Suspected Hijacker Tied to Madrid Cell
Spanish investigators believe that a mysterious trip to Spain in July by Mohamed Atta, the suspected leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, was a key step in carrying out the attacks, according to court documents and interviews with officials.
Spanish law enforcement officials told The Times that although police have not yet confirmed their theory, they suspect that Atta met with leaders of a recently dismantled Madrid-based cell of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terror network.
Evidence connecting Atta to the alleged leader of the Spanish cell, Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, includes the recent discovery of Barakat’s phone number in the former Hamburg apartment of a fugitive close to Atta.
“We are convinced that Atta came to Spain to meet with Barakat or someone close to him,” a senior law enforcement official said Thursday. “We haven’t proved it yet, but we hope to.
“I believe Atta came to Spain to meet with important Al Qaeda members, to give or receive instructions about the hijackings, to coordinate,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He didn’t come here to sunbathe.”
Spanish investigators also found the map of a California airport that was a destination for one of the hijacked flights among aviation-related documents in the possession of the Madrid suspects, one of whom is a pilot, according to a Spanish official.
The discovery strengthened the allegations that the Madrid cell participated in planning the Sept. 11 attacks, said the official, who provided the information on condition that the specific airport not be identified.
The original destination of three of the hijacked planes was Los Angeles, and the fourth plane, which crashed in Pennsylvania, was a Newark-to-San Francisco flight.
Investigative advances here focus on the potential role of the Spanish cell in the Sept. 11 attacks and the worldwide Al Qaeda network. The case grew out of an aggressive, six-year investigation by Spanish police that could benefit U.S. investigators, who have increasingly shifted efforts to Europe to trace the preparations for the hijackings.
Since 1995, Spain’s anti-terrorism investigators have conducted surveillance of a cell allegedly led by Barakat, who is also known as Abu Dahdah. He is a prominent figure in the Muslim community who emigrated from Syria and is a Spanish citizen.
The cell allegedly was a hub of financing, recruitment and support services for Al Qaeda in Europe. It provided fake documents and refuge for terrorists in transit and raised money through credit card fraud, robberies and other crimes, according to investigators.
Phone Calls With British-Based Suspect
The Spanish investigation gained impetus after the U.S. attacks. And it made a splash this week when Judge Baltasar Garzon, an internationally renowned magistrate who has prosecuted Islamic and Basque terrorists as well as former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, accused eight suspects in Madrid of being direct accomplices in the hijackings.
Those accusations are based on evidence such as police intercepts of telephone conversations between Barakat in Madrid and a suspect in Britain that took place shortly before and after the attacks. The British-based suspect is identified only as “Shakur” in a court document released this week.
Shakur told Barakat on Aug. 27 that he was “giving classes” and said: “In our classes, we have entered the field of aviation, and we have even cut the bird’s throat,” according to court documents.
A Spanish official told The Times that translators are poring over that language because they believe that it could be in the future tense and that another possible translation is “We are even going to cut the eagle’s throat.” The eagle is a suspected reference to the United States, according to authorities.
Investigators consider the fact that Shakur was in Britain noteworthy because London is considered another Al Qaeda hub. British prosecutors have alleged that Lotfi Raissi, 27, an Algerian pilot living in London, gave vital assistance to the hijackers with their flight training at U.S. aviation schools. Raissi is jailed in London pending a U.S. extradition request.
Spanish authorities have not revealed the identity of Shakur, described as about 34 and speaking with a North African accent, or indicated whether he is a suspected associate of Raissi.
The court document filed by Garzon asserts that the phone conversations were coded discussions of preparations for the Sept. 11 attacks.
“The extreme measures of security; the coded conversations; the temporal relation of the telephone communications to the attacks . . . make them authentic premonitions of the ensuing events,” the document states. “Also, the relationship between Abu Dahdah and . . . Mohamed Atta and two others who participated to a greater or lesser degree in the attacks give only one possible meaning to these telephone conversations.”
In the conversation two weeks before the attacks, Shakur told Barakat: “I have cut off all communications, and I am calmer psychologically,” according to the document. He also said his telephone was “hot,” possibly alluding to a wiretap.
The aftermath of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks was the suspected topic of a conversation Sept. 26, according to the document.
The exchange suggests that two men may have feared arrest at a time when police were rounding up extremists around Europe, including six accused Algerian terrorists arrested in Spain the day of the phone call.
Shakur asked Barakat if he “has taken medicine for malaria,” according to the document. The suspect in Madrid responded that “things are awful” and continued: “I am still a little sick, and the doctors have visited a sick man and they want to visit me too,” according to the document.
Other leads that could connect Barakat to the hijacking plot are his high-level contacts with Al Qaeda leaders from Europe to Afghanistan to Indonesia and his constant travels despite a negligible income, according to Spanish authorities. Emerging evidence suggests that his clandestine group was an important conduit for the Bin Laden network’s finances, an official said.
“We are convinced that he was also involved” in the planning for Sept. 11, the official said. “He was one of the maximum leaders in the West for Al Qaeda. At one time or another, he had contact with most of Bin Laden’s lieutenants.”
Authorities in Germany recently found Barakat’s phone number in the address book of Said Bahaji, a suspected accomplice of Atta, according to the court document. Bahaji, a German citizen, at times shared an apartment in Hamburg with Ramsi Binalshibh, whom the FBI has identified as the suspected 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 attack but who was unable to obtain a visa to enter the United States. Both men are on the run, and Spanish investigators suspect that both had contact with Barakat, according to the court document.
Although the leads look promising, building a case will take work. Spanish police are trying to pin down Atta’s movements during his 12-day visit in July, according to officials.
Atta arrived in Madrid on July 8 and rented a car, racking up more than 1,000 miles, police have said. The mileage leaves open the possibility that he could have driven or flown elsewhere in the 15-nation European Union, which has few border controls or passport checks that would leave a record of his presence in another country.
It is known that on July 16, Atta was in Salou, a Spanish beach town south of Barcelona that draws low-budget tourists and North African immigrants. He stayed in a modest hotel one night, switching the next day to an even less-expensive hostel, and met with two Middle Eastern-looking men and a woman, according to authorities.
Atta returned to Madrid and left the country July 19, authorities say. He had previously traveled to Spain in January.
Theory About Trip to Spain Before Attacks
The working theory among Spanish investigators is that Atta’s mission was so important that it required him to leave the United States only two months before the attacks, perhaps for meetings that had to be held in person for maximum secrecy.
Moreover, other suspected Al Qaeda terrorists converged in Spain this summer. In June, police caught Muhammad Bensakhria, an Algerian fugitive wanted for planning a terrorist attack in Strasbourg, France. And Nizar Trabelsi, a Belgian-based Tunisian accused in a plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Paris, was in Spain about the same time as Atta. Police in Brussels arrested Trabelsi in September on charges that he intended to act as a suicide bomber in the aborted Paris plot.
With a flair typical of a swashbuckling judge who has gone after former South American dictators and corrupt Spanish political figures, Garzon’s document says the suspects could face as many charges of terrorism “as there were dead and wounded in the twin towers of New York, the Pentagon in Washington and Pennsylvania.”
The case so far is not at the end but the beginning, a Spanish terrorism expert said.
“The big question is whether Atta’s trip had links to the U.S. attacks or to other attacks planned for Europe,” said Fernando Reinares, a professor at the University of Burgos. “He may have been kind of an executive liaison for the network. As often happens in these cases, so far what Judge Garzon has shown is the tip of the iceberg. The extent of the connections to Sept. 11 remains to be seen.”
Though this otherwise peaceful country has suffered principally at the hands of Basque terrorists who have killed more than 800 people in 33 years, Spanish intelligence agencies targeted Islamic groups in the early 1990s when Algerian terrorists used Spain as a staging ground.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has staunchly supported the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism, an international crackdown that can only help Spain’s war against the Basque terrorists.
“Even though the public may have been surprised by the presence of a network tied to Al Qaeda, the police were not,” Reinares said. “The police had been worried about this for a long time.”