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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Suspected Hijacker Tied to Madrid Cell

Investigation: Police say Mohamed Atta met with members of the Al Qaeda terror network in Spain.

November 23, 2001|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MADRID — Spanish investigators believe that a mysterious trip to Spain in July by Mohamed Atta, the suspected leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, was a key step in carrying out the attacks, according to court documents and interviews with officials.

Spanish law enforcement officials told The Times that although police have not yet confirmed their theory, they suspect that Atta met with leaders of a recently dismantled Madrid-based cell of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network.

Evidence connecting Atta to the alleged leader of the Spanish cell, Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, includes the recent discovery of Barakat's phone number in the former Hamburg apartment of a fugitive close to Atta.

"We are convinced that Atta came to Spain to meet with Barakat or someone close to him," a senior law enforcement official said Thursday. "We haven't proved it yet, but we hope to.

"I believe Atta came to Spain to meet with important Al Qaeda members, to give or receive instructions about the hijackings, to coordinate," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He didn't come here to sunbathe."

Spanish investigators also found the map of a California airport that was a destination for one of the hijacked flights among aviation-related documents in the possession of the Madrid suspects, one of whom is a pilot, according to a Spanish official.

The discovery strengthened the allegations that the Madrid cell participated in planning the Sept. 11 attacks, said the official, who provided the information on condition that the specific airport not be identified.

The original destination of three of the hijacked planes was Los Angeles, and the fourth plane, which crashed in Pennsylvania, was a Newark-to-San Francisco flight.

Investigative advances here focus on the potential role of the Spanish cell in the Sept. 11 attacks and the worldwide Al Qaeda network. The case grew out of an aggressive, six-year investigation by Spanish police that could benefit U.S. investigators, who have increasingly shifted efforts to Europe to trace the preparations for the hijackings.

Since 1995, Spain's anti-terrorism investigators have conducted surveillance of a cell allegedly led by Barakat, who is also known as Abu Dahdah. He is a prominent figure in the Muslim community who emigrated from Syria and is a Spanish citizen.

The cell allegedly was a hub of financing, recruitment and support services for Al Qaeda in Europe. It provided fake documents and refuge for terrorists in transit and raised money through credit card fraud, robberies and other crimes, according to investigators.

Phone Calls With British-Based Suspect

The Spanish investigation gained impetus after the U.S. attacks. And it made a splash this week when Judge Baltasar Garzon, an internationally renowned magistrate who has prosecuted Islamic and Basque terrorists as well as former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, accused eight suspects in Madrid of being direct accomplices in the hijackings.

Those accusations are based on evidence such as police intercepts of telephone conversations between Barakat in Madrid and a suspect in Britain that took place shortly before and after the attacks. The British-based suspect is identified only as "Shakur" in a court document released this week.

Shakur told Barakat on Aug. 27 that he was "giving classes" and said: "In our classes, we have entered the field of aviation, and we have even cut the bird's throat," according to court documents.

A Spanish official told The Times that translators are poring over that language because they believe that it could be in the future tense and that another possible translation is "We are even going to cut the eagle's throat." The eagle is a suspected reference to the United States, according to authorities.

Investigators consider the fact that Shakur was in Britain noteworthy because London is considered another Al Qaeda hub. British prosecutors have alleged that Lotfi Raissi, 27, an Algerian pilot living in London, gave vital assistance to the hijackers with their flight training at U.S. aviation schools. Raissi is jailed in London pending a U.S. extradition request.

Spanish authorities have not revealed the identity of Shakur, described as about 34 and speaking with a North African accent, or indicated whether he is a suspected associate of Raissi.

The court document filed by Garzon asserts that the phone conversations were coded discussions of preparations for the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The extreme measures of security; the coded conversations; the temporal relation of the telephone communications to the attacks . . . make them authentic premonitions of the ensuing events," the document states. "Also, the relationship between Abu Dahdah and . . . Mohamed Atta and two others who participated to a greater or lesser degree in the attacks give only one possible meaning to these telephone conversations."

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