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Sept. 11 suspects go on trial in Madrid

Three suspected terrorists go on trial in Madrid on Friday after a 3 1/2 -year investigation into the role Spain may have played as a staging ground for the Sept. 11 attacks.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Two weeks before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a Syrian immigrant in Spain received a phone call from London. The caller reported that he had "entered the field of aviation" and that "classes were going well." He added, mysteriously, that "the throat of the bird has been slit."

The call was recorded by Spanish police as part of a long-term investigation into a suspected network of Islamic radicals, but it was weeks before the possible significance of the conversation was understood. Prosecutors here now say they believe "the bird" was a symbolic reference to the American bald eagle and that the caller was sending a message that the Sept. 11 hijackings were ready to proceed.

The wiretap will be a key piece of evidence against the Syrian, Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, and two other men suspected of being al Qaeda members who go on trial in Madrid on Friday after a 3 1/2 -year investigation into the role Spain may have played as a staging ground for the Sept. 11 attacks.

Each is charged with nearly 3,000 counts of accessory to murder and membership in a terrorist organization. Yarkas, who has been in jail since November 2001, denies the charges against him, as do the two other men.

The defendants face charges that they knowingly helped in the hijackings by providing money and cover to two of the plot's ringleaders during a rendezvous in a Spanish coastal town two months before the attacks. The trial will include 21 other defendants charged with terrorism-related crimes, making it the largest criminal prosecution in Europe aimed at al Qaeda.

No one has been successfully prosecuted for playing a role in the Sept. 11 attacks. German courts have tried two accused members of the Hamburg cell that oversaw the hijackings, but one defendant's conviction was overturned and the other man was found not guilty.

In Alexandria, Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen, is scheduled to plead guilty Friday in federal court to participating in the plot. While such a plea would represent a breakthrough for U.S. prosecutors, there are doubts about Moussaoui's mental competency and uncertainty about what role he will admit to playing in the conspiracy.

More than 43 months after the hijackings, considerable gaps remain in investigators' understanding of how the plot was carried out. One concerns a 12-day period in July 2001 after the lead hijacker, Mohamed Atta, flew from Florida to Spain for a meeting with Ramzi Binalshibh, a key conspirator and friend of Atta's from Germany.

U.S. and European officials have concluded that the meeting was called to set a date for the hijackings and was prompted by al Qaeda's founder, Osama bin Laden, who was growing impatient with the pace of preparations.

In recently filed court papers, Spanish prosecutors said they had new evidence that Atta and Binalshibh met in the coastal town of Tarragona on July 16, 2001, with Mohamed Belfatmi, an Algerian, to discuss final arrangements for the hijackings.

The meeting, according to the court documents, was organized by Belfatmi and three other al Qaeda members in Spain who also knew about the plot. But for five of the 12 days Atta and Binalshibh were in Spain, investigators have no idea where the pair were or what they were doing.

Favors for fellow Muslims?
Starting two weeks before the attacks, Binalshibh, Belfatmi and two other members of the Hamburg cell left Europe for Pakistan, investigators have concluded. At least three of the men took connecting flights through Spain.

Prosecutors are expected to introduce new evidence during the trial, but so far, little has emerged publicly that directly shows the defendants were willing, knowing participants in the Sept. 11 conspiracy. In the German trials, the two defendants successfully argued that they were merely doing favors for fellow Muslims and knew nothing of the plot.

"The proof we have against the people here is legally quite weak," said Rafael L. Bardaji, who was strategic adviser on security issues to Jose Maria Aznar, Spain's prime minister at the time of the attacks. "I'm convinced they were in on the plot. But we have a tremendous gap between what we think they did and the ability to prove them guilty."

"They are really only accused of playing a logistical role," said Antonio Remiro, a professor of international relations and law at Autonoma University in Madrid. "The prosecutor is going to have to prove that they knew what those meetings were all about. Otherwise, there is only evidence that they were part of a terrorist group but had no link to September 11."

U.S. counterterrorism officials have said they remain keenly interested in the Spanish connection to Sept. 11 but have learned little from their interrogations of al Qaeda members, including Binalshibh, who was captured in Pakistan in 2002 and is in U.S. custody at a secret location.

Dietrich Snell, a staff lawyer for the Sept. 11 commission, which issued its final report on the hijackings last year, told a German court last month that Binalshibh has offered his interrogators no real explanation for why he met Atta in Spain.

Snell said the commission was "very interested particularly in finding if there was a connection between al Qaeda elements in Spain and the attacks on Sept. 11" but was unable to come up with any new information on its own.

A staging ground
In 1996, five years before al Qaeda grabbed the world's attention with the Sept. 11 attacks, Spanish authorities opened a major investigation into the emerging presence of Islamic radicals on their soil.

Led by Baltasar Garzon, an investigative magistrate in Madrid known for his attempted prosecution of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and other notable cases, Spanish officials uncovered a network of religious extremists that raised money and found recruits to fight in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Several members were kept under surveillance, but none was arrested until November 2001, when investigators realized that al Qaeda had used Spain as a staging ground for the attacks in the United States.

Garzon released a 700-page indictment in September 2003, charging 35 people -- including bin Laden -- with terrorism and other crimes. The number of defendants was later expanded to 41. Two dozen are in Spanish custody and will go on trial Friday, while the remainder are at large or awaiting extradition.

In court papers, Garzon stated that Yarkas, the Syrian who moved to Madrid in the early 1980s, was instrumental in creating a network of Islamic radicals in Spain that later gave money and support to al Qaeda as part of the Sept. 11 conspiracy. Garzon concluded that it was "crystal clear" that Yarkas knew details about the hijackings in advance.

According to a superseding indictment filed in February, Yarkas and three other suspects "gave logistical support as well as protection" to Atta and Binalshibh when the two conspirators flew to Spain in July 2001. Prosecutors allege that Yarkas was in repeated phone contact with the Algerian al Qaeda member who was present at the July 16 meeting between Atta and Binalshibh, and that Yarkas's phone number was found in an apartment in Germany used by the Hamburg cell.

Stolen passport
Spanish prosecutors have collected other bits of evidence that al Qaeda drew more support from their country than previously believed. Two suspects, for instance, are accused of providing a stolen Spanish passport to Binalshibh before his trip to Tarragona, an indication that ties between the Hamburg cell and the Spanish network were long-standing.

Another key piece of evidence will be a collection of videotapes showing the World Trade Center, the Golden Gate and Brooklyn bridges and other U.S. landmarks. The videos were recorded in 1997 by one of the defendants, Ghasoub Abrash Ghayoun, who told investigators he was filming on behalf of an architect friend in Madrid. The friend later said he knew nothing about the tapes.

Ghayoun, like Yarkas and several other defendants in the case, is a Syrian native who moved to Spain in the 1980s. Spanish investigators say the Syrian members of the al Qaeda cell are members of the Muslim Brotherhood and used their connections to build the network in Spain and recruit money and fighters for radical Islamic causes.

Manuel Tuero, an attorney for another of the defendants, Mohammed Zouaydi, who is accused of financing terrorism, said prosecutors were stretching their case. "It's based on information that is very circumstantial," he said. "Someone was here in Spain and saw or visited a certain person. Well, just because Americans may have coincidentally been in an establishment with Al Capone does not mean that they were in his gang."

According to prosecutors, the Syrians in Spain were in frequent contact with two fellow Syrians in Germany, Mamoun Darkazanli and Mohammed Zammar, who were also members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

U.S. and European investigators say they believe these two men helped recruit the core Hamburg cell members and may have originally put them in contact with al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan.

Most of the accused Syrians are middle-aged businessmen with worldwide contacts, both in commercial and radical Islamic circles. Yarkas traveled to London on 20 occasions to meet with a leading radical imam and al Qaeda sympathizer known as Abu Qatada, according to Spanish court records.

Special correspondents Pamela Rolfe in Madrid and Shannon Smiley in Hamburg contributed to this report.