MADRID — Investigators swept through a handful of Spanish residences before sunrise Wednesday, arresting six members of a suspected Algerian Islamic terror group with ties to Osama bin Laden.
The raids were part of a European crackdown on a North African terror network targeting American interests, including the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Related arrests have been made in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Britain.
However, investigators' interest has focused on Spain recently as law enforcement and counter-terror officials track the movements of other suspected terrorists, among them a leader of the suicide hijackings in America.
Egyptian Mohamed Atta, the only suspect known to have contacts with members of all four hijack teams before Sept. 11, spent at least a few days in Spain in July, two months before the U.S. attacks.
Atta has been traced to cheap hostels in resort towns south of Barcelona. In Salou, he took a $27-a-night room. In Tarragona, he tried unsuccessfully to visit an unidentified man held in federal prison there on murder charges, officials said.
Other contacts have not been disclosed, and hostel operators said they never saw him with anyone else.
In June, several days before Atta flew to Madrid from Miami, Spanish police arrested Mohammed Bensakhria, chief of a terror cell in Frankfurt, Germany. Bensakhria had been hiding in Spain since a Christmas plot to bomb a Strasbourg, France, market was exposed and thwarted.
Officials also are tracking the movements of other suspected terrorists who were traveling in Spain at the time, including a Tunisian who has since been arrested in Brussels with a stash of explosive chemicals. Officials have not linked Atta to that cell or others in the North African network.
Investigators say the six men arrested in Spain on Wednesday belong to the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, one of 27 groups and individuals whose assets were ordered frozen this week by the Bush administration. They were being moved to Madrid for questioning.
The Algerian nationals are believed to be part of a wider network plotting suicide attacks against U.S. targets throughout Europe, said Spanish Interior Minister Mariano Rajoy.
The scope and menace of the North African network came to light after Ahmed Ressam was arrested in 1999 trying to drive across the Canadian border into the United States with a trunkful of explosives. Ressam, an Algerian who lived in Montreal, was on a mission to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. He later agreed to cooperate with American investigators, offering new details about the Bin Laden-run terror training camps in Afghanistan.
In recent months, authorities have gleaned more details about the Algerian-dominated network from Ressam and other informants as well as from intercepted communications and evidence seized in a series of failed attacks, including the bombing plot against the embassy in Paris.
The embassy plot was exposed after an arrest in the United Arab Emirates. Acting on a tip from the United States about two months ago, authorities picked up Jamal Beghal, who apparently divulged the plan and identified other terrorists. The latest arrests are an outgrowth of that continuing investigation.
One of those arrested Wednesday was Mohammed Boualem Khnouni, a native of Algeria who came to Spain two years ago. Investigators believe he was the leader of the Spanish cell. He also has spent time in France, investigators said, and met with other unspecified groups in Germany.
Khnouni was arrested at home in Almeria, a city on the southern coast. The other Algerian suspects were rounded up in Navarra province, Huelva, Murcia, Pamplona and Valencia.
The suspects in Spain crafted fake passports and credit cards for fellow Islamic extremists, authorities said. Investigators seized computer programs used to make phony airplane tickets, a collection of fake passports, videotapes and night-vision visors.
The cell used credit card fraud to support itself, shipped computer and optical equipment to terrorists based in Algeria and sent propaganda materials to Chechnya, investigators said.