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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

"It's going to make us very popular in the Arab world," he said of the arrest. "It shows Spain and the liberal democracies are just as hypocritical about freedom of speech, and of journalists, as the countries in the Third World are. Maybe it will hurt us in the States, but in Europe, no."

Alouni had been living in Qatar but returned to Spain two months ago for vacation. He had explored the possibility of setting up an Al Jazeera bureau there, said Abdallah, who covered the Iraq war with Alouni.

In a phone conversation Thursday, Alouni said that the family planned to return to Qatar on Saturday, according to Abdallah.

Alouni knew he had been under investigation when he lived in Spain, but he thought the case was in the past, Abdallah said. Alouni's wife, Fatima, said he participated as a lecturer in summer workshops at a university near Madrid.

"If my husband had something to fear, or something to hide, he would not have come back to Spain," she said in a radio interview Friday. "And here he is."

Asked whether Alouni knew the suspected terrorists jailed in Madrid, she said: "Here all the Arabs know each other. But to know, what does that mean, to know? It's a very vague definition."

She said Alouni was taking a shower in their home on the outskirts of Granada about noon when eight plainclothes officers arrived to arrest him. She and his friends said they were worried because he has a heart condition that had required emergency surgery in Baghdad.

The arrest took place during Alouni's first visit to Spain since the roundup of the alleged Al Qaeda cell in late 2001. Garzon had not issued a warrant for Alouni in hopes that the reporter would return to Spain, officials said. The timing also seems related to the judge's impending decision on whether to file formal charges against the dozen suspects in custody.

In a report dated last Dec. 12, the anti-terrorist unit of the Spanish police described Alouni as a key suspect still at large. It alleged that there was abundant evidence showing that he was a member of the Al Qaeda cell and that he had frequent meetings and phone conversations with Barakat for years.

"Another of Taysir's contacts is Mohamed Baiah, a.k.a. Abu Khaled, who is regarded by this unit as a top operative in Al Qaeda with the mission of acting as a courier between Afghanistan and the West and, above all, collecting funds for the organization," the report said.

In January 1998, the suspected courier stayed at the Granada home of Alouni, "who gave him cover, permitting [Baiah] to use his address and phone number to apply for his Spanish residency," the report said. "This shows the level of trust and cooperation between the two."

The report also details five wiretapped phone calls in which Barakat described sending money -- amounts of several thousand dollars each, investigators said Friday -- to the courier in Afghanistan in 2000 via Alouni. Investigators shadowed Barakat and accomplices as they held periodic meetings in 2000 and 2001 with Alouni in Granada during the journalist's trips back from Afghanistan, according to the report.

Police also highlighted a "very significant meeting" in Granada in July 2001 that was also attended by Mamoun Darkazanli, a Syrian-born German under investigation by Spanish and German police for his suspected ties to the Hamburg cell.

That Granada meeting took place soon before a meeting on Spain's northeastern coast between Atta and jailed Hamburg suspect Ramzi Binalshibh. Police suspect that the encounter was a final strategy session for the Sept. 11 attacks, and they are trying to prove that the Madrid cell helped set it up.

Alouni had discussed the Spanish case with his friends, acknowledging that he knew some of the suspects, Abdallah said.

"He thought the Spanish were going out of their way to please the Americans," Abdallah said. "I think he's been arrested for having friends who are still suspects."

Special correspondent Cristina Mateo-Yanguas in Madrid contributed to this report.

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