Judge - Al-Qaida hid behind photocopies, real estate, etc.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

MADRID, Spain -- One ran a photocopy shop in a drab Madrid suburb, quietly churning out literature preaching jihad. Another directed real estate companies and is now accused of laundering money that went to al-Qaida.

Their purported boss was a balding used-car salesman who spoke to them in code, recruited in mosques, drove like a spy under surveillance and allegedly helped prepare the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

This personality-driven portrait of how a suspected radical cell of Muslims took shape in the 1990s in Spain -- which became a staging ground along with Germany for the 2001 suicide airliner attacks in the United States -- is contained in a 700-page indictment by a Spanish judge.

Other Middle Eastern or North African-born members of the alleged cell of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network also ran companies -- a carpentry shop, a ceramics factory, an audio equipment store -- as fronts while working for al-Qaida, according to the court document.

Many recruits ended up in Bosnia or Chechnya for terrorist training or combat. They also went to Afghanistan, and on Dec. 26 Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon asked the United States to extradite four alleged al-Qaida members arrested in Afghanistan after U.S. military forces toppled the Taliban in 2002. The four -- now held at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo, Cuba -- were accused of links to the Spanish cell leader and charged with belonging to a terrorist organization.

That was the latest twist in an investigation that began in the mid-1990s and culminated in Garzon's Sept. 17 indictment of bin Laden and 34 alleged terrorists, including 19 suspected members of the Spanish cell.

No trial has been set. Still, the indictment means Garzon has enough evidence to go to trial, although there is no deadline and he can keep gathering evidence as long as he wants.

Staging ground

Spanish authorities say the cell turned the country into an important staging ground for the attacks on New York and Washington that killed nearly 3,000 people. Lead suicide pilot Mohamed Atta visited Spain twice in 2001, including a trip that July that Garzon says was called to discuss last-minute details with other senior plotters.

The Spanish cell's alleged mastermind was 40-year-old Imad Yarkas, a paunchy, Syrian-born used car salesman with a Spanish wife and five kids. He was jailed in Madrid in November 2001, one of about 40 alleged Islamic extremists arrested in Spain since the attacks.

The cell's financier, Garzon says, was another native Syrian, Muhammed Galeb Kalaje Zouaydi.

He ran construction and real estate companies in Madrid as fronts to receive and funnel money to pay for al-Qaida operations, Garzon charged.

Some $3.1 million entrusted to Zouaydi by "Islamic investors" inside and outside Spain is unaccounted for, the indictment charged.

Garzon describes how Zouaydi allegedly laundered money, or tried to, including a transaction in the summer of 2000 in which Yarkas told him of a building materials supplier willing to sell bogus invoices.

Zouaydi said he wanted $240,000 worth. "All the kinds of stuff we work with: paint, flooring, wood," Zouaydi said, according to the indictment, which cited wiretapped telephone conversations. The deal fell through because Zouaydi felt the supplier wanted too much money, Garzon said.

Through their lawyers, both Yarkas and Zouaydi have denied any wrongdoing. "His conscience is clear," Yarkas' lawyer Jacobo Teijelo told The Associated Press.

But Garzon charged the two men and nine others with specifically taking part in Sept. 11 planning, accusing them of "direct involvement in preparation of (the attacks) by providing infrastructure and cover, coordinating movements in Europe" of al-Qaida members.

He called them "key persons who catalyze national and international relations of all the members of the group, assuming the obligation of not only meeting their needs but directing and indoctrinating them."

Yarkas was in charge of recruiting fighters, the indictment said. At the Abu Baker mosque in Madrid, Garzon said, Yarkas would hand out copies of pro-jihad -- holy war -- magazines from Algeria and Egypt or statements attributed to bin Laden.

Such copies were printed in Leganes, just outside Madrid, at a shop owned by suspect Bassam Dalati.

On one day in February 1995, Garzon says, Yarkas spent three hours in the shop, emerging along with Dalati lugging what appeared to be photocopied magazines and loaded them in the trunk of Yarkas' Peugeot, en route to the mosque.

"They kept a constant lookout around them, adopting security measures," Garzon wrote. Elsewhere, Garzon says, Yarkas altered his routes for arriving at the same destination and changed speed constantly.

A senior Spanish law enforcement official said that because police could not enter mosques, these houses of worship were havens for al-Qaida planning and fund-raising. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

By telephone, cell members spoke in code, the indictment charges. Merchandise meant weapons. Pills were bullets, trade offices were recruitment centers and salesmen were mujahedeen sent off to train as terrorists or fighters.

At least one fund-raising scheme involved buying stolen credit cards and running up bogus charges -- more than $10,000 in one 20-day period of 1996 -- at an audio equipment shop owned by associates.

National Police spokesman Jose Maria Seara said other cell members worked harvesting asparagus or other vegetables in northern Spain or as waiters. And one good way to go unnoticed, he said, was to stay in plain view. "Police cannot spend all day tracking a waiter," Seara said.

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