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Spain Holds Alleged Terrorist Financier

Europe: The Syrian-born man's arrest advances an inquiry into a suspected Al Qaeda cell believed to have had a role in the Sept. 11 attacks.

April 24, 2002|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MADRID — Spanish police arrested a suspected terrorist financier Tuesday who is accused of funneling money from Madrid to Al Qaeda operatives around the world, including close associates of the Hamburg, Germany, cell that allegedly carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.

The arrest of Mohammed Galeb Kalaje Zouaydi, a Syrian-born Spaniard, advanced the complex investigation of a suspected Al Qaeda cell in Spain that allegedly played a support role in the attacks on the United States.

Zouaydi allegedly used front companies involved in construction and real estate to send funds to "the closest inner circle" in Hamburg of Mohamed Atta, the suspected leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, the Spanish Interior Ministry said in a statement.

"He was responsible for the business structure that financed from Spain the network of [Osama] bin Laden in various countries," the statement said.

Police have detected about $2.2 million that Zouaydi allegedly channeled to suspected Islamic extremists in Germany, the United States, Belgium, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, China, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian territories, according to a senior Spanish law enforcement official. Investigators suspect that some of the money financed the activities of Atta and his Hamburg associates, the official said.

Spanish police are also investigating suspected ties between Atta and an alleged recipient of the money, a Hamburg-based Syrian whose bank accounts were frozen at the request of U.S. officials after Sept. 11. Police are pursuing leads that Mamoun Darkazanli traveled to Spain last summer at the same time as Atta, according to the senior Spanish law enforcement official.

Investigators are convinced that Atta's visit to Spain in July was a key step in the preparation of the attacks. They believe that Atta met with other suspected Al Qaeda terrorists to coordinate the hijacking attacks and other plots.

Authorities also believe that the suspected visit of Darkazanli, who remains free in Germany and denies any ties to terrorism, could be an important piece of the investigation, the senior law enforcement official said.

"He may have been in Spain at that time," the official said. "We are looking into that. We are also putting together the puzzle of how the financing worked around the world."

Zouaydi was arrested in November along with his associate Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, the alleged boss of a Madrid cell that had been under surveillance since 1995.

But Zouaydi was not among the eight suspects jailed then by Spain's best-known investigative magistrate, Judge Baltasar Garzon, as suspected accomplices in the Sept. 11 plot. Most of the eight are well-educated middle-class Syrian immigrants with Spanish citizenship who are married to Spaniards.

Spanish and U.S. investigators consider Barakat a top Al Qaeda figure in Europe and a possible planner of the hijackings. Barakat allegedly discussed the attacks in code during wiretapped phone conversations in August, and his phone number was found in Atta's former Hamburg apartment, according to an indictment filed by Garzon, who also led Tuesday's police operation.

Even though police initially released Zouaydi, he remained a target of their inquiry into the movement of funds to nongovernmental organizations, Koranic schools and other suspected fronts, the senior official said.

Most of the money went to extremists linked to the Al Qaeda network, but some funds also went to the militant Palestinian group Hamas, according to the official.

Police released a video of the arrest of Zouaydi, who wore a dapper business suit, a neat gray beard and glasses.

"He's accused of financing the Al Qaeda network in Spain, but from what I've read in the case file, there's nothing to support what they say," said Zouaydi's lawyer, Maria de los Angeles Ruiz.

The arrest is also likely to increase scrutiny of Darkazanli, whom Garzon described in December as a close associate of Barakat. Despite intense interest predating Sept. 11, German authorities have said they do not have enough evidence to arrest Darkazanli. The Spanish Interior Ministry accused him Tuesday of belonging to Atta's "inner circle" and being a top figure in Barakat's cell.

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