Spanish anti-terrorist police on Friday arrested a prominent war correspondent for the Arabic television channel Al Jazeera, alleging that a lengthy investigation had tied him to an Al Qaeda cell suspected of assisting in the Sept. 11 attacks.
The journalist, 48-year-old Taysir Alouni, led coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for Al Jazeera, a satellite channel based in Qatar that is widely watched in the Arab world. He received the first video message from Osama bin Laden after the attacks on the United States two years ago in which the Al Qaeda leader declared that Americans would never again be safe in their country. He later obtained an exclusive interview with Bin Laden as U.S. military operations in Afghanistan were underway.
The arrest highlighted sharp divergence between the world views of the West and the Arab street. In the West, the allegation that an Al Jazeera journalist was a soldier of Bin Laden hurts the image of a TV channel that professes a feisty independence. But a colleague of Alouni predicted that many Arabs would regard the accusation as unfair and that it would make the network even more popular with them.
Despite his very public persona, police allege, Alouni, who was born in Syria but holds a Spanish passport, was a secret operative for a Madrid cell that provided money and logistical support to the Hamburg, Germany-based plotters of the Sept. 11 attacks and to other terrorist suspects in Europe, the Middle East and Indonesia.
His arrest was ordered by Baltasar Garzon, a judge known for high-profile prosecutions of Islamic and Basque terrorism suspects and for attempting to try former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on charges of human rights abuses.
The case against Alouni rests on years of investigation documenting the Madrid group’s apparently wide-ranging contacts with alleged terrorists around the world. But police are still working to bolster the allegation that Madrid cell members served as accomplices of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Because of the political explosiveness of Alouni’s arrest, Garzon will be under pressure to show evidence of specific crimes beyond a sometimes suspicious web of business, family and friendship ties.
After Alouni is questioned by the police and the judge, Garzon will decide whether to hold him for further investigation. That decision is expected early next week.
Garzon’s case alleges that Alouni worked with the head of the Madrid cell, Imad Eddin Barakat, to provide money and support to an Al Qaeda courier who visited Spain when Alouni worked as a translator for the Spanish news agency Efe, according to Spanish court documents.
In surveillance and phone intercepts dating to the mid-1990s, police said, they monitored Alouni’s contacts with suspects including an alleged Al Qaeda courier and a Syrian Spaniard who became the chief of an Al Qaeda training camp.
Investigators allege that when Alouni became a correspondent for Al Jazeera in 2000, he carried funds destined for the Al Qaeda from Barakat to Afghanistan.
And Spanish authorities say they are investigating Alouni’s ties, through family and friends, to other suspected terrorists. Court documents say Alouni is married to the sister-in-law of Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a Syrian-born German in custody on suspicion of recruiting the Sept. 11 hijackers, including their suspected leader, Mohamed Atta.
“We have been investigating him for a long time,” a Spanish law enforcement official said. “We believe he belonged to an Al Qaeda support network, and that he was involved in terrorist financing. He is very connected to the Zammars and the people in Germany, and we will look at that very closely.”
Investigators will also look at whether Alouni’s alleged Al Qaeda connections gave him access to Bin Laden, the Spanish official said. “It could explain how he got the first Bin Laden video, and the interview,” the official said.
Alouni -- and the TV channel he works for -- has regularly been the source of controversy, in the Arab world and beyond.
Al Jazeera has run into trouble with several Arab countries for its unflattering reports. And Alouni was ordered out of Iraq in early April by Saddam Hussein’s government for conducting interviews without the presence of an official “minder.” The network regularly rankles Western policymakers with its reports from Middle East hot spots. In Afghanistan, it was criticized by Westerners for bias toward the Taliban and the Al Qaeda network.
Alouni’s colleagues and wife said authorities were persecuting him simply for covering combat zones in the Muslim world. Al Jazeera condemned the arrest and called for his immediate release.
“If a Westerner gets an interview with Bin Laden, it’s a scoop,” said co-worker Maher Abdallah, the host of a program on modern Islamic thought. “If it’s an Arab, he becomes an associate. It’s very racist, actually.
“It’s going to make us very popular in the Arab world,” he said of the arrest. “It shows Spain and the liberal democracies are just as hypocritical about freedom of speech, and of journalists, as the countries in the Third World are. Maybe it will hurt us in the States, but in Europe, no.”
Alouni had been living in Qatar but returned to Spain two months ago for vacation. He had explored the possibility of setting up an Al Jazeera bureau there, said Abdallah, who covered the Iraq war with Alouni.
In a phone conversation Thursday, Alouni said that the family planned to return to Qatar on Saturday, according to Abdallah.
Alouni knew he had been under investigation when he lived in Spain, but he thought the case was in the past, Abdallah said. Alouni’s wife, Fatima, said he participated as a lecturer in summer workshops at a university near Madrid.
“If my husband had something to fear, or something to hide, he would not have come back to Spain,” she said in a radio interview Friday. “And here he is.”
Asked whether Alouni knew the suspected terrorists jailed in Madrid, she said: “Here all the Arabs know each other. But to know, what does that mean, to know? It’s a very vague definition.”
She said Alouni was taking a shower in their home on the outskirts of Granada about noon when eight plainclothes officers arrived to arrest him. She and his friends said they were worried because he has a heart condition that had required emergency surgery in Baghdad.
The arrest took place during Alouni’s first visit to Spain since the roundup of the alleged Al Qaeda cell in late 2001. Garzon had not issued a warrant for Alouni in hopes that the reporter would return to Spain, officials said. The timing also seems related to the judge’s impending decision on whether to file formal charges against the dozen suspects in custody.
In a report dated last Dec. 12, the anti-terrorist unit of the Spanish police described Alouni as a key suspect still at large. It alleged that there was abundant evidence showing that he was a member of the Al Qaeda cell and that he had frequent meetings and phone conversations with Barakat for years.
“Another of Taysir’s contacts is Mohamed Baiah, a.k.a. Abu Khaled, who is regarded by this unit as a top operative in Al Qaeda with the mission of acting as a courier between Afghanistan and the West and, above all, collecting funds for the organization,” the report said.
In January 1998, the suspected courier stayed at the Granada home of Alouni, “who gave him cover, permitting [Baiah] to use his address and phone number to apply for his Spanish residency,” the report said. “This shows the level of trust and cooperation between the two.”
The report also details five wiretapped phone calls in which Barakat described sending money -- amounts of several thousand dollars each, investigators said Friday -- to the courier in Afghanistan in 2000 via Alouni. Investigators shadowed Barakat and accomplices as they held periodic meetings in 2000 and 2001 with Alouni in Granada during the journalist’s trips back from Afghanistan, according to the report.
Police also highlighted a “very significant meeting” in Granada in July 2001 that was also attended by Mamoun Darkazanli, a Syrian-born German under investigation by Spanish and German police for his suspected ties to the Hamburg cell.
That Granada meeting took place soon before a meeting on Spain’s northeastern coast between Atta and jailed Hamburg suspect Ramzi Binalshibh. Police suspect that the encounter was a final strategy session for the Sept. 11 attacks, and they are trying to prove that the Madrid cell helped set it up.
Alouni had discussed the Spanish case with his friends, acknowledging that he knew some of the suspects, Abdallah said.
“He thought the Spanish were going out of their way to please the Americans,” Abdallah said. “I think he’s been arrested for having friends who are still suspects.”
Special correspondent Cristina Mateo-Yanguas in Madrid contributed to this report.