Spain finds Qaeda cell chief guilty in 9/11 plot

Posted in Other | 27-Sep-05 | Author: Renwick McLean| Source: International Herald Tribune

Syrian-born Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas (C), also known as Abu Dahdah, looks on as he listens to his sentence during Europe's biggest trial of suspected Islamist militants in Madrid September 26, 2005.
MADRID 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.

In an interview after the verdict, Jacobo Tejeira Casanova, a lawyer for Yarkas, said he would advise his client to appeal the court's decision.

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.