By DANIEL WOOLLS, Associated Press Writer
MADRID, Spain – The man accused of leading a Spanish al-Qaida cell denied charges he helped organize the Sept. 11 attacks by arranging a final planning meeting, telling judges Monday he had nothing to do with that act of «terrible savagery.»
Slideshow: Suspected Islamist Militants on Trial in Spain
Imad Yarkas, the main suspect in Spain’s case against al-Qaida, described himself as a hardworking father of six who struggled to make ends meet.
He took the stand on Day 2 of the trial of 24 terror suspects — Europe’s biggest court case against radical groups with alleged ties to Osama bin Laden’s terror network. If convicted, he faces a symbolic sentence of almost 75,000 years in prison — 25 years for each of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Two alleged accomplices also face charges that they helped plot the Sept. 11 attacks, and 21 others are charged with belonging to a terrorist group, illegal weapons possession and other offenses.
Yarkas, arrested in November 2001, denied leading a cell of radical Muslims with ties to al-Qaida, or knowing two of the alleged Sept. 11 ringleaders.
Yarkas, 42, a Syrian-born Spanish citizen, was questioned about a Spanish indictment that accused him of arranging a July 2001 meeting in the Tarragona region of northeast Spain where suicide pilot Mohammed Atta and purported Sept. 11 operations coordinator Ramzi bin al-Shibh allegedly discussed the final details.
Prosecutor Pedro Rubira provided no evidence. He simply asked Yarkas if he arranged such a meeting.
Yarkas said he had not. «I don’t know Ramzi bin al-Shibh. I don’t know Mohammed Atta,» he said.
He called the Sept. 11 attacks «terrible savagery,» adding: «I didn’t have anything to do with it.»
Yarkas also was asked about an August 2001 telephone conversation in which a Moroccan associate allegedly called him from London and said people he knew «had entered the area of aviation and had even slashed the throat of the bird,» according to a translation from Arabic contained in the September 2003 indictment against Yarkas.
The judge in charge of the terror investigation, Baltasar Garzon, has said the conversation suggests that the Moroccan, identified as Farid Hilali, was involved in the Sept. 11 plot to hijack airliners. Hilali remains jailed in Britain fighting extradition to Spain.
Yarkas said Monday he couldn’t remember the conversation clearly but said it had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks. He asked to hear the tape again.
«This has nothing to do with what you say it does,» Yarkas said.
The questioning followed this pattern for much of the day. Rubira addressed minutiae of Yarkas’ activities as far back as a decade ago but did not present the court with evidence of wrongdoing.
Rubira also questioned Yarkas about his contacts with the other defendants and suspected militants abroad. Yarkas insisted he knew them only as acquaintances at mosques and members of Madrid’s Muslim immigrant community.
Among those Yarkas acknowledged knowing in the 1990s was Mustafa Setmariam, a Syrian fugitive believed to be a senior al-Qaida operative. The United States last year offered $5 million for information leading to his arrest.
Yarkas said the two men took their children to the same school at a Madrid mosque, and «we would see each other and chat.»
He said he lost track of Setmariam when the Syrian moved from Spain to Britain, then either to Pakistan or Afghanistan. Setmariam is accused of running a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion ousted the Taliban militia from power after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Yarkas also discussed his life in Spain, saying he arrived from Syria in 1985 or 1986 to study but ended up in business, acting as an intermediary between wholesalers and dealing in everything from cars and clothes to honey — «anything I could make a profit on,» he told the court.
He described himself as a dedicated family man: «Whatever I earn, I spend. I have six children. I don’t hesitate when it comes to spending money on my family.»
He said he knew nothing about a trip an accused accomplice, Ghasoub al-Abrash Ghalyoun, made in 1997 to take detailed video of the World Trade Center — footage that Garzon said served as «preliminary information» for plotting the Sept. 11 attacks.
He also denied having anything but a casual business relationship with Moroccan Jamal Zougam, accused of placing the backpack bombs aboard trains in the March 2004 attacks that killed 191 people in Madrid. Spanish court documents call Yarkas Zougam’s mentor.
The trial is expected to last two to four months.
By DANIEL WOOLLS, Associated Press Writer