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THE PLOT

Inquiry Into Madrid Cell Provides a View of Al Qaeda's Wide Reach

September 01, 2002|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MADRID — In the labyrinthine world of Al Qaeda, it's not unusual to fly to another country for a meeting or even to pick up an identity document. Terrorists depend on a support infrastructure across the globe.

Police say Imad Eddin Barakat, a moon-faced Syrian immigrant accused of playing a support role in the Sept. 11 plot, commanded such a structure in Spain.

A six-year police probe indicates the Madrid group stood out among European cells because of unusually extensive ties to Al Qaeda leaders and operations worldwide. The case has opened a window into the workings of Al Qaeda--and possibly the preparations for the Sept. 11 attacks.

Barakat, 38, came to Madrid in 1986. He married a Spaniard and became a naturalized Spanish citizen, a pattern repeated by half a dozen fellow suspects from his hometown of Aleppo. Barakat's group has longtime connections to Syrian suspects in Germany who were close to the Hamburg cell.

The Spanish suspects are shop owners, car salesmen, traders in textiles and food products. They speak Spanish with the verve and informality of natives and were readily accepted by middle-class Spanish neighbors and co-workers. Although Barakat's wife converted to Islam and wears traditional garb, the Spanish wife of another suspect is a Catholic lawyer and works in a government ministry.

During an interrogation by veteran investigative magistrate Baltasar Garzon, Barakat described himself: "I work everything: clothes, cars, honey, rugs, whatever turns up. I'm a free merchant; I don't have one thing."

Barakat, a father of five, was hefty, loud, always hustling. He drove around in whatever new or used car he was peddling. He hawked trunk loads of leather jackets and imitation Lacoste shirts outside a gleaming Saudi-built mosque here.

Barakat was arrested in November and remains in jail along with 14 others. Defense lawyers say the charges filed by Garzon, who is renowned for prosecuting dictators and terrorists, are politically motivated. Skeptics in Madrid's Arab community say the idea of Barakat as a terrorist kingpin clashes with their memory of a used-car salesman.

"He moves in commerce, he has many contacts, he talks a lot," said Riay Tatari Bakri, director of the Union of Muslim Communities of Spain and an official at the Abu Bakr mosque where Barakat worshiped. "In my judgment, a normal person."

Barakat, whose conduct seems alternately streetwise and careless, lived beyond his apparent means. He is part-owner of a now-shuttered retirement home for senior citizens outside Madrid; curious neighbors there said the place had a large Arab staff and not many old folks. Barakat also helped bankroll construction projects. He lived in an apartment on the top floor of a middle-class condo complex.

His cell allegedly used real estate and construction companies and Islamic charities to distribute an estimated $2.2 million to extremists in locales ranging from the U.S. to the Balkans to Yemen. And Barakat traveled tirelessly: Britain, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Indonesia, Jordan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates. Not the itinerary of a rug merchant, police say, but of an influential extremist involved in strategy, finance and logistics.

"Listen, all these many trips you have made around practically half the world are related to your work?" Garzon asked, according to a transcript obtained by The Times.

"Ninety percent of them yes, some no, some for a visit or friendship or something," Barakat responded.

Since 1996, Barakat has gone more than 20 times to London, the hub of Al Qaeda in Europe. He told the judge he chose cheap flights--"only $77 round-trip." In London, he stayed with his friend Abu Qatada, a cleric regarded as Al Qaeda's spiritual leader outside Afghanistan. Police found a copy of Barakat's passport in Abu Qatada's home.

"Abu Qatada was like a godfather who oversaw" the terrorist network in Europe, a Spanish police commander said. "Barakat was more operational."

Despite the Madrid cell's significance, police say, they have not deciphered tantalizing links to Sept. 11. For example: Barakat's phone number was found in the papers of Said Bahaji, a fugitive former roommate of hijacker Mohamed Atta.

Barakat insists he did not know Bahaji or Atta. He denies that he discussed the airborne attacks in advance during wiretapped phone calls in August 2001 with an unidentified suspect in London named Shakur.

In an Aug. 27 call, Shakur told Barakat in a secretive tone he was taking classes that would last about a month and that "in the classes, we have entered into the field of aviation and we have even cut the bird's throat."

Barakat admitted the conversations were in code but said he didn't know what Shakur meant with his talk.

"Shakur is key," a Spanish law enforcement official said. The conversations suggest Barakat was a mentor to Shakur, the official said. Investigators are convinced that Shakur, believed to be a Moroccan extremist, was aware of the plot.

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