Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, investigators laboured under the false belief that the suspected ringleader of the 9/11 hijacking, Mohamed Atta of Egypt, had twice travelled to Prague on urgent business in the spring of 2000, shortly before flying from the Czech capital to the United States to join up with his terrorist cell. In fact, two "Mohamed Attas" visited Prague within a few days of each other.
Investigators struggled for weeks to uncover why the Mohamed Atta would fly nearly 5,000 kilometres just to spend a few hours in Prague's international airport, only to return to the Czech capital a couple of days later.
An investigation by an American newspaper published this week, based on files from the German federal police, has confirmed that he didn't; in fact, there were two "Attas" who travelled to Prague in late May/early June 2000.
The case of mistaken identity had serious consequences, as it laid the groundwork for spurious claims by Czech authorities of a secret meeting in Prague between Atta the hijacker and an Iraqi intelligence agent.
That claim — "confirmed" in late October 2001 by then Czech Interior Minister and current Prime Minister, Stanislav Gross — would also enforce the American public's perception of a link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. It would help win popular support for U.S. President George W. Bush's calls for a pre-emptive war to depose the Iraqi dictator, as a sponsor of Islamist terrorism with access to weapons of mass destruction.
The timeline of events as pieced together by German agents and reported by The Chicago Tribune are as follows:
On May 31, 2000 a Pakistani businessman by the name of Mohammed Atta — whose first name is spelt with two 'm's — arrives in Prague via Frankfurt, Germany aboard a Lufthansa German Airlines flight from Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the 19 hijackers. The Pakistani man, without a Czech visa is sent back to Frankfurt after spending six hours in the Prague international airport.
Two days later, on June 2, an Egyptian man named Mohamed Atta — who spells his first name with a single 'm'— arrives in Prague — by bus — from Cologne, Germany, with valid Czech and American visas in his passport.
Surveillance cameras at Prague's Florenc bus terminal show that this Atta, who would later pilot the first plane into the World Trade Center towers, spent some time playing the slot machines in a "herna" bar called the Happy Day Casino. What the Egyptian terrorist did over the 36 hours after leaving the casino is unclear. But on June 3, he flew non-stop from Prague to Newark, New Jersey with Czech Airlines and soon joined up with members of his terrorist cell.
The failure to distinguish between the two Attas set the stage for the Czech government's insistence, which proved groundless, that Atta the hijacker had urgent business to attend to in Prague ahead of his June 2000 departure for the United States and that he returned to the Czech capital in April of the following year to meet with an Iraqi intelligence agent.
After 9/11 — when the Egyptian Mohamed Atta's photo was splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world— an agent of the Czech BIS counterintelligence service claimed to recognise Atta as being the man he had observed meeting in April the previous year with an Iraqi intelligence officer named Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, who had been posing as a diplomat.
On October 26, 2001 — with the U.S. media loudly questioning the Czech account in the face of mounting evidence — then Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross held a press conference at which he "confirms" that Atta "did make contact with an officer of the Iraqi intelligence" in Prague, namely al-Ani, who was later expelled from the country.
The following month, the Czech Prime Minister at the time, Milos Zeman, told CNN: "Atta contacted some Iraqi agent, not to prepare the terrorist attack on [the twin towners] but to prepare [a] terrorist attack on just the building of Radio Free Europe" in Prague. Then, in December, 2001 Czech President Vaclav Havel retreated further; saying there was only "a 70 percent" chance Atta met with al-Ani.
In July this year, the independent U.S. panel known informally at the 9/11 commission, has concluded there is no evidence Iraq aided Al-Qaeda in planning the attacks. Furthermore, the 9/11 commission stated categorically that there is no evidence that Egyptian Mohamed Atta ever met with Iraqi intelligence agents in Prague; in fact, mobile phone records place him in the U.S. at the supposed date of the meeting.