| Nine-year-old orphan, Ashwaq, smokes on a Baghdad street. According to Unicef, the number of children living on the streets of Baghdad has increased since US forces toppled the Saddam Hussein regime in April. (AFP)
Washington, July 9: The US military has captured an Iraqi intelligence officer who may have met in Prague with a key al-Qaida hijacker five months before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, US officials confirmed last night.
The military captured the intelligence officer, Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, last week in Iraq, the officials said. While Czech authorities said in the wake of the September 11 attacks that al-Ani had met in Prague with hijacker Mohammed Atta in April 2001, the FBI and the CIA later determined that there was no evidence that Atta left the US and traveled to or from the Czech Republic during the time he supposedly met with al-Ani.
The 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-Qaida, accused of carrying out the September 11 attacks. President Bush, in making his case for war against Iraq, cited both Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and its ties to terrorist groups, including al-Qaida.
Richard Perle, a member of the Pentagon’s defence policy board and an advocate of the view that al-Qaida 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,” said Perle. “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 that he fears that if it were the CIA, it could skew the interrogation so as to play down any evidence that the alleged meeting with Atta occurred.
After poring over travel records, the agency said it could find no evidence that the al-Ani-Atta meeting ever occurred. Perle, a longtime agency critic, has said CIA officials failed to give proper weightage to the evidence that the the pair met.
CIA spokesperson 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 weightage 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. 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 US interrogators for reasons beyond the question of any meeting with Atta, said another official, who recalled the Iraqi agent was suspected of carrying out a number of “nefarious” missions for former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Six weeks after the September 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 Powell in November 2001 that during the meeting, Atta and al-Ani had discussed attacking the headquarters of US-funded Radio Free Europe, not the September 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.