On July 7, 1998, thieves snatched a passport from a car driven by a U.S. tourist here, a small rip-off that became a footnote in a major act of terrorism.
The passport belonged to an Iranian American medical student from St. Louis. It made its way into the hands of Ramzi Binalshibh, an alleged coordinator of the Al Qaeda cell in Hamburg, Germany, that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.
Binalshibh allegedly used the name on the passport in the summer of 2001 when he wired money to Oklahoma to pay flight school tuition for Zacarias Moussaoui, the accused "20th hijacker." Moussaoui and Binalshibh are now in U.S. custody.
The stolen passport is another clue indicating that a support network in Spain and Germany figured in the Sept. 11 plot. The precise role of the network, like the path of the passport from Barcelona to Hamburg, remains one of the mysteries of the attacks.
Spanish authorities say the investigation could help identify accomplices of the Sept. 11 hijackers in Europe and the United States, where little progress has been made finding henchmen. It could also dismantle a support structure that might still be dangerous, investigators say.
The top suspects are Syrian immigrants in Spain and Germany related by friendship, family and business. They are older, better educated and more Western than many Al Qaeda suspects in Europe. Investigators believe that the Syrians served as deep-cover mentors, recruiters, financiers and logistics providers for the hijackers -- elite backup for an elite attack team.
"The Syrians are classic 'sleepers,' " said a Spanish law enforcement official. "Cold War-style, they were well established and went about their business. But when Al Qaeda needs them, they are here, ready to help."
More than a year of detective work has produced significant leads connecting suspects to one another, Al Qaeda and the plot, according to investigators and court cases in Spain and Germany:
* The suspected boss of an Al Qaeda cell in Madrid was an associate of the Syrian German operative who allegedly recruited hijacker Mohamed Atta.
* A Syrian-born businessman in Hamburg is under scrutiny because of alleged contacts with Sept. 11 suspects.
* Suspected members of the support network converged in Spain around the time Atta and Binalshibh met there in July 2001 in what is believed to have been a key step in the Sept. 11 planning.
Investigators are still building the case, however. Prominent suspects have not been arrested. And defense lawyers say authorities have mistaken a tangle of friendships, family obligations, business deals and religious donations for a conspiracy.
The lawyers cite the financial activity of Mohammed Galeb Kalaje Zouaydi, who is accused of using a Madrid real estate firm and a Saudi trading company to send money to the Hamburg suspects, a would-be assassin in Yemen and an Al Qaeda courier who is Galeb's brother-in-law. Galeb's family says he has legitimate explanations for the hundreds of thousands of dollars under suspicion. They say he has stumbled into a nightmare.
"I've been married to my husband for 18 years, and I know how he thinks, how he is," said Galeb's wife, Hazar Dabbas. "I know he is innocent. I am going to defend him until he overcomes this. He works very hard for his children. This case changed everything for us for no reason."
Police say they were able to map Al Qaeda's structure in Spain and elsewhere during six years of surveillance of the Madrid cell, which had ties to Valencia, Granada, Barcelona and other Spanish cities. The suspected foot soldiers include young North African thieves and drug dealers who allegedly stole identity documents and credit cards for use by Islamic militants en route to Afghan training camps and Bosnian battlefields.
But the main suspected players in Spain and Germany are middle-aged merchants with families, comfortable lifestyles, busy travel schedules -- the stuff of immigrant success stories. Half a dozen are from the Syrian city of Aleppo, a hub of Arab history where Atta researched an academic thesis. Several of the suspects even resemble one another: imposing, bulky, bespectacled men with full beards.
Spanish investigators are counting on police in half a dozen countries to help prove that the suspects were accomplices of the hijackers. Some leads may fizzle otherwise: In July, police arrested Galeb's former business partner after finding videotapes of the World Trade Center and other potential U.S. targets he filmed in 1997. He was released on bail, but authorities asked the FBI to help investigate men seen on the videotapes and other possible U.S. associates of the Spanish suspects.
"We are waiting for information from Britain, from the Americans, from evidence found in Afghanistan," a Spanish law enforcement official said. "You reach an impasse where you depend on international cooperation."
Already, investigators have found previously undisclosed connections between the Madrid and Hamburg suspects.
The evidence centers largely on Mohammed Haydar Zammar, 42, a burly Syrian German who allegedly recruited Atta and helped send Hamburg plotters to an Afghan training camp. Zammar is behind bars in Syria after being arrested in Morocco in October 2001 and turned over to Syrian authorities, reportedly at the request of U.S. intelligence agents.
Several suspects in Spain and Germany have had problems with the governments of Syria, Jordan and other countries because of their alleged involvement with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and militant Islamic groups.
Zammar was a longtime associate of Imad Eddin Barakat, 39, the alleged boss of the Madrid cell, according to Spanish investigators. Barakat, who was jailed in November 2001, had Zammar's phone number in his address book; Zammar visited Barakat in Madrid.
In a display of his stature among extremists, Barakat arranged a meeting between Zammar and Abu Qatada, the alleged spiritual leader of Al Qaeda in Europe, authorities say. Telephone intercepts show that Zammar called Barakat in March 1997 and asked for help: He wanted to meet with the revered London cleric but had never been to London.
Barakat promised to intercede with the cleric, his close friend.
"I want to meet with brother Abu Qatada," Zammar said, according to a transcript of the conversation.
"Fine," Barakat said.
"Is it possible?"
"Yes, I'll talk to him and I'll ask him."
Barakat provided the cleric's phone number to Zammar two days later, according to documents.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, German police found an address book of Said Bahaji, a suspected accomplice of Atta, containing numbers for both Barakat and Abu Qatada, who is now jailed in London.
Targeting reputed associates of the hijackers, German police in September raided suburban Hamburg warehouses and a home belonging to Syrian-born Abdul Matin Tatari, 60, who had employed Zammar at one of the export-import companies that Tatari manages, according to German prosecutors.
Police are investigating whether Tatari used the company to get immigration papers for extremists posing as buyers, prosecutors say. Two Saudi owners of another company managed by Tatari are linked to a U.S.-based Islamic charity, Benevolence International, whose director is charged with funding Al Qaeda, investigators say.
Police questioned and released Tatari, who has proclaimed his innocence.
Prosecutors say they also are investigating Tatari's alleged ties to Sept. 11 suspects. According to testimony during the trial of an alleged accomplice of the hijackers, Tatari associated with members of the Hamburg cell. His son participated with the hijackers in an Islamic group at Hamburg Technical College, according to German officials.
German authorities say Tatari once employed another Hamburg exporter-importer who is an old friend and occasional business partner of Barakat's: Mamoun Darkazanli.
Darkazanli exemplifies the case's gray areas. U.S. and German agents first focused on him because of his alleged ties to two suspects in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, German authorities questioned Darkazanli about his contacts with Hamburg suspects and froze his assets. He remains under investigation, according to Spanish police.
Questioned in Hamburg by a Spanish lawyer for Galeb, Darkazanli said Spanish and U.S. investigators are persecuting him, according to court documents. "The German police know there is nothing, but the Americans tell them to keep investigating," Darkazanli said.
Darkazanli has known Barakat since the 1980s and stayed at his apartment during frequent trips to Spain, according to investigators. Police have examined some of those trips in their probe of a secretive meeting of Atta and Binalshibh on the Spanish coast near Tarragona in July 2001.
Atta traveled from Miami to Spain on July 8 and stayed 11 days. Police believe that Atta and Binalshibh, who visited from Hamburg between July 9 and 16, met to prepare final details of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Police are struggling to reconstruct a four-day gap in the men's movements. Police believe that accomplices provided a safe house for the meeting, which seems especially important because it could have involved an Al Qaeda handler or messenger.
Phone intercepts indicate that Darkazanli and others among the Syrian group converged in Spain around the period in which Atta and Binalshibh crossed paths on the northeastern coast.
Darkazanli called Barakat on July 6 to tell him that he had arrived in Granada, according to court documents. On July 10, Barakat told Darkazanli he had arrived in the city as well. Another Syrian Spanish suspect, who lived in Afghanistan and had access there to Al Qaeda leaders, joined them, according to a Spanish intelligence report.
"The meeting in July 2001 is very significant also because it coincided with the visit of [Darkazanli], who arrived expressly from Germany," the report says.
In addition, investigators believe that Zammar may have come to Spain during the summer, a Spanish official said. It appears at least that Barakat was aware of the alleged recruiter's movements during that crucial period: In a wiretap phone conversation in August, he discussed how Zammar had recently traveled to Jordan and been deported.
Investigators have revealed no indications that Atta and Binalshibh had contact in Spain with the alleged support network. In fact, they cast doubt on speculation about a "terrorist summit" there, saying that Atta's extreme precautions make it likely that contact with local extremists was limited. But the flurry of activity in Spain coincides with the final countdown to the attacks and raises questions about the involvement of other plotters.
Another mysterious figure was on the move at the time: Mohammed Belfatmi, an alleged Algerian extremist who lived near Tarragona, the beach town visited by Atta and Binalshibh.
Spanish and U.S. agents think Belfatmi could answer questions about Atta's visit, but they can't find him. During an exodus of Al Qaeda's European operatives before Sept. 11, Belfatmi joined Hamburg suspect Bahaji on a Sept. 3 flight from Turkey to Pakistan. They spent a night at the same hotel in the city of Karachi before vanishing.
On Sept. 5, Spanish police taped a call to Barakat in which a caller referred to "Mohammed, an Algerian, one of our brothers, who was in the Tarragona area." The caller said Mohammed was "going to go" somewhere, then stopped in mid-sentence.
Barakat said a quick goodbye and hung up, leaving police with another potential link connecting the Spanish-German network to the Sept. 11 attacks: a piece of a puzzle that is missing too many pieces.
Special correspondent Dirk Laabs in Hamburg contributed to this report.