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5 Suspects Helped Fund Al Qaeda, Spain Says

March 09, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Spanish investigators have dismantled an Al Qaeda money-laundering operation allegedly run by four Spaniards and a Pakistani linked to the deadly bombing of a synagogue in Tunisia last year, authorities said Saturday.

After raids Friday and early Saturday by the paramilitary Guardia Civil in the Spanish cities of Valencia and Logrono, authorities accused the suspects of using their companies to send funds to Al Qaeda operatives around the world.

The four suspects in Valencia are Spanish entrepreneurs whose firms make ceramics and decorative tiles. Initial reports Friday night had described them as Tunisians.

The arrests make this one of the few cases in Europe in which apparently non-Muslim, non-Arab businesspeople allegedly played a financial role in Islamic terrorist activity.

The suspects in Spain allegedly helped fund a network in France, Germany and Pakistan that bombed a synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba last April, killing 21 people. Authorities say the suicide attack was ordered by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda operations chief arrested in Pakistan last weekend.

"They apparently had contact with members of this organization, and these contacts are with people who had a lot to do with the attack that took place in Djerba," Spanish Interior Minister Angel Acebes said at a news conference in Madrid.

The industry and the Mediterranean port city targeted by the Guardia Civil's counter-terrorism division fit a pattern revealed by investigations of Al Qaeda in Spain. Police say a number of Syrian-born Spaniards operated thriving ceramics factories in the Valencia area, which has a sizable Muslim immigrant population, while they participated in terrorist cells that allegedly played a support role in the Sept. 11 attacks.

One of those Syrian Spaniards is Mohammed Khair Saqq, who is free on bail on charges connected to an alleged scouting videotape of the World Trade Center filmed by a friend. Saqq owns three ceramics companies whose 120 employees have included known Tunisian and Syrian extremists, according to court documents.

Authorities did not say Saturday whether the four Spaniards had connections to extremists in the ceramics industry. Nor did police say whether Mohammed's arrest had triggered Friday's raids, although one official said Friday that clues generated by the capture in Pakistan had pointed to people in Europe.

The interior minister said the Spanish investigation involved close cooperation with authorities in France, where the Djerba bomber lived, and in Germany. Spanish investigators also received assistance from U.S., Tunisian, Swiss and Portuguese law enforcement.

The fifth person arrested Friday is a Pakistani who owns a long-distance telephone calling service in Logrono.

Special correspondent Cristina Mateo Yungas in Madrid contributed to this report.

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