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Al Jazeera Reporter Arrested in Terror Case

Spanish authorities say the Arabic TV channel's top war correspondent in Iraq has ties to an Al Qaeda cell suspected in the Sept. 11 attacks.

September 06, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Spanish anti-terrorist police on Friday arrested a prominent war correspondent for the Arabic television channel Al Jazeera, alleging that a lengthy investigation had tied him to an Al Qaeda cell suspected of assisting in the Sept. 11 attacks.

The journalist, 48-year-old Taysir Alouni, led coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for Al Jazeera, a satellite channel based in Qatar that is widely watched in the Arab world. He received the first video message from Osama bin Laden after the attacks on the United States two years ago in which the Al Qaeda leader declared that Americans would never again be safe in their country. He later obtained an exclusive interview with Bin Laden as U.S. military operations in Afghanistan were underway.

The arrest highlighted sharp divergence between the world views of the West and the Arab street. In the West, the allegation that an Al Jazeera journalist was a soldier of Bin Laden hurts the image of a TV channel that professes a feisty independence. But a colleague of Alouni predicted that many Arabs would regard the accusation as unfair and that it would make the network even more popular with them.

Despite his very public persona, police allege, Alouni, who was born in Syria but holds a Spanish passport, was a secret operative for a Madrid cell that provided money and logistical support to the Hamburg, Germany-based plotters of the Sept. 11 attacks and to other terrorist suspects in Europe, the Middle East and Indonesia.

His arrest was ordered by Baltasar Garzon, a judge known for high-profile prosecutions of Islamic and Basque terrorism suspects and for attempting to try former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on charges of human rights abuses.

The case against Alouni rests on years of investigation documenting the Madrid group's apparently wide-ranging contacts with alleged terrorists around the world. But police are still working to bolster the allegation that Madrid cell members served as accomplices of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Because of the political explosiveness of Alouni's arrest, Garzon will be under pressure to show evidence of specific crimes beyond a sometimes suspicious web of business, family and friendship ties.

After Alouni is questioned by the police and the judge, Garzon will decide whether to hold him for further investigation. That decision is expected early next week.

Garzon's case alleges that Alouni worked with the head of the Madrid cell, Imad Eddin Barakat, to provide money and support to an Al Qaeda courier who visited Spain when Alouni worked as a translator for the Spanish news agency Efe, according to Spanish court documents.

In surveillance and phone intercepts dating to the mid-1990s, police said, they monitored Alouni's contacts with suspects including an alleged Al Qaeda courier and a Syrian Spaniard who became the chief of an Al Qaeda training camp.

Investigators allege that when Alouni became a correspondent for Al Jazeera in 2000, he carried funds destined for the Al Qaeda from Barakat to Afghanistan.

And Spanish authorities say they are investigating Alouni's ties, through family and friends, to other suspected terrorists. Court documents say Alouni is married to the sister-in-law of Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a Syrian-born German in custody on suspicion of recruiting the Sept. 11 hijackers, including their suspected leader, Mohamed Atta.

"We have been investigating him for a long time," a Spanish law enforcement official said. "We believe he belonged to an Al Qaeda support network, and that he was involved in terrorist financing. He is very connected to the Zammars and the people in Germany, and we will look at that very closely."

Investigators will also look at whether Alouni's alleged Al Qaeda connections gave him access to Bin Laden, the Spanish official said. "It could explain how he got the first Bin Laden video, and the interview," the official said.

Alouni -- and the TV channel he works for -- has regularly been the source of controversy, in the Arab world and beyond.

Al Jazeera has run into trouble with several Arab countries for its unflattering reports. And Alouni was ordered out of Iraq in early April by Saddam Hussein's government for conducting interviews without the presence of an official "minder." The network regularly rankles Western policymakers with its reports from Middle East hot spots. In Afghanistan, it was criticized by Westerners for bias toward the Taliban and the Al Qaeda network.

Alouni's colleagues and wife said authorities were persecuting him simply for covering combat zones in the Muslim world. Al Jazeera condemned the arrest and called for his immediate release.

"If a Westerner gets an interview with Bin Laden, it's a scoop," said co-worker Maher Abdallah, the host of a program on modern Islamic thought. "If it's an Arab, he becomes an associate. It's very racist, actually.

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