Spain convicts 9-11 suspect, rebukes US

From the Sept. 27 NY Times, reprinted in the International Herald Tribune:

A Spanish court on Monday convicted a Syrian man of conspiring to commit the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, and found 17 other men guilty of belonging to or aiding a Spanish cell of Al Qaeda under his command.

Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, 41, also known as Abu Dahdah, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for helping to plan the attacks and to 12 years for leading the cell, which was based in Madrid. Yarkas is the only person outside of the United States currently convicted of involvement in the attacks.

The other 17 men, including Taysir Alony, a correspondent for Al Jazeera, the international Arabic-language television network, received sentences ranging from 6 to 11 years for belonging to or aiding a terrorist group.

Yarkas was accused of organizing a meeting in northern Spain in July 2001 during which final preparations for the Sept. 11 attacks are thought to have been made. According to the prosecution, the meeting was attended by Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker on Sept. 11, and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a high-ranking member of Al Qaeda suspected of playing a central role in organizing the attacks.

With armored vehicles surrounding the court and a police helicopter flying overheard, the three-judge panel rejected the prosecution’s charge that Yarkas was directly responsible for murdering the nearly 3,000 people who died in the 9/11 attacks. But it said that he was guilty of participating in the “criminal formation” of the plot.


Prosecutors saw Yarkas’s conviction as one of the few prominent legal victories in the fight against terrorism.

Zacarias Moussaoui, a Frenchman of Moroccan descent, pleaded guilty in an America court in April to a broad conspiracy to fly planes into American buildings, but he said the plan was unrelated to the Sept. 11 plot.

In August, Mounir el-Motassadeq, a Moroccan, was acquitted by a German court of complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks, although he was found guilty of belonging to Al Qaeda.

Motassadeq had previously been convicted of involvement in the 9/11 plot, but the decision was overturned last year after the court ruled he had been denied a fair trial by an American refusal to allow testimony from suspected Qaeda operatives in U.S. custody.

In addition to Yarkas, two other men, a Moroccan named Driss Chebli and a Syrian named Ghasoub Al Abrash Ghalyoun, were accused of involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks, but they were acquitted of the charges on Monday, although Chebli was convicted of collaborating with a terrorist group.

Chebli had been charged with helping Yarkas organize the meeting in July, 2001, and Ghalyoun had been charged with making videotapes of the World Trade Center and other American landmarks in 1997 and delivering them to people connected to the Sept. 11 attacks.

The cell led by Yarkas, made up mostly of Syrians and North Africans, was accused of raising money to finance terrorist activities, recruiting Islamic radicals to attend Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, and lending support to Qaeda operatives who passed through Spain.

The verdict Monday appears to offer a partial victory for supporters of Spain’s approach to fighting Islamic terrorism, which stresses prosecutions and the courts over intelligence gathering and military action.

In late June, the chief prosecutor, Pedro Rubira, called on the court to make “an exemplary sentence that shows that fighting Islamic terrorism does not require wars or detention camps,” an apparent reference to the American-led war in Iraq and the prison at Guantánamo Bay.

Many Spanish investigators and politicians maintain that extending the reach of international law and sharing evidence across borders are the most effective forms of fighting terrorism.

During the trial, Rubira said that his case would have been strengthened if the Bush administration had allowed him to interview bin al-Shibh, the accused Qaeda operative said to have helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks. But the Bush administration refused to make bin al-Shibh available.

The Spanish police began investigating members of the cell led by Yarkas about 10 years ago, but thought they were just support players who helped with fund-raising, document falsification, and other logistical matters, but did not pose a serious threat to Spain.

After the 9/11 attacks, the police decided it was too risky to continue allowing the group to operate on Spanish soil, and began making arrests the following November. The police, and particularly the judge Baltasar Garzón, who led the investigation, were criticized in the local media for the arrests, which newspaper editorials cast as a desperate effort to appear relevant in the global struggle against Islamic terrorism.

But many of those criticisms died away after last year’s March 11 terrorist attacks in Madrid, when a group of Islamic radicals thought to have ties to Al Qaeda blew up four commuter trains during the morning rush hour, killing 191 people and wounding more than 1,000. The investigation of those attacks is still under way and has yet to produce an indictment, but about 30 people are in prison on charges related to the bombings.

This overview of Spanish coverage from the London Times indicates that Spain’s press took a critical view of the supposed legal victory:

Europe’s first major trial of suspected Al-Qaeda members, which ended in Spain yesterday, has been been angrily condemned as a flop by the Spanish press.

The daily La Razon today complained of “a sense of failure in not being able to prove a direct link between the accused and the September 11 attacks”, after the Spanish High Court handed down verdicts on 24 suspected Al-Qaeda members, including three accused of helping the September 11, 2001, hijackers.

Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, alias Abu Dahdah, a Syrian-born businessman accused of being the leader of Al-Qaeda in Spain, was sentenced to 27 years in jail – 12 for being the leader of a terrorist group and 15 for conspiracy to commit terrorist murder.

The Barcelona daily La Vanguardia said: “The sentence, way below that sought by the state attorney, is a blow to the judicial investigation and the prosecution.”

Yarkas was accused of helping prepare a meeting on July 16, 2001, in Tarragona, northeast Spain, at which prosecutors said the September 11 attacks may have been planned. The court ruled that prosecutors had not proved that Yarkas took part in the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, but there was evidence he had helped to think up the plot, working with a radical cell in Hamburg.

Prosecutors had demanded a sentence of over 74,000 years for Yarkas and two other defendants, Moroccan-born Driss Chebli and Syrian-born Ghasoub al Abrash Ghalyoun, whom they accused of playing a role in the September 11 attacks.

The three could have faced jail sentences of more than 74,000 years each if convicted of involvement in the attacks. Six of the defendants were acquitted on all counts, including Ghalyoun.

El Mundo cast doubt on the case made by the Spanish prosecutors. It said there was no doubt that most of those convicted “formed part of a group dedicated to making propaganda for the jihad, financing fundamentalist Islamic movements, recruiting fanatics for Chechnya, Bosnia and Afghanistan and maintaining contacts with the Algerian GIA and other violent groups.”

But it added: “It is another thing to try to connect this group with the preparations for September 11, which was the basis for reopening this investigation at the end of October 2001.”

The paper said one problem was that the court’s argument regarding Yarkas’ role in September 11 rested on “two weak pieces of circumstantial evidence”. One was that his number was found in the phonebook of a person who had lived with Mohammed Atta, the plot leader. The other was a tapped phone conversation that Yarkas allegedly had in which another person talks of entering “the aviation business”.

To consider this a reference to September 11 was “a flight of fantasy for anyone with common sense, and raises immense doubts about the seriousness of the verdict,” El Mundo said.

Meanwhile the pan-Arab television station Al-Jazeera said that it would appeal against the conviction of its TV reporter, Tayssir Alluni, who was jailed for seven years for collaborating with a terrorist organisation. While working for the station in Afghanistan in 2001, Alluni secured an interview with Osama bin Laden.

His wife Fatima Zahra told reporters after the sentencing: “My husband has been sent down for telling the truth… for doing his job. And he would do the same again.”

Al-Jazeera’s director general Waddah Khanfar, talking to AFP, described the verdict as very disappointing. “We still believe our colleague Tayssir is innocent of the charges against him,” he said.

See our last posts on the 9-11 investigation and conspiracy theories. See also our last post on the terror crackdown in Spain.