The Spanish Connection

Wall Street Journal

Feb 22, 2007

August \

by Edward Jay Epstein

The 9/11 Commission relied on information derived from two captured al Qaeda perpetrators for much of its picture of the conspiracy leading up to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The interrogations of these men -- Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, or "KSM," who masterminded the plot and got Osama bin Laden to finance it, and Ramzi Binalshibh, who acted as KSM's liaison with lead suicide terrorist Mohammed Atta -- were performed by the CIA at secret locations.

KSM claimed that he left almost all the tactical details to Atta, and therefore could not say where Atta went, or whom he visited, in the final months of the plot. Binalshibh claimed he was Atta's only contact with al Qaeda during this period and that, other than himself, Atta never met with anyone on his trips abroad in 2001.

If these accounts are true, it follows that the conspiracy was a contained one, and the 9/11 Commission could preclude outside collaborators, including the participation of foreign countries. Thus, although the CIA was unable to trace the origin of the money supplied to Atta, the commission deemed this gap "of little practical significance" since the CIA's prisoners established that no one else was involved in the plot. Thus, too, when the CIA found that Iran had "apparently facilitated" the travel of eight of the 9/11 muscle hijackers in flights to and from Afghanistan (by not putting the required stamps on their passports, and by having a top Hezbollah official accompany their flights in and out of Iran), the commission could nevertheless rule out the possibility Iran or Hezbollah were "aware of the planning." The basis for this conclusion was the information provided by KSM and Binalshibh.

But what if these CIA prisoners -- who after all are diehard jihadists -- were lying?

Enter Judge Baltazar Garzon, Spain's terrorism magistrate, who has been for many years investigating the links between al Qaeda and a Spanish Islamic cell headed by one Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas (who Mr. Garzon arrested in November 2001 and is currently in prison on a conspiracy conviction). The Spanish security service secretly had this cell under scrutiny since the mid-1990s; Mr. Garzon was thus able to draw on wiretaps, surveillance reports and other intelligence, as well as his own interrogations of suspects and captured documents from Afghanistan.

Mr. Garzon has produced a 697-page investigative report for Madrid's central court in September 2003, which charges that the Spanish cell -- through its connections to Mohammed Atta's Hamburg cell and some of the pilots it recruited -- helped plan, finance and support the 9/11 attacks.

In an interview, Mr. Garzon explained to me through an interpreter that the support of the Spanish cell began in the early days of the plot and continued up until the attack. He described evidence that ranged from video tapes that Spanish police had confiscated from the home of one of the Spanish conspirators, which methodically surveyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center from five different angles in the late 1990s, to a phone call intercepted by Spanish intelligence in August 2001 (at a time when the hijackers were buying tickets on the planes they planned to commandeer), in which an operative in London informed Yarkas that associates in "classes" had now "entered the aviation field," and were beheading "the bird." After drawing a diagram for me on a blackboard of how the Spanish cell connected to Atta's and Binalshibh's recruiters in Germany, he said it was "supporting the operation at every level."

Consider the unexplained activities of Atta and Binalshibh in Spain in 2001. Atta made two trips to Madrid, paid for with al Qaeda funds at critical points in the plot. The first one was in January, just after he finished his flight training classes in Florida and qualified as a pilot. The second one was just after most of the contingent of muscle hijackers had arrived in Florida in July. During that second trip, July 7 to July 19, Atta clocked 1,908 kilometers on his rented Hyundai and changed hotels frequently -- except for five nights, where he vanished from all hotel registries.

Atta's 9/11 co-conspirator, Binalshibh, also made two trips to Spain: The first, July 9 to July 16, was to the Terragona resort region near Barcelona, where he met up with Atta and then, during the same period, also vanished from the hotel registries. Binalshibh's second trip, Sept. 5 to Sept. 7, was to Madrid, where he obtained a bogus passport which he used to fly to Pakistan and make his escape to Afghanistan.

Why did Atta and Binalshibh make these trips? The 9/11 Commission turned to the CIA, which reported that Binalshibh (captured in 2002) said in his interrogation that neither he nor Atta had contacted anyone else in Spain. Thus the commission stated, "According to Binalshibh, they did not meet with anyone else while in Spain."

The problem here is that Atta and Binalshibh made independent trips to Spain. Atta went to Madrid in January when Binalshibh was in Germany; Binalshibh went to Madrid in September when Atta was in America. And when Atta arrived in Madrid on July 8, Binalshibh was in Hamburg. They were never in Madrid at the same time. On July 9, Atta did meet up with Binalshibh in the resort area of Terragona, but Atta then stayed in Spain three days after Binalshibh returned to Hamburg.

Presumably, they made separate trips because they had separate business, but the critical fact is this: Binalshibh was not in a position to know whom Atta did (or didn't) contact in Madrid or during his final three days in Spain.

Mr. Garzon argues that his extensive investigation of the Spanish cell directly contradicts Binalshibh's story that he and Atta had seen no one else.

Take, for example, the week they were together, July 9 to July 16. Both Atta and Binalshibh dropped from sight, leaving no hotel records, cellphone logs or credit-card receipts. Mr. Garzon reasons that someone organized a safe house for them to conduct their business.

That person, according to Mr. Garzon, is Mohamed Belfatmi, aka "Mohamed the Algerian," a man who had worked closely with the Spanish cell in getting its operatives in and out of Afghanistan for terrorist training. About a month before Atta's arrival in Spain, Belfatmi rented a house in Terragona very near to where Atta's rented car was last seen parked.

Mr. Garzon says that Belfatmi's house was used for the 9/11 "final planning sessions." From telephone intercepts, Mr. Garzon has established that Binalshibh was in contact with Belfatmi after the latter had returned to Germany. And in a brief call Belfatmi made to Yarkas on Sept. 1, Yarkas, correctly suspecting that his phone was being tapped, abruptly cut Belfatmi off, telling him not to continue with "that theme."

Later that week, Belfatmi flew to Karachi with Binalshibh's and Atta's Hamburg roommate and fellow al Qaeda cell member Said Bahaji, staying with him at the same hotel. Binalshibh arrived in Karachi on a separate flight. So did other members of the Hamburg cell, who along with Belfatmi and Bahaji escaped to Afghanistan (and have not been yet apprehended).

Mr. Garzon concluded that Binalshibh knew both Yarkas -- whose private number he had in his address book -- and Belfatmi. According to Mr. Garzon, Binalshibh "was clearly lying to the CIA to protect those he and Atta saw in Spain."

Baltazar Garzon, known for his prosecutorial zeal, is a controversial figure in Spain, having investigated everything from Basque terrorism to the Madrid bombing investigation whose alleged perpetrators are currently on trial in Madrid. But even many who don't agree with his methods -- or his politics -- agree he is on solid ground in his relentless pursuit of the connections between the Spanish cell and al Qaeda.

Yet if Mr. Garzon is correct about the Spanish connection to 9/11, it is not only the effectiveness of the CIA's interrogation of its al Qaeda prisoners that is called into question. The information from Binalshibh, KSM and other detainees was used to fill in the missing pieces of the jigsaw, and those gaps concerned the contacts the 9/11 conspirators might have had with others wishing to harm America. By saying that no one else was involved -- not in Spain, Iran, Hezbollah, Malaysia, Iraq, the Czech Republic or Pakistan -- these detainees allowed the 9/11 Commission to complete its picture of al Qaeda as a solitary entity.

Yet to come to its conclusion on this most fundamental issue, the commission was prohibited from seeing any of the detainees whose accounts it relied on. Nor was it allowed even to question the CIA interrogators to determine the way that information was obtained. The commission's joint chairmen themselves later acknowledged that they "had no way of evaluating the credibility of detainee information." So when Judge Garzon comes up with evidence that runs counter to detainees' claims, cracks begin to emerge in the entire picture.


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