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Context of 'April 8, 2001: Czech Intelligence Informant Claims Iraqi Agent Met Arab Man in Prague; He Later Claims Man was Mohamed Atta'

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9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta arrives in the early morning in Prague, Czech Republic, by bus from Cologne, Germany. He plays on slot machines at the Happy Day Casino, then disappears. It will never be discovered where he sleeps in Prague. He takes the midday flight to New York the next day (see June 3, 2000). (Kenety 9/3/2004) After 9/11, this trip will fuel the controversy over whether Atta meets an Iraqi agent in Prague in 2001 (see April 8, 2001 and September 18, 2001-April 2007). It is not entirely clear why Atta chooses to fly to the US from the Czech Republic, although 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed will be reported to have lived in Prague in the late 1990s (see Mid-1996-September 11, 2001).

An informant for the BIS, the Czech intelligence agency, reportedly sees Iraqi diplomat Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani meeting in a restaurant outside Prague with an Arab man in his 20s. This draws concern from the intelligence community because the informant suggests the person is “a visiting ‘student’ from Hamburg—and… potentially dangerous.” (Safire 11/19/2003 Sources: Jan Kavan) The young man is never positively identified or seen again. Fearing that al-Ani may have been attempting to recruit the young man for a mission to blow-up Radio Free Europe headquarters, the diplomat is told to leave the country on April 18. (Tyler and Tagliabue 10/27/2001; Walker 10/20/2002; Safire 11/19/2003 Sources: Unnamed US officials, Jan Kavan) Information about the incident is passed on to US intelligence. After the 9/11 attacks and after it is reported on the news that Atta had likely visited Prague, the BIS informant will say the young man at the restaurant was Atta. (see September 14, 2001) This information leads hawks to come up with the so-called “Prague Connection” theory, which will hold that 9/11 plotter Mohomed Atta flew to Prague on April 8, met with al-Ani to discuss the planning and financing of the 9/11 attacks, and returned to the US on either April 9 or 10. (Tyler and Tagliabue 10/27/2001; Walker 10/20/2002; Safire 11/19/2003 Sources: Unnamed US officials, Unnamed BIS informant, Jan Kavan) The theory will be widely discounted by October 2002. (Risen 10/21/2002 Sources: Unnamed US officials, Unnamed BIS informant)

Hynek Kmonicek, the Czech Republic’s deputy foreign minister, informs the Iraqi charge d’affaires in Prague that Iraqi diplomat Ahmed al-Ani must leave the Czech Republic within 24 hours because his “presence [is] not in the security interests of the Czech Republic” and because his activities are “incompatible with his diplomatic status.” (Penketh 10/25/2001; Tyler and Tagliabue 10/27/2001; Hedges and Mcneil 12/16/2001; Safire 11/19/2003) Kmonicek will later deny that the dismissal is related to the meeting that allegedly took place on April 8 (see April 8, 2001). A Newsweek report in April 2002 will suggest the dismissal is related to video surveillance footage showing al-Ani photographing the Radio Free Europe building on several occasions. (Isikoff 4/28/2002) But a November 2003 report in Slate will say that the dismissal is indeed related to the alleged meeting, explaining that Czech intelligence had become nervous after learning of the meeting. (Safire 11/19/2003) The real cause for his dismissal is never officially disclosed.

The CIA intelligence liaison in Prague is told by the Czech intelligence agency (BIS) that one of its informants in the local Prague Arab community believes the Hamburg “student” he had seen meeting with Iraqi diplomat Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani on April 8, 2001 in a restaurant outside of Prague was 9/11 plotter Mohamed Atta. (see April 8, 2001) Czech intelligence treats the claim skeptically because it comes only after Atta’s picture has been broadcast on television and after the Czech press reported that records showed Atta had traveled to Prague. FBI agents go to the Czech Republic and are given full access to Czech intelligence material. This information leads hawks to come up with the so-called “Prague Connection” theory, which holds that 9/11 plotter Mohamed Atta flew to Prague on April 8, met with al-Ani to discuss the planning and financing of the 9/11 attacks, and returned to the US on either April 9 or 10. The theory will be widely debated but generally discounted by the end of 2004. (Risen 10/21/2002; Safire 11/19/2003 Sources: Jan Kavan)

Czech foreign minister Jan Kavan briefs Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington about the alleged trip 9/11 plotter Mohamed Atta took to the Czech Republic in April 2001 (see April 8, 2001). Kavan tells Powell that the BIS, the Czech intelligence service, has reason to believe that Mohamed Atta may have met near Prague with Iraqi spy Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani. (Tagliabue 10/20/2001 Sources: Jan Kavan)

Referring to the claim that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with Iraqi Counsel al-Ani on April 8, 2001 (see April 8, 2001), Stanislav Gross, the Czech interior minister, states, “I can only confirm one visit in the summer” and Petr Necas, chairman of the parliamentary defense committee, says, “I haven’t seen any direct evidence that Mr. Atta met any Iraqi agent.” Citing a senior Czech Republic official, the New York Times will report on October 20 that “firm documentary evidence existed only that Mr. Atta had passed through the Prague airport from Germany to take a flight to Newark.” (Tagliabue 10/20/2001) The rumors, which had first surfaced shortly after the attacks, were based on information from a Czech intelligence source inside Prague’s Middle Eastern community. The source had told the BIS, the Czech Republic’s intelligence service, that he had seen Atta meeting al-Ani in a restaurant outside of Prague on April 8 earlier that year (see April 8, 2001). (Ensor 9/19/2001; Isikoff 4/28/2002)

Czech interior minister Stanislav Gross says during a press conference that 9/11 plotter Mohamed Atta had in fact met with Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, the consul and second secretary of the Iraqi embassy, in the Czech Republic after arriving in Prague on April 8, 2001 (see April 8, 2001). “We can confirm now that during his… trip to the Czech Republic, he did have a contact with an officer of the Iraqi intelligence,” he says. He also says that Atta had been in Prague at least twice—in May 2000 after coming to Prague from Germany on his way to the United States and then again in April when he allegedly met with Ahni. (Tyler and Tagliabue 10/27/2001; CNN 10/27/2001) Also, by this time, the FBI claims it has physical evidence of Atta’s trip to Prague. The New York Times reports, “On April 4 he was in Virginia Beach. He flew to the Czech Republic on April 8 and met with the Iraqi intelligence officer… By April 11, Atta was back in Florida renting a car.” (Tyler and Tagliabue 10/27/2001 Sources: Unnamed US officials, Jan Kavan) But this will later be disputed. In late April 2002, Newsweek will report, “The FBI could find no visa or airline records showing he had left or re-entered the United States that month,” quoting an unnamed US official who says, “Neither we nor the Czechs nor anybody else has any information he was coming or going [to Prague] at that time.” (Isikoff 4/28/2002 Sources: Unnamed US official, Jan Kavan) And in late 2003, Edward Jay Epstein will similarly report in Slate that there “were no car rental records in Virginia, Florida, or anywhere else in April 2001 for Mohamed Atta, since he had not yet obtained his Florida license… [n]or were there other records in the hands of the FBI that put Atta in the United States at the time.” But Epstein will note that Atta would likely have traveled to Prague using false documents anyway. (Safire 11/19/2003)

Czech Police Chief Jiri Kolar says that there is no evidence that 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta met an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague in April (see April 8, 2001). He also says—contradicting earlier reports—that there is no documentary evidence that Atta traveled to Prague at all in 2001. Additionally, an unnamed Czech intelligence official tells the newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes, that that the person who had met with al-Ani on April 2001 near Prague was not Atta. Another person with the same name had arrived in Prague in 2001 but he “didn’t have the same identity card number.” Furthermore, “There was a great difference in their ages, their nationalities didn’t match, basically nothing—it was someone else,” the source says. It is also reported that a man named Hassan, described as a businessman and a long-time member of Prague’s Arab community, claims to have been a close friend of al-Ani. Hassan says that he believes the Czechs had mistaken another man for Atta, a used car dealer from Nuremberg by the name of Saleh, who often visited Prague to meet al-Ani and and who sold him at least one car. “I have sat with the two of them at least twice. The double is an Iraqi who has met with the consul. If someone saw a photo of Atta he might easily mistake the two,” Hassan says. (Hedges and Mcneil 12/16/2001; Hejma 12/16/2001; Green 12/18/2001 Sources: Hassan, Jiri Kolar, Unnamed Czech intelligence officials, Unnamed Interior Ministry official) Responding to the report, Gabriela Bartikova, spokeswoman for the Czech Minister of Interior, says that the Czech intelligence agency still believes that Mohamed Atta and al-Ani, the consul and second secretary of the Iraqi embassy met in April 2001. She says, “Minister Gross had the information from BIS (the Czech Republic’s Intelligence Agency), and BIS guarantees the information. So we stick by that information.” At about the same time, US officials tell the Associated Press they also still believe the meeting had transpired. (Hejma 12/16/2001)

Newsweek reports that both US and Czech officials no longer believe the alleged April 2001 meeting between Mohamed Atta and the Iraqi officer, Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, ever took place (see April 8, 2001). The magazine reports that FBI and CIA investigations show no record that Atta visited Prague during that time and instead place the 9/11 plotter in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and Florida during that month. (Isikoff 4/28/2002; Pincus 5/1/2002; BBC 5/1/2002) But Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross maintains that the meeting did take place. A few days after the Newsweek report is published, he says, “Right now I do not have the slightest information that anything is wrong with the details I obtained from BIS counterintelligence. I trust the BIS more than journalists.” (BBC 5/1/2002; Pitkin 5/8/2002)

Czech President Vaclav Havel informs Washington that there is no evidence to substantiate claims that 9/11 plotter Mohamed Atta met with Iraqi diplomat Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani in Prague in April 2001 (see April 8, 2001). The information is relayed to the White House quietly to avoid embarrassing top Czech officials—presumably Interior Minister Stanislav Gross -who had publicly stated on more than one occasion that there was no evidence to suggest that the meeting did not take place. The New York Times will report in October 2002: “Mr. Havel… moved carefully behind the scenes in the months after the reports of the Prague meeting came to light to try to determine what really happened, officials said. He asked trusted advisers to investigate, and they quietly went through back channels to talk with Czech intelligence officers to get to the bottom of the story. The intelligence officers told them there was no evidence of a meeting.” The New York Times also reports that analysts in the Czech intelligence service were furious that the Prime Minister stovepiped the information straight to Washington, before they had the opportunity to investigate further. (Walker 10/20/2002; Risen 10/21/2002 Sources: Unnamed CIA and FBI officials)

The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry investigating the 9/11 attacks concludes that there is no evidence that Mohammad Atta—under any of his known aliases—visited Prague in April 2001 (see April 8, 2001). (Canellos and Bender 8/3/2003) However, the Bush administration will delay the publication of the Inquiry’s final report for many months, so this conclusion will not be made public until after the US invasion of Iraq is done (see January-July 2003).

Several Pentagon officials, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, meet with the FBI’s assistant director for counterterrorism, Pat D’Amuro, to discuss the latest intelligence concerning the alleged April 2001 (see April 8, 2001) meeting between 9/11 plotter Mohamed Atta and Iraqi diplomat Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani. Wolfowitz pressures the FBI briefers to confirm that the Prague meeting had in fact happened. The FBI concedes that the occurrence of the meeting, though not proven, was at least possible. (Ratnesar 9/2/2002)

Two articles by reporter James Risen on the “Prague Connection” are published in the New York Times. One article reveals that early in 2002 (see Early 2002, probably May or later), Czech President Vaclav Havel had informed Washington that there was no evidence to substantiate claims that 9/11 plotter Mohamed Atta had met with Iraqi diplomat Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani in Prague in April 2001 (see April 8, 2001). The article also reveals that analysts in the Czech intelligence service had been furious with the Prime Minister for stovepiping unsubstantiated reports straight to Washington, before they had had the opportunity to investigate further. (Risen 10/21/2002) Risen’s other article explains how rivalry within the BIS and problematic relations with Britain’s MI6 had resulted in reporters receiving misinformation from sources with grievances and conflicting agendas. (Risen 10/21/2002) His two articles seemingly put to rest the “Prague Connection” theory, though a November 2003 article in Slate by Edward Jay Epstein will note that many questions remain unanswered. (Safire 11/19/2003)

Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, presents the latest draft of a paper that is meant to serve as a rebuttal to Iraq’s December 7 declaration (see February 5, 2003) to Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley, Paul Wolfowitz, Karl Rove, Richard Armitage, Michael Gerson, and Karen Hughes. The paper, written with the help of John Hannah, is supposed to serve as the basis for the speech Secretary of State Colin Powell will deliver to the UN Security Council on February 5 (see February 5, 2003). In his presentation, Libby says that intercepts and human intelligence reports indicate that Saddam Hussein has been attempting to conceal items. He doesn’t know what items are being hidden by the Iraqis, but he says it must be weapons of mass destruction. He also claims that Iraq has extensive ties to al-Qaeda, and cites the alleged meeting between Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi Intelligence agent (see April 8, 2001) as one example. While Armitage is disappointed with Libby’s presentation, Wolfowitz and Rove seem impressed. Karen Hughes warns Libby not to stretch the facts. (Bamford 2004, pp. 368; Isikoff and Corn 2006, pp. 175)

At 2:30 a.m., Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson, gets a call from one of CIA Director George Tenet’s aides (see 2:30 a.m. February 5, 2003). Vice President Dick Cheney’s staff is insisting that the widely discredited claim (see October 21, 2002) that Mohamed Atta had met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence officer in April 2001 (see April 8, 2001) be reinstated into Powell’s forthcoming speech to the UN Security Council. The pressure continues throughout the night. Just before 9 a.m., when Powell begins his speech, Wilkerson’s phone rings again and again. Caller ID shows it is Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, presumably to try one more time to argue for the inclusion of the material. Wilkerson refuses to take the call. “Scooter,” one State Department aide will later explain to reporter Craig Unger, “wasn’t happy.” (Burrough et al. 5/2004, pp. 232; Unger 2007, pp. 283-284)

Vice President Dick Cheney appears on Meet the Press and tells host Tim Russert that Iraq’s support for al-Qaeda was “clearly official policy.” As evidence, he cites the alleged meeting between Mohamed Atta and Iraqi diplomat Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani (see April 8, 2001). Cheney also insists that the two trailers found in Baghdad (see April 19, 2003 and May 9, 2003) were mobile biological weapon factories, even though he was told by David Kay, the head of the Iraq Survey Group, that that was probably not the case (see July 29, 2003). (Cheney 9/14/2003; Isikoff and Corn 2006, pp. 313)

Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, finally accepts the fact that he cannot successfully spin or browbeat the commission staff into reporting links between Iraq and al-Qaeda as factual (see July 12, 2004). His most recent efforts to rewrite a report claiming such links was thwarted by angry commission staffers (see January 2004), and for months he has dodged charges that he is a White House “plant,” there to ensure the commission makes the kind of conclusions that Bush officials want it to make. Now, he finally admits that there is no evidence to support the claim of a connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda, although there was some minor contact. Author Philip Shenon will later write: “The intelligence showed that when bin Laden wanted to do business with Iraq, Iraq did not want to do business with al-Qaeda…. Saddam Hussein saw [Osama] bin Laden… as a threat to his own very brutal and very secular rule in Iraq.” The widely reported story about 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta meeting an Iraqi spy in Prague (see April 8, 2001 and September 14, 2001) has been examined and re-examined, and found to be unsupported (see December 2001). Zelikow is forced to admit the reality of the situation. Shenon will write: “Even if he wanted to, there was little Zelikow could do to rescue the administration now…. If Zelikow tried to tamper with the report now, he knew he risked a public insurrection by the staff, with only a month before the commission’s final report was due.” Bush officials are horrified at the prospect of the commission reporting flatly that there are no verifiable links of any kind between al-Qaeda and Iraq. Since the failure of the US to find WMDs in Iraq, the Bush administration has shifted its rationale for invading that nation—now it was a punitive measure against one of the backers of the 9/11 attacks, and senior Bush officials, most notably Vice President Cheney, have been advocating that point for over a year. (Shenon 2008, pp. 381-385)

Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, an Iraqi intelligence agent captured by the US after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (see June 2004), is quietly released. Al-Ani gained notoriety after 9/11 when Bush administration officials claimed he had a meeting with 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta in Prague, in the Czech Republic (see April 8, 2001). These allegations were eventually debunked (see September 18, 2001-April 2007). He had been secretly detained by the CIA at an unknown location since his capture. He will make the news again in mid-2007 when Czech officials reveal that he has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the Czech government, charging that unfounded Czech intelligence reports resulted in his imprisonment by the CIA. (Whitlock 10/27/2007)

A map drawn by one of the defectors, showing his version of the Salman Pak facility.A map drawn by one of the defectors, showing his version of the Salman Pak facility. [Source: PBS]The story told by three Iraqi defectors in November 2001, of a terrorist training camp in Salman Pak, outside of Baghdad, has long been disproven (November 6-8, 2001) and one defector has been shown to have pretended to be former Iraqi general Jamal al-Ghurairy, the key source for the story. But only now are the news reporters and pundits beginning to acknowledge—however grudgingly—that they were duped, and that their credulous reportings helped cement the Bush administration’s fabricated case for invading Iraq. The story was one of at least 108 planted in the US and British press by the Iraqi National Congress (INC) between October 2001 and May 2002, a number audaciously provided by the INC itself in its attempts to persuade Congress to continue its funding (see June 26, 2002). The New York Times eventually admitted some faults with its prewar reporting, but only admitted that its coverage of the Salman Pak story had “never been independently verified.” PBS, similarly gulled by the defectors and their fraudulent claims (see October 2005), amended its Frontline Web site for its “Gunning for Saddam” story, which featured interviews with the defectors, to note that the defector’s claims have “not been substantiated,” and later will admit to the likelihood that its reporter, Christopher Buchanan, was duped. New York Times reporter Chris Hedges now says he took the word of producer Lowell Bergman as to the validity of the defector, and was further convinced by one of the defector’s military appearance. As for Bergman, Hedges says, “There has to be a level of trust between reporters. We cover each other’s sources when it’s a good story because otherwise everyone would get hold of it.” Hedges admits he was not aware at the time of how close Bergman, and other Times reporters such as Judith Miller, was to INC head Ahmed Chalabi. “I was on the periphery of all this. This was Bergman’s show.” (Fairweather 4/2006) In 2004, Hedges noted that he attempted to get confirmation from the US government about the defectors and their story, and government officials confirmed the claims: “We tried to vet the defectors and we didn’t get anything out of Washington that said ‘these guys are full of sh*t.’” (McCollam 7/1/2004) Hedges says he later rejected an attempt by Chalabi to convince him that UN inspectors were spying for Saddam Hussein. He also says that he never believed the stories placing 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta in Prague (see April 8, 2001). He no longer trusts Chalabi as a source of information: “He’s a sleazy guy who I was not comfortable working around, but there was nothing right after 9/11 to indicate he was an outright liar.” (Fairweather 4/2006) Hedges notes that Chalabi seemed to have an “endless stable” of defectors to talk with reporters. “He had defectors for any story you wanted. He tried to introduce me to this guy who said he knew about Iraqi spies on the UN inspection teams: the guy was a thug. I didn’t trust either of them.” (McCollam 7/1/2004) However, none of this uncertainty made it into Hedges’s Times report. Bergman says, “You’ve got to remember that back then there really was only one show in town, and that was Chalabi’s. If you were doing a story on Saddam’s Iraq, you would speak to the Iraqi government, the White House, and the INC.” Bergman tried to confirm the al-Ghurairy story with former CIA director and prominent neoconservative James Woolsey, and Woolsey told him that “al-Ghurairy” had met with the FBI in Ankara. (At the time, Woolsey was hardly a neutral source since it was already reported that he was aggressively trying to drum up connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda (see Late September 2001 and Mid-September-October 2001).) “Chalabi was dangerous goods in the sense you know he’s advocating war” Bergman recalls. “But that label is up-front. I think Chalabi is given too much credit for influencing the march to war.” Many conservative pundits still cite the al-Ghurairy tale as justification for the Iraq invasion. And the White House still lists “shutting down the Salman Pak training camp where members of many terrorist camps trained” in its “Progress Report on the Global War on Terrorism” Web page. In 2004, Chalabi boasted, “As far as we’re concerned, we’ve been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone, and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important. The Bush administration is looking for a scapegoat. We’re ready to fall on our swords if he wants. We are heroes in error.” (McCollam 7/1/2004; Fairweather 4/2006)


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