updated 4/26/2005 3:56:07 PM ET 2005-04-26T19:56:07

A suspected Muslim extremist accused of helping plot the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States said Tuesday he had never even heard of al-Qaida until he was arrested four years ago on suspicion of leading one of its cells.

Imad Yarkas condemned the suicide airliner attacks, saying such acts are banned under Islam.

“Some madmen act in unjust and incorrect ways. And I reject this,” the Syrian-born Spaniard said, testifying for a second day in his trial on charges he arranged a planning meeting in Spain in July 2001 for one of the suicide pilots and a coordinator of the attacks.

Yarkas is on trial with 23 others in Europe’s biggest court case against radical groups with alleged ties to Osama bin Laden’s terror network. If convicted, he faces a symbolic sentence of almost 75,000 years in prison — 25 years for each of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the attacks in New York and Washington.

Testimony focuses on al-Qaida
Two alleged accomplices also face charges they helped organize the Sept. 11 attacks, and 21 others are charged with belonging to a terrorist group, illegal weapons possession and other offenses.

Yarkas, responding to questions from his lawyer, said that after he was arrested in Madrid in November 2001 on orders from Judge Baltasar Garzon, “I was surprised to read that I belonged to al-Qaida.”

“I did not know al-Qaida. I did not know it existed before going to jail,” Yarkas said.

Yarkas said he did not know or support bin Laden, and called bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa, or religious decree, urging Muslims to kill Americans illegitimate because the al-Qaida leader is not a Muslim cleric.

Phone number linked to suicide pilot
Defense attorney Jacobo Teijelo also addressed a key piece of prosecution evidence: a phone number of Yarkas’ found in an address book at an apartment in Germany, an allusion to a Hamburg flat once occupied by alleged Sept. 11 suicide pilot Mohamed Atta.

Yarkas said the number dated back to a suburban Madrid apartment where he lived in 1994. He said he did not even remember the number until investigators found it in the address book.

But Yarkas, who testified Monday that he did not know Atta, did not say how the number got there and Teijelo did not ask him.

Earlier, when prosecutor Pedro Rubira asked Yarkas about his understanding of the term “jihad,” often translated as “holy war,” Yarkas said that for him it meant “defending oneself.”

When Judge Javier Gomez Bermudez asked Yarkas if for him it meant “the use of force in legitimate defense,” Yarkas nodded and said: “Legitimate defense, nothing else.”

But he denied charges he indoctrinated Muslims in radical Islam and sent them to fight alongside fellow Muslims in Bosnia and Chechnya.

“I am not the kind to give classes,” he said.

“If I said it was necessary to go, I would have to be the first one.”

On Monday, Yarkas denied having anything to do with the Sept. 11 attacks, calling them an act of “terrible savagery.” Yarkas, the main suspect in Spain’s case against al-Qaida, described himself as a hardworking father of six.

Yarkas also denied charges he led a Madrid-based cell of radical Muslims with ties to al-Qaida and set up a meeting between Atta and reputed plot coordinator Ramzi Binalshibh.

Yarkas also was questioned Tuesday by lawyers for other defendants — a procedure allowed in Spanish trials with multiple defendants — and said he knew 21 of the other 23 men on trial, most of Syrian or Moroccan origin.

Yarkas said he knew Mohamed Ghaleb Kalaje Zouaydi, suspected of being the Madrid cell’s financial mastermind under the guise of running real estate companies, because they took their children to the same Muslim school at the city’s largest mosque and would see each other daily and chat. Yarkas said his ties with other defendants were similar.

“It is the way we live,” Yarkas said.

He described Zouaydi as “a modern man, a very moderate Muslim” and said he knew nothing of his alleged money transfers to Muslim militants in other countries.

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