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Osama's spiritual envoy still walks freely

Osama's spiritual envoy still walks freely

Author: Rashmee Z Ahmed, Times News Network
Publication: The Times of India - Internet Edition
Date: November 22, 2001

London: As the Western coalition hunts Osama bin Laden down in Afghanistan, the man alleged to be his "spiritual" ambassador to Europe remains free for the moment and in the comparative comfort of his west London home, according to reports that the Spanish authorities have identified 40-year-old Abu Qatada as a pivotal figure in the al-Qaeda network.

Qatada, a Palestinian of Jordanian nationality, figures in a "sealed judicial indictment" from the Spanish authorities to Britain, according to The Independent newspaper.

On Wednesday, he remained cosily esconsed in his small, book-lined home in suburban and boring Acton, west London.

The indictment, which the paper said it had obtained, pinpoints Qatada as al-Qaeda's spiritual envoy to Europe and its key financial conduit. More crucially, the paper said, the Spanish authorities believe he played an important support role in the planning and execution of the September 11 attacks.

According to other reports, he is said to have met nine suspected al-Qaeda agents across Europe in recent months and 18 videos that he made were found in the Hamburg flat where the World Trade Centre hijackers lived.

Britain is now under increasing pressure to detain the cleric, though Scotland Yard is reported to be still struggling to cobble together the evidence against him.

As a stopgap measure, however, he is likely to be interned along with 24 other suspected terrorists under the terms of Britain's proposed hardline anti-terrorism law.

But the Spanish, who are said to be increasingly impatient with British caution, seem to be sure of Qatada's importance in bin Laden's trans-national network of highly-motivated operatives.

The Spanish chargesheet said the cleric had frequent telephone and physical contact with the Madrid-based, Syrian-born, Spanish passport-holder Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas alias Abu Dahdah, who was arrested earlier this week in Spain for being "directly linked to the preparation and carrying out of" the US attacks.

Dahdah, who frequently spoke on the phone to World Trade Centre "flying bomber" Mohammed Atta, is said to have visited London nearly two dozen times.

The British authorities, who froze Qatada's bank account last month and found it contained a bafflingly large sum of 180,000 pounds, are now reported to be under increasing pressure to detain him.

He has lived in Britain for seven years as a refugee from Jordanian "persecution" and as a man dependent on state handouts to feed his family.

Qatada, who has in the past, willingly submitted to media interviews in which he acknowledged that he believed in the philosophy of jihad and had "respect" for bin Laden, has now become more tight-lipped and circumspect, bitterly accusing Britain of needing no more evidence against him than "my picture", complete with flowing beard, burning eyes and Arab clothes.

The Spanish investigation, which led to 11 arrests in Madrid and Granada and the smashing of an al-Qaeda nest, is said to be the end result of a four-year surveillance operation of Islamist extremists by Spain and the US.

Commentators say that Spain has identified a clear and crucial British connection to the American atrocities and vindicated earlier criticism by India and other countries of the UK's laxity in cracking down on suspected terrorists.

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