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A tale of 2 Attas: Mistaken identity muddied 9-11 probe

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) Consider the odds: two men named Mohamed Atta, total strangers with nothing to connect them, both arriving in Prague just as one, the Sept. 11 hijacker, was beginning his fateful journey to the United States.

According to documents in the files of the German federal police, the improbable scenario of "The Two Attas" is precisely what transpired in the spring of 2000, confusing investigators for months and laying the groundwork for a spurious claim that Atta later met with an Iraqi intelligence agent.

In the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, Czech and German investigators labored under the misimpression that Atta the hijacker had arrived in Prague on a flight from Germany at the end of May 2000, been sent back to Germany the same day for lack of a Czech visa, and then reappeared early June 2 with his papers in order.

It turned out the Atta who arrived on May 31, 2000, was a Pakistani businessman. The one who arrived later was the Sept. 11 hijacker.

The mistaken notion that Atta - if he had come twice to Prague - must have had some urgent business there before his June 2000 departure for the United States set the stage for the Czech government's insistence, which proved groundless, that Atta returned to Prague the following year to meet an Iraqi intelligence officer.

The story of The Two Attas began within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City and Washington, when the BKA, the German equivalent of the FBI, asked European airlines to search their records for all previous travel by al-Qaida-linked hijackers and their suspected accomplices. Dozens of such flights were found, many offering important clues to the scope and complexity of the Sept. 11 conspiracy.

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One, however, was a shocker: a May 31, 2000, booking by Mohammed Atta on Lufthansa from Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, to Prague by way of Frankfurt Airport. BKA agents quickly noticed that, unlike the Jiddah passenger, Atta the hijacker spelled "Mohamed" with a single "m." But airlines frequently misspell the names of passengers, especially those who pay cash for tickets as this Atta did.

Moreover, the likelihood of two Mohamed Attas converging on Prague at almost the same moment seemed at best remote.

Atta's presence in Saudi Arabia a few days before he made his first entry into the United States represented a potentially crucial piece of the Sept. 11 puzzle. Most of the Sept. 11 hijackers had come from Saudi Arabia, and al-Qaida had long been suspected of receiving much of its funding from that country.

In early October 2001, documents show, BKA agents assigned to pursue that lead were dispatched to Prague, where they discovered that information gathered by the Czech anti-terrorist police only deepened the mystery. Atta, it seemed, had visited Prague at least once before, in December 1994, at the beginning of a six-month leave from his job with a city planning firm in Hamburg, Germany, where he was also studying architectural engineering.

Co-workers recalled Atta, who had become an ultra-devout Muslim since arriving in Hamburg, telling them he planned to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. But investigators were unable to learn why Atta had instead gone to Prague.

It is not impossible that an architecture student might have personal reasons for visiting one of the world's most architecturally distinguished cities. But Atta's persistence in returning to Prague in spring 2000 seemed much harder to explain.

As the BKA pieced together the timeline, it seemed that Atta had flown from Jiddah to Prague on May 31, 2000, even while knowing that his newly acquired Czech visa would not take effect until the following day, June 1.

"He was trying to get into the Czech Republic, but he did not possess all the proper documents he was supposed to have, so he wasn't allowed to enter," then-Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross told the Chicago Tribune a few weeks after Sept. 11. "He didn't leave the transit area of the airport."

That scenario, however, raised the question of why Atta would fly nearly 3,000 miles only to spend six hours in Prague's cheerless Ruzyne Airport before being shepherded aboard a Lufthansa jet for the 70-minute flight back to Frankfurt. Had Atta met someone at the airport, investigators wondered, a meeting too important to have been postponed? But airport surveillance cameras provided no clue.

According to Czech immigration records, Atta again arrived in Prague on June 2, 2000. His visa had become effective the day before.

The following day, he flew non-stop aboard a Czech Airlines flight from Prague to Newark, N.J., giving his destination as New York City's Lexington Hotel. After arriving in Newark on the afternoon of June 3, Atta presumably met up with hijacker Marwan Al-Shehhi, who had arrived in Newark from Brussels on May 29.

Fifteen months later, Atta and Al-Shehhi would pilot the two Boeing 767s that destroyed the World Trade Center.

The idea that Atta had a connection to someone or something in Prague laid the foundation for the Oct. 26, 2001, declaration by the Czech Republic's Gross that an informant for the Czech internal security service, the BIS, had witnessed a meeting in Prague between Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer named Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani. That meeting, variously reported as having taken place on a Prague street or in a hotel restaurant, was said by the BIS informant to have occurred on April 8, 2001 - 10 months after Atta's June 2000 visit to Prague, and five months before the Sept. 11 hijackings.

Iraq responded by emphatically denying any involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks. The BIS subsequently acknowledged to other European intelligence agencies that the informant's post-Sept. 11 report was based on a shaky recollection of a meeting between al-Ani and someone who resembled a newspaper photograph of Atta.

The Czech government, however, has never publicly retracted its contention that Atta met with al-Ani during the time al-Ani was posing as a second secretary at the Iraqi Embassy. During the run-up to the war in Iraq, Gross' assertion fanned speculation that the Iraqis might have had a hand in the Sept. 11 hijackings.

The spurious Atta-al-Ani meeting also provided ammunition for Iraqi opposition groups lobbying for the overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and for some of their influential supporters within the Bush administration who used it to help pave the way for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

In its final report last month, however, the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission concluded that "the available evidence does not support the original Czech report of an Atta-al-Ani meeting."

All that remained was the mystery of The Two Attas. The first clues were found in Atta's Egyptian passport, recovered by the FBI from one of his suitcases, which failed to make the hijacked flight. The passport bore no evidence of an attempt to enter the Czech Republic on May 31, 2000. The passport did, however, contain a Czech visa, valid June 1 through June 20, that Atta had obtained in Bonn on May 26 of that year. It also contained a Czech entry stamp dated June 2, the day Atta arrived in Prague by bus from Germany, and an exit stamp dated June 3, placed in his passport as he departed Prague for Newark. He used another Egyptian passport, issued in Germany, to board his Sept. 11 flight.

Intent on nailing down whatever connection might have existed between Atta and the Saudis, in December 2001 the CIA concluded that the Mohammed Atta who had flown from Jiddah to Prague on May 31 and been refused entry wasn't Atta the hijacker after all, but a Pakistani businessman with an almost-identical name. Not only had Atta the hijacker not been in Saudi Arabia, he hadn't made more than one visit to Prague, which now appeared to be only a transit point on his journey to the United States.

But despite the combined efforts of the FBI, CIA and the Sept. 11 commission, three mysteries surrounding Atta's visit to Prague have never been resolved.

There are nearly 60 flights each day to the United States from Germany. Why Atta chose the Czech capital as his jumping-off point for America remains a mystery, even to the commission. According to the commission's report, Ramzi Binalshibh, the self-described coordinator of the Sept. 11 plot, who was captured in Pakistan on the first anniversary of the attacks, has insisted to his interrogators that Atta did not meet with anyone in Prague.

Binalshibh, the report states, "simply believed it would contribute to operational security to fly out of Prague rather than Hamburg, the departure point for much of his previous international travel." The report notes, however, that many of Binalshibh's statements are suspect.

A second unresolved mystery is why Atta, rather than flying from Germany, caught a 4 p.m. bus from Cologne on June 1 for the 410-mile trip to Prague, arriving in the Czech capital early on June 2. Surveillance cameras at Prague's Florenc bus terminal show that Atta spent some time pulling slot machine handles in the Happy Day Casino before vanishing for the next 36 hours into the twisting, cobbled streets of Prague.

The third mystery is where Atta spent the night of June 2. According to Ivana Zelenakova, a spokeswoman for the Prague Police, no hotel in the Czech Republic recorded anyone named Atta as a guest that night, and no hotel employee on duty that night identified Atta's picture. The police believe the likelihood that Atta registered under a pseudonym is small, Zelenakova said, considering that he entered the country and booked his ticket to Newark under his own name. Investigators presume Atta must have spent the night in a private home.

As one frustrated BKA inspector reported in wrapping up his investigation, "We don't know for sure what Atta did in Prague and whom he might have met there."

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