Skip to comments.Clues of 9/11 Plans Found in Spain
Posted on 08/10/2002 4:18:26 PM PDT by knighthawk
SALOU, Spain (AP) A few months before Sept. 11, several al-Qaida operatives slipped into this Spanish beachside resort, blending in with the tourist crowds to hold what investigators increasingly suspect was a pivotal rendezvous in planning the terrorist plot.
A senior Spanish official with extensive knowledge of the investigation said authorities now believe the mid-July gathering was the last face-to-face encounter between hijack ringleader Mohammed Atta and his al-Qaida liaisons in Europe.
The main details of the conspiracy to crash commercial jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were largely in place by the time the meetings were over, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Around 700 pages of detailed evidence have been compiled in two separate investigations by the national police and Spain's Civil Guard and handed over to the FBI, according to the Spanish official and others in Washington.
A senior U.S. law enforcement official said the FBI has bolstered its presence in Spain in recent days and is engaged in several ongoing operations.
American investigators believe al-Qaida conducted more than a dozen mid-to-high-level meetings in Spain in the five years before the attack and the U.S. official said investigators are looking for evidence of financial transactions the group might have made here.
``It seems as though Spain, among other places, has been considered an operational safe-zone for al-Qaida a place where operatives can meet and plan ... attacks and secure funds,'' the U.S. official said.
Spanish and FBI detectives have been in Salou and other resorts on Spain's Gold Coast, scouring hotels, travel agencies, car hire firms, regional airfields and an amusement park for traces of the men.
They have interviewed about 20 witnesses who say they may have seen the al-Qaida plotters during their rendezvous, according to the Spanish official.
Suspected participants in the meetings, possibly at a safe house, are believed to have included Atta, Ramzi Binalshibh, hijackers Ziad Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi and two other Arab men.
Based on nearly a yearlong investigation, authorities have pieced together much of Atta's travels but little on what he and other suspects discussed in connection with Sept. 11.
The itinerary outlined by investigators:
On July 7, 2001, Atta, who had been attending flight school in Florida, flew from Tampa via Miami to Madrid for his second visit to Spain in seven months, according to the evidence.
After a stopover in Zurich, Switzerland, where he bought a Swiss army knife in an airport shop, he arrived in Madrid the next morning.
He spent up to five hours at the airport, then checked into a hotel in Barajas, a town by the airport. Atta, an Egyptian, was accompanied by a 41-year-old man who registered under the name Iqbal Afzal Admat and showed an Irish passport. Hotel records indicate they made lengthy phone calls to Hamburg, Germany and Manchester, England.
Atta took a hotel shuttle back to the airport and paid his room bill by credit card. He drove halfway across the country and checked into Hotel Sant Jordi in Tarragona, five miles north of Salou on the Mediterranean coast. Spanish officials have said Atta drove 1,190 miles during his 12 days in Spain.
The area is popular with wealthy Arab holidaymakers, and the Sept. 11 plotters would have drawn little attention.
While Atta was driving east, Binalshibh, Atta's Yemeni former roommate in Hamburg, landed at Reus regional airport, a few miles inland from Salou, on the weekly charter from the northern German city where he lived.
The short, dark-haired Yemeni emerged with a flock of German, Dutch and British sun-seekers from the single-terminal airfield ringed by olive groves and headed to Hotel Monica in Cambrils, a coastal resort on the southern outskirts of Salou.
Binalshibh checked in, signing his own name, but was seen sharing the room with another Arab man.
During the next six days, there is hardly any trace of either Atta or Binalshibh only Atta's midweek visit to a travel agency in Tarragona to book a flight back to Miami on July 19.
The absence of other hotel stays, signed receipts or credit card stubs has led investigators to believe that the men may have met in a safe house provided by other al-Qaida operatives in Spain.
Several clues have been found to link their stay in Spain to Syrian-born Imad Yarkas, who prosecutors say was al-Qaida's point man in Spain.
His phone number was found in the apartment on Hamburg's Marienstrasse where Atta and Binalshibh lived. Police say they have recorded phone calls before Sept. 11 in which Yarkas was speaking in code, apparently about the attacks.
Yarkas, detained last November with a group of seven other suspected al-Qaida members, is still in custody in Spain.
In July, police arrested four Syrians linked to Yarkas, including Ghasoub Al-Abrash Ghalyoun, who traveled around the United States in 1997, taking what police describe as surveillance videos of such landmarks as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sears Tower, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the World Trade Center.
Four months after Ghalyoun's return, another man now in Spanish custody, Mohamen Khair Al Saqq, was visited by a man described as Osama Bin Laden's courier between Europe and Afghanistan. Investigators are considering the hypothesis that he may have taken copies of the videos to Afghanistan.
A Justice Department official said in Washington that the FBI is reviewing the videotapes.
Witnesses have told investigators they saw a man who resembled Al-Shehhi, the 23-year-old hijacker from the United Arab Emirates, on July 17 at the Universal Studios Port Aventura theme park next to Salou.
The visitor, who was accompanied by two men, inquired about rides at the customer service counter. Witnesses have indicated these companions resembled Jarrah, the other hijacker, and Said Bahaji, a 26-year-old German-Moroccan thought to have been part of Atta's al-Qaida cell in Hamburg.
The day before, Binalshibh returned to Reus airport and boarded a charter back to Hamburg. Three weeks later, after failing three times to get a U.S. visa in Germany, he flew to Pakistan via Madrid.
Refused entry into the United States and unable to join the suicide teams, Binalshibh funneled thousands of dollars to hijackers, according to the indictment of Zacarias Moussaoui, who is on trial in Virginia for conspiracy in the Sept. 11 attacks.
A video recovered later in Afghanistan from the home of al-Qaida military chief Mohammed Atef shows Binalshibh and four other al-Qaida fugitives issuing what U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft described in January as ``martyrdom messages'' apparently threatening further suicide attacks.
Atta had three more days in Spain.
He spent a night in Salou at the beachside Casablanca Playa hotel and the next day, because that hotel was fully booked, moved around the corner to the Hostal Montsant, a quaint little inn set behind a fence covered with thick vines and rubber plants.
Atta paid by credit card and showed his Florida driver's license, spending his last night in a tiny cramped room with two single beds.
A few days after Sept. 11, investigators following credit card payment records arrived at the Montsant and asked the innkeepers what Atta did during his stay.
``How were we supposed to remember? Several months had passed by then,'' said Maria Teresa Rodes, who owns the inn with her husband. ``He was polite, well-dressed, but didn't do anything to stand out.''
Some. We'd known about Atta's visit, but not necessarily where he'd gone and who he'd met with. It establishes the identity of a few more confederates.
What I want to know is whether there were any Iraqi officials hanging out at Madrid or Salou at the same time...
I heard a rumor of suspicions that someone in the Irish government was issuing passports to terrorists. This is the first time that I have seen this in print. Do you have more information about the Irish connection?
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