spring of 2001] 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. “Details of their meeting are being investigated.”
Gross did not give a precise date or place for the meeting, but there have been anonymously sourced reports that the contact took place at the Prague airport.
Ani was expelled under suspicion of espionage, according to Czech media, with concerns focused primarily on the fear that he might organize a bomb attack on Radio Free Europe, which is based in Prague and has an Iraqi-language service.
Some reports have said Ani’s meeting with Atta was observed because Czech agents routinely trailed the Iraqi diplomat wherever he went.
Israeli intelligence officials also reportedly have been pushing the possibility of an Iraqi connection to the terrorist attacks. It could be in Israel’s security interests to see the U.S. take a more aggressive stance against Iraq.
Germany’s mass-circulation Bild newspaper Thursday quoted unidentified Israeli intelligence sources as saying Atta received anthrax spores from Iraqi agents in Prague.
But a U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition that he not be further identified, said Friday that Washington has found no evidence indicating that Iraq had provided anthrax to Atta or that Iraq is involved in the bioterrorism attacks.
Times staff writer Bob Drogin in Washington and special correspondent Iva Drapalova in Prague contributed to this report.