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Syrian convincted in 911 attacks with weak evidence { September 26 2005 }

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September 26, 2005
Spain Convicts Syrian of Conspiracy in 9/11
MADRID, Sept. 26 - A Spanish court today convicted a Syrian man of conspiring to commit the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, and found 17 other men guilty of belonging to or aiding a Spanish cell of Al Qaeda under his command.

Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, 41, also known as Abu Dahdah, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for helping to plan the attacks and to 12 years for leading the cell, which was based in Madrid.

The other men received sentences ranging from 11 to 17 years for belonging to or aiding a terrorist group.

Mr. Yarkas was accused of organizing a meeting in northern Spain in July 2001 during which final preparations for the Sept. 11 attacks are thought to have been made.

According to the prosecution, it was attended by Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker on Sept. 11, and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a high-ranking member of Al Qaeda suspected of playing a central role in organizing the attacks.

The three-judge panel ruled that the evidence was not strong enough to convict Mr. Yarkas of murdering the nearly 3,000 people who died in the attacks, as the prosecution had requested. But it said that he was guilty of participating in the "criminal formation" of the attacks.

Jacobo Tejeira Casanova, a lawyer for Mr. Yarkas, said he would advise his client to appeal the court's decision.

"This man has not committed any crime," he said in an interview after the verdict was announced.

Mr. Yarkas is the only person convicted of involvement in the attacks.

Zacarias Moussaoui, a Frenchman of Moroccan descent, pleaded guilty in an America court in April to a broad Qaeda conspiracy to fly planes into American buildings, but he said the plan was unrelated to the Sept. 11 plot.

In August, Mounir el-Motassadeq, a Moroccan, was acquitted by a German court of complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks, although he was found guilty of belonging to Al Qaeda.

In addition to Mr. Yarkas, two other men, a Moroccan named Driss Chebli and a Syrian named Ghasoub Al Abrash Ghalyoun, were accused of involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks, but they were acquitted of the charges today, although Mr. Chebli was convicted of collaborating with a terrorist group.

Mr. Chebli had been charged with helping Mr. Yarkas organize the meeting in July 2001, and Mr. Galyoun had been charged with making videotapes of the World Trade Center and other American landmarks in 1997 and delivering them to people connected to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Today's verdict appears to offer a partial victory for supporters of Spain's approach to pursuing Islamic terrorists through prosecutions and the courts rather than through intelligence gathering and military.

In late June, the chief prosecutor, Pedro Rubira, argued before the court that a guilty verdict would send an important message to the world that fighting Islamic terrorism "does not require wars or detention camps," an apparent reference to the American-led war in Iraq and the prison at Guantánamo Bay.

Many Spanish investigators and politicians maintain that extending the reach of international law and sharing evidence across borders are the most effective forms of fighting terrorism.

During the trial, Mr. Rubira said that his case would have been strengthened if the Bush administration had allowed him to interview Mr. bin al-Shibh, the accused Qaeda operative said to have helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks.

But the Bush administration refused to make Mr. bin al-Shibh available.

In an interview before the verdict, Mr. Rubira said that he would not hold the Bush administration responsible for any unsatisfactory outcomes at the trial.

Mr. bin al-Shibh is widely believed to be in the custody of the Central Intelligence Agency. So far, the intelligence agency and the Justice Department have been unwilling to allow access to him by any outsider, even human rights groups.

Spanish police began investigating members of the Qaeda cell led by Mr. Yarkas about 10 years ago, but thought they were just support players who helped with fund-raising, document falsification, and other logistical matters.

After the 9/11 attacks, the police decided it was too risky to continue allowing the group to operate on Spanish soil, and soon after started making arrests.

The police, and particularly the judge Baltasar Garzón, who led the investigation, were criticized in the local media for the arrests, with newspaper editorials casting them as a desperate effort to appear relevant in the global struggle against Islamic terrorism that developed after 9/11.

But many of those criticisms died away after last year's March 11 terrorist attacks in Madrid, when a group of Islamic radicals thought to have ties to Al Qaeda blew up four commuter trains during the morning rush hour, killing 191 people and injuring more than 1,000. The investigation of those attacks is still under way and has yet to produce an indictment, but about 30 people are in prison on charges related to the bombings.

Although the March 11 investigation is separate from the one leading to today's verdict, officials say the two cells are linked. Some of the key figures in the March 11 plot, for example, were recruited and inspired by Mr. Yarkas, according to investigators.

The train bombings and the cell led by Mr. Yarkas are an indication of the deep roots that Al Qaeda and its affiliates have established in Spain, investigators say. Since the March 11 attacks, the Spanish police have uncovered at least three other major cells of Islamic radicals operating on Spanish soil, including one that was gathering and sending recruits to fight the American-led forces in Iraq.

Spain's proximity to the predominately Muslim countries of North Africa, which is just miles away from Spain's southern tip, has made it a convenient base for recruiting, fund-raising, and channeling Muslim extremists from countries like Morocco to the rest of Europe and the Middle East, police officials say.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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