MADRID, April 21 -- Two weeks before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a Syrian immigrant in Spain received a phone call from London. The caller reported that he had "entered the field of aviation" and that "classes were going well." He added, mysteriously, that "the throat of the bird has been slit."
The call was recorded by Spanish police as part of a long-term investigation into a suspected network of Islamic radicals, but it was weeks before the possible significance of the conversation was understood. Prosecutors here now say they believe "the bird" was a symbolic reference to the American bald eagle and that the caller was sending a message that the Sept. 11 hijackings were ready to proceed.
The suspected leader of al Qaeda in Spain, Syrian-born Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, and 23 others go on trial today in this specially outfitted Madrid courtroom.
(Pool Photo J.j. Guillen Via Reuters)
The Syrian-Spanish Connection: Prosecutors say several Syrian natives who are members of the Muslim Brotherhood led a Spanish al Qaeda cell with alleged ties to the Sept. 11 hijackers.
The wiretap will be a key piece of evidence against the Syrian, Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, and two other men suspected of being al Qaeda members who go on trial in Madrid on Friday after a 3 1/2-year investigation into the use of Spain as a staging ground for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Each is charged with nearly 3,000 counts of accessory to murder and membership in a terrorist organization. Yarkas, who has been in jail since November 2001, denies the charges against him, as do the two other men.
The defendants face charges that they knowingly helped in the hijackings by providing money and cover to two of the plot's ringleaders during a rendezvous in a Spanish coastal town two months before the attacks. The trial will include 21 other defendants charged with terrorism-related crimes, making it the largest criminal prosecution in Europe aimed at al Qaeda.
No one has been successfully prosecuted for playing a role in the Sept. 11 attacks. German courts have tried two accused members of the Hamburg cell that oversaw the hijackings, but one defendant's conviction was overturned and the other man was found not guilty.
In Alexandria, Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen, is scheduled to plead guilty Friday in federal court to participating in the plot. While such a plea would represent a breakthrough for U.S. prosecutors, there are doubts about Moussaoui's mental competency and uncertainty about what role he will admit to playing in the conspiracy.
More than 43 months after the hijackings, considerable gaps remain in investigators' understanding of how the plot was carried out. One concerns a 12-day period in July 2001 after the lead hijacker, Mohamed Atta, flew from Florida to Spain for a meeting with Ramzi Binalshibh, a key conspirator and friend of Atta's from Germany.
U.S. and European officials have concluded that the meeting was called to set a date for the hijackings and was prompted by al Qaeda's founder, Osama bin Laden, who was growing impatient with the pace of preparations.
In recently filed court papers, Spanish prosecutors said they had new evidence that Atta and Binalshibh met in the coastal town of Tarragona on July 16, 2001, with Mohamed Belfatmi, an Algerian, to discuss final arrangements for the hijackings.
The meeting, according to the court documents, was organized by Belfatmi and three other al Qaeda members in Spain who also knew about the plot. But for five of the 12 days Atta and Binalshibh were in Spain, investigators have no idea where the pair were or what they were doing.
Starting two weeks before the attacks, Binalshibh, Belfatmi and two other members of the Hamburg cell left Europe for Pakistan, investigators have concluded. At least three of the men took connecting flights through Spain.
Prosecutors are expected to introduce new evidence during the trial, but so far, little has emerged publicly that directly shows the defendants were willing, knowing participants in the Sept. 11 conspiracy. In the German trials, the two defendants successfully argued that they were merely doing favors for fellow Muslims and knew nothing of the plot.
"The proof we have against the people here is legally quite weak," said Rafael L. Bardaji, who was strategic adviser on security issues to Jose Maria Aznar, Spain's prime minister at the time of the attacks. "I'm convinced they were in on the plot. But we have a tremendous gap between what we think they did and the ability to prove them guilty."