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Europe's Largest Trial of Suspected al-Qaida Members Opens in Madrid

Europe's largest trial of suspected members of the al-Qaida network opened in Madrid on Friday. The defendants include three men charged in connection with the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.

In 2003, Spanish police arrested a number of Islamist extremists. As early as 1996 the police had suspected that members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Spain had ties to al-Qaida. Then, after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, police learned that Spain might have been a staging ground for those attacks.

Suspected al-Qaida members sit behind glass screen in Madrid courthouse, Friday
On Friday, 43 months after the attacks, 24 defendants entered a specially built courtroom in Madrid to stand trial on charges of terrorism and other crimes. Prosecutors say they are members of an al-Qaida cell. Most are accused of aiding preparations for the attacks. They are mostly Syrians and Moroccans who have lived in Spain for many years.

Among the suspects is Syrian-born Spaniard Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, who is suspected of leading the cell that provided logistical support to the September 11 hijackers and two other men who allegedly helped plan the attacks.

Some legal experts have concluded that evidence linking any of the 24 defendants directly to September 11 is weak.

Friday's court appearance was held under tight security and lasted only three hours, but gave prosecutors enough time to question Spanish defendant Jose Luis Galan, who is accused of shooting video of the World Trade Center and other targets in August 1997. His videos were allegedly passed on to al-Qaida operatives to help plan the twin tower attacks. Mr. Galan told prosecutors Friday that he condemns all terrorist acts.

The links to al-Qaida may be easier to prove. The defendants include a correspondent for the Arabic television network al-Jazeera, Tayssir Alluni. Mr. Alluni, who interviewed Osama bin Laden after the September 11 attacks, is accused of being an al-Qaida member who was allegedly asked by Mr. Yarkas to deliver $4,000 to other al-Qaida members in Afghanistan.

His wife, Fatima Hamed Layazi, says, "It is a political trial against Tayssir for his role as a journalist in exposing what America had committed against the civilians in Afghanistan as well as meeting bin Laden."

The trial is expected to last two months. Spain will conduct a separate trial or trials for those arrested in connection with the March 2004 bombing of commuter trains in Madrid. That attack has been linked to al-Qaida, and there have been suggestions that it might have been in retaliation for the arrests of the suspects now on trial.