The Spanish Connection
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 --
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
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.
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
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."
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.