WASHINGTON – U.S. investigators no longer believe suicide hijacker Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Europe last year, eliminating the only known link between Saddam Hussein's government and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
American and Czech officials had believed the meetings between Atta, the alleged ringleader of the 19 hijackers, and Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir Al-Ani, an Iraqi diplomat widely believed to be an intelligence agent, took place in Prague in April 2001.
Some observers said the meetings suggested Iraq's complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks — providing the United States with a reason to attack Saddam. The Iraqi government denied the meetings ever occurred, and charged the reports were fabricated to justify making Iraq a target in the U.S.-led war on terror.
U.S. officials said the content of the alleged meetings was never definitively laid out. Some Czech officials said Atta had contacted Al-Ani, who was later expelled from the Czech Republic, to discuss an attack on the Prague building that serves as the headquarters for U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
But Czech authorities have since retracted their statements to the U.S. government, saying that no such meetings took place. Atta is now believed to have been in the United States during the time he was supposed to have been meeting with Al-Ani, said a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
As recently as December, however, Czech and U.S. authorities said they believed the meetings took place. But Czech media questioned the claim, and President Vaclav Havel acknowledged the meetings may not have occurred.
In addition to being chief among the 19 hijackers, Mohammed Atta also led an Al Qaeda cell based in Hamburg, Germany, which included two other hijackers and several more alleged conspirators who have not been captured.
U.S. officials have established numerous ties between the hijackers and Al Qaeda, but none to Iraq's government — and not for a lack of trying. Similar efforts to tie Usama bin Laden to Hussein have yielded few ties. Officials say while opposing the United States is a common goal, bin Laden's motivations are religious, while Hussein's are secular.
The American shift in thinking was first reported by Newsweek in its May 6 edition.