The Magazine

Mohamed Atta Was Here

. . . And met with Saddam Hussein's man in Prague.

Aug 12, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 46 • By FRED BARNES
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PRAGUE
Mohamed Atta, the leader of the September 11 hijackers, visited Prague twice in the fifteen months before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, in June 2000 and April 2001, and met with an Iraqi agent at least once during the second visit. Czech officials say they have a photograph of the meeting. Atta, who was not previously known to Czech authorities, turned up in routine surveillance by Czech counterintelligence officials of Ahmed al-Ani, a consul at the Iraqi embassy here. Whether Atta and al-Ani discussed plans for September 11 is unknown. But this is known: Iraq had targeted an American institution located in Prague, the headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Before he was expelled from the Czech Republic last year, al-Ani was spotted--and photographed by RFE/RL officials--lingering outside the headquarters just off Wenceslas Square. Since September 11, the building has been guarded by Czech soldiers.

The story of Atta's contact with an Iraqi agent has been disputed by some American and European officials. Time, the Washington Post, and Newsweek, plus other publications, have raised doubts about it. But last week Martin Palous, the Czech ambassador to the United States, gave me the same account of Atta's time in Prague as other Czech officials had given to New York Times columnist William Safire, who first wrote about the Atta visit last November. Palous was home in Prague for consultations and a vacation. Both Czech prime minister Milos Zeman and interior minister Stanislav Gross have also publicly confirmed the meeting between Atta and al-Ani.

The meeting has political and international importance. A connection between Iraq and Atta, an al Qaeda operative under Osama bin Laden, bolsters the case for military action by the United States to remove the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. President Bush has repeatedly said he intends to depose Saddam--without saying when. But some European leaders and American politicians have insisted a link to September 11 is needed to justify an attack on Iraq. While the meeting might not tie Saddam directly to those attacks, it does link Iraq to the al Qaeda terrorist network, to whom Iraqi agents might secretly have slipped biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons to be used against America. Atta was living in Florida and plotting the September 11 hijackings at the time he made his two trips to Prague.

At the very least, al-Ani's presence outside RFE/RL's headquarters and an Iraqi message saying RFE/RL broadcasts into Iraq must be stopped implicate Iraq in a scheme to disable an American facility. The Iraqi message was intercepted shortly after RFE/RL began broadcasting into Iraq in October 1998. For eight hours daily, the broadcasts criticize Saddam's dictatorship and urge the adoption of democracy. (RFE/RL broadcasts to 34 countries, 18 of them predominantly Muslim.) From time to time, Egyptians and Yemenis have been seen outside the headquarters in Prague, appearing to check it out. Al-Ani, a top agent of Iraqi intelligence, was spotted only once. Saddam's first step, according to an informed source, was to send a special operative to Prague with $500,000 to be used to halt the broadcasts into Iraq. The operative is said to have embezzled the money. Then al-Ani took over the job, but he was deported. The broadcasts, known as Radio Free Iraq, continue.

The security of the RFE/RL headquarters became an issue in Washington last May when First Lady Laura Bush was planning a trip to Prague. Despite the threat of terrorism, she visited the headquarters, entering by the back door as a decoy car went to the front door. The building, a symbol of America, is now regarded as one of the four most prominent targets for terrorists in Europe. The other three are the U.S. embassies in London and Paris and Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Czech officials have expressed alarm about an attack and proposed to relocate RFE/RL miles outside Prague at an abandoned Soviet military base. Thomas Dine, the head of RFE/RL, has noisily refused to move and, in a newspaper interview, accused the Czech government of having "capitulated to terrorism." There is suspicion, however, that the government's real motive is to regain the valuable property in downtown Prague, which is rented to RFE/RL for $1 a year.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.