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Iraqi Who Might Have Met With 9/11 Hijacker Is Captured
New Focus Is Put on Iraq's Alleged Links to Al Qaeda
By Vernon Loeb and John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 9, 2003; Page A11
The U.S. military has captured an Iraqi intelligence officer who may have met in Prague with a key al Qaeda hijacker five months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, U.S. officials confirmed last night.
The military captured the intelligence officer, Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, last week in Iraq, the officials said. Czech authorities said in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks that al-Ani had met in Prague with hijacker Mohamed Atta in April 2001, but the FBI and the CIA later determined there was no evidence that Atta left the United States and traveled to or from the Czech Republic during the time he supposedly met with al-Ani.
Czech authorities, who initially told the Bush administration they believed al-Ani and Atta had met to plot the bombing of the Prague offices of Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Iraq, subsequently reported that they were no longer certain of the meeting.
Still, al-Ani's capture and interrogation -- first reported last night by CBS News -- could shed new light on whether there was a connection between Iraq and al Qaeda, which is accused of carrying out the Sept. 11 attacks. President Bush, in making his case for war against Iraq, cited both Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and its alleged ties to terrorist groups, including al Qaeda.
Richard Perle, a member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board who has contended al Qaeda and Iraq are linked, said he is hopeful al-Ani's capture will lead to a corroboration of his stance.
"If he chose to, he could confirm the meeting with Atta," Perle said. "It would be nice to see that laid to rest. There's a lot he could tell us."
"Of course, a lot depends on who is doing the interrogating," said Perle, adding he fears that if it were the CIA, it could skew the interrogation so as to play down evidence that the alleged meeting with Atta occurred.
After poring over travel records, the agency said it could find no evidence that the meeting occurred. Perle, a longtime agency critic, has said CIA officials failed to give proper weight to the evidence that the pair met.
CIA spokesman Bill Harlow described Perle's charge as "absurd."
"His comments do a disservice to all the men and women of the CIA who every day call it as they see it, not as some wish it to be," Harlow said.
One agency official, who asked not to be quoted by name, denied that the CIA failed to give proper weight to evidence suggesting that Atta and al-Ani had met.
"We're open to the possibility that they met, but we need to be presented with something more than Mr. Perle's suspicions," the official said. "Rather than us being predisposed, it sounds like he is. He's just shopping around for an interrogator who will cook the books to his liking."
It is likely that both military and CIA interrogators will have an opportunity to question al-Ani, government officials said. "He'll be thoroughly interrogated by everybody at the end of the day," one official said.
Al-Ani will be of interest to U.S. interrogators for reasons beyond the question of a meeting with Atta, said another official, who recalled the Iraqi agent was suspected of carrying out a number of "nefarious" missions for then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Six weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Stanislav Gross, the Czech Republic's interior minister, said publicly that al-Ani and Atta had met in Prague five months earlier. Al-Ani was expelled by the Czech Republic shortly after the alleged meeting for conduct incompatible with his diplomatic status.
Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman then told Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in November 2001 that during the meeting, Atta and al-Ani had discussed attacking the headquarters of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe, not the Sept. 11 targets in New York and Washington.
Surveillance cameras at the Radio Free Europe building picked up al-Ani surveying the site in April 2001, around the time of his supposed meeting with Atta. A tape of al-Ani was provided to Czech intelligence shortly thereafter.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, when pictures of Atta were widely published, a Middle East informer told Czech intelligence that he had seen the hijacker five months earlier meeting with al-Ani, providing a basis for the public comments by Czech officials.
But in December, Czech President Vaclav Havel retreated from the earlier Czech statements, saying there was only "a 70 percent" chance Atta met with al-Ani. After months of further investigation, Czech officials determined last year that they could no longer confirm that a meeting took place, telling the Bush administration that al-Ani might have met with someone other than Atta.