The intelligence agents watching thought nothing of the friendly greeting exchanged between two Middle Eastern men at Prague's Ruzyne airport in June 2000. Of the pair, one was under constant surveillance as a suspected organiser of terrorist operations. A diplomat in the Iraqi embassy, he had been the subject of a tip-off. They watched each time he left the embassy, heading to the headquarters of Radio Free Europe, the US government broadcaster. His interest in the building did not make sense, they reasoned – unless he was going to bomb it.
Like all meetings involving Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir Al-Ani, his warm welcome to the smart, clean-cut Middle Eastern man at first aroused suspicion.
But Mohamed Atta appeared on no wanted list – and besides, he could not be the bomber of Radio Free Europe since he was only stopping off in Prague for 24 hours. Atta was booked on a flight to Newark. The Czech security agents could relax: this was not their man.
He was a friend, perhaps, of Mr Al-Ani's from the old days, taking the opportunity of a stopover to catch up. And besides, as they now point out, Mr Al-Ani saw lots of people – that was his job – and there were other Middle Easterners in Prague giving them more concern than Mr Atta. But more and more, investigators now believe, the Prague connection was a key link in the chain behind the attacks in New York on 11 September.
They suspect the meeting with Mr Al-Ani established Iraqi help for Atta, the hijackers' leader, to plan his attacks. They believe he was provided with a passport, courtesy of Iraq, while in Prague. As for other later meetings between Atta and Mr Al-Ani, and another hijacker and the Iraqi diplomat, all observed by Czech intelligence but not thought worth following up, the investigators are left speechless.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course. If they knew then what they know now, 11 September could have been avoided. But it was not like that. Mr Al-Ani's subsequent expulsion from Prague for "activities incompatible with his status as a diplomat" in April this year did not trigger alarm. Iraqi diplomats were being turfed out of lots of countries round the world and his target was thought to be the offices of Radio Free Europe, not the towers of the World Trade Centre.
In all, Czech intelligence has admitted, Atta and Mr Al-Ani met three or four times in the Czech Republic. In addition, officials in London and Washington suspect Mr Al-Ani met one of the other hijackers, again in the Czech Republic. The hijackers' liaison with Mr Al-Ani has split the alliance in two, between officials who would like to see Baghdad pay the same price as Kabul and those who would prefer it to be kept out of the picture, for fear of widening opposition in the Arab world. In the US, the debate is more or less polarised between the Pentagon and State Department, with the former taking a hawkish stance.
The dispute has reached petty, bizarre levels, with reports circulating in Washington that Pentagon officials have asked a former CIA chief to prepare a report indicting Iraq. James Woolsey, President Clinton's CIA director from 1993-94, is understood to be compiling evidence to present to the officials, and ultimately to President Bush. Mr Woolsey has not confirmed the role, saying he is on record as believing "the US government should look into the issue of Iraqi involvement in terrorism". If Mr Woolsey does find evidence of Iraqi complicity, the Bush administration will be torn. So far, its strategy has been to warn Iraq of dire consequences if it tries to help the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida organisation. Last week, John Negroponte, the US ambassador to the United Nations, gave the message personally to Mohammed Douri, his Iraqi opposite number. "There will be a military strike against you and you will be defeated," Mr Negroponte is understood to have told Mr Douri. The warning also reflects concern that Iraq may try to flex its military muscle in the Middle East during a period when US eyes are on Afghanistan.
Mr Douri was left under no illusion that any attempt to aid anti-American forces in Afghanistan, to use weapons of mass destruction or to launch military operations against the Kurdish minority in Iraq or against its neighbours would result in an instant US armed response.
After contacting Baghdad, Mr Douri had a second meeting with Mr Negroponte in which he denied any Iraqi links to al-Qa'ida or the Taliban. "We have had no relation, in the past or now, with Osama bin Laden or the Taliban," Mr Douri said.
Mr Negroponte has also written to the UN Security Council, putting the members on notice that the US may retaliate against other state sponsors of terrorism. This is taken as a clear reference to Iraq.
In the Middle East, Israeli officials have constantly talked up Iraq's involvement, while Jordan has played it down. There is a worry, though, among members of the Blair government opposed to moving against Iraq that Mr Bush is intent on finishing the job his father started. They see any evidence of Iraq being behind 11 September as giving Mr Bush the justification he needs to stick to the Negroponte letter and to remove the blot from his father's legacy.
Unfortunately for them, and alarmingly for all of us, there is mounting evidence of an Iraqi role in the suicide attacks. Senator Orrin Hatch, a senior Republican on both the Senate intelligence and judiciary committees, and a recipient of high-level briefings since 11 September, said he is "very confident" that Iraq played a role in 11 September. He refused to elaborate but added: "Iraq has been harbouring these terrorists for a long time ... I believe that Iraq is ultimately going to be proven to have been a part of this."
Investigators are convinced Mr bin Laden did not have the financial and logistical capacity to organise 11 September. There is some truth, they acknowledge, in the Taliban assertion that he was holed up in the Afghan mountains, unable to draw upon the resources necessary to mount such an onslaught. Everything they are coming across points to the participation of intelligence machinery from a state, probably Iraq. The amount of false documentation the hijackers carried suggests they must have been sponsored by a state: one individual on his own, no matter how powerful, could not have arranged all those bogus IDs and passports.
There has been one relatively recent reported sighting of Mr bin Laden in Baghdad, in 1998. Giovanni Di Stefano, the lawyer to the late Serbian warlord Arkan, has been quoted saying that he met Mr bin Laden in the lobby of the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad while he was negotiating a contract to represent Iraqi Airlines in Yugoslavia and Italy.
At the time, Mr bin Laden did not enjoy anything like the profile he does now. According to the Di Stefano account he met a stranger in the lobby who introduced himself as Osama bin Laden. They made polite conversation and went their separate ways. It was only later that the lawyer realised whom he had met. Experts pour scorn, however, on the notion that Saddam and Mr bin Laden would team up. The Iraqi dictator has been savage in his treatment of fundamentalist Muslims in Iraq and he does not share Mr bin Laden's devout views. On the other hand, their shared hatred of America may have made them forget their differences.
Vince Cannistraro, the CIA's former counter-terrorism chief, said Baghdad made an overture to Mr bin Laden in December 1998. Saddam was apparently so impressed by the bombings that year of the two US embassies in East Africa that he sent Iraq's ambassador to Turkey, Farouk Hijazi, to Afghanistan to meet Mr bin Laden. The CIA believed Mr Hijazi offered Mr bin Laden and al-Qa'ida, then being pursued by the Americans, a permanent refuge in Iraq but the offer was refused.
Iraq has consistently denied any involvement in 11 September, accusing the US and Britain of using the atrocities to settle old scores. "The US and Britain know very well that Iraq has no relation whatsoever to what happened in the United States and no relation whatsoever to the parties accused of doing it," said Iraq's foreign minister, Naji Sabri.
Nevertheless there are other links between Iraq and previous terror attacks. One of the men on President's Bush 22 "most wanted" list of suspected terrorists was questioned in the wake of the first attack on the World Trade Centre in 1993. Abdul Rahman Yasin, a second-generation Iraqi immigrant from Indiana, was questioned at length after the bombing, which caused extensive damage to one of the towers and killed six people.
The FBI asked him about his flatmates in Jersey City, many of whom were later indicted for involvement in the bombing, about his contact with explosive chemicals and about his relationship with Ramzi Yousef, later identified and convicted as the operation's mastermind.
Nevertheless he was released and allowed to leave the country because the FBI thought it had no case against him. He is now in Iraq.
In the face of this evidence the real dilemma for the Bush-Blair axis will come once the Taliban are defeated and Mr bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida members in Afghanistan are captured, dead or alive. If the allies' promise to pursue international terrorism is maintained, argue hard-liners in Washington and London, then Saddam Hussein, who has already displayed a desire to construct weapons of mass destruction, must be next.
The matter is yet more complicated because five of the 22 "most wanted" are thought to live in Iran. They are headed by Imad Mughniyah, head of special operations for the Lebanese group Hizbollah, who already had a $2m reward on his head in the US. He is wanted in connection with a series of incidents, including the kidnap, torture and murder – alleged to have been at his own hands – of the Beirut CIA chief William Buckley and the abduction and seven-year confinement of the American Terry Anderson.Reuse content