– Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON – Mamoun Darkazanli, one of the most elusive and mysterious figures associated with al-Qaida and the Sept. 11 hijackers, was arrested Friday in the German port city of Hamburg. He faces extradition to Spain to stand trial in a Sept. 11-related prosecution expected to begin early next year in Madrid.

Darkazanli, a Syrian-German businessman accused by a Spanish magistrate of acting as Osama bin Laden’s “financier in Europe,” was taken into custody shortly after 2 p.m. Hamburg time by undercover police waiting for him to emerge from his apartment building in that city’s upscale Alster Lake district.

The Hamburg regional court said Darkazanli, 46, would stay in prison during the extradition proceeding, which is expected to take some three months, because of the court’s fear that he might flee Germany if allowed to remain free.

The court said Darkazanli, who holds both German and Syrian citizenship, indicated he would fight extradition. Andreas Beurskens, Darkazanli’s lawyer, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Darkazanli, whose name appears 177 times in the 690-page report issued by an investigative magistrate in Madrid in September 2003, is also the target of a separate terror-financing investigation initiated in Germany shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Questioned by German police four days after Sept. 11, Darkazanli, who moved to Hamburg from Syria in 1982, dismissed his dealings with known and suspected al-Qaida figures as innocuous business relationships.

“I just wanted to earn money. I cannot know why people are doing business when I deal with them,” Darkazanli told investigators according to an interview transcript translated by the Chicago Tribune.

Although Spanish authorities requested Darkazanli’s extradition last year, the process was delayed pending Germany’s ratification of new regulations governing extraditions within the European Union.

The reason for the precise timing of Friday’s arrest remain unclear. On Sunday, however, Darkazanli’s German-born wife returned from a visit to her husband’s native Syria, where some intelligence sources suspect she was exploring the possibility that the Syrian government might offer Darkazanli refuge from the Spanish judicial system.

Darkazanli’s arrest comes after six years of investigations by authorities in Germany, Spain and the United States that uncovered a decade’s worth of financial transactions with senior bin Laden operatives, including bin Laden’s 1994 purchase of a sea-going freighter that later sank under still-unexplained circumstances.

The list of those with whom Darkazanli is known to have done business includes bin Laden’s one-time personal secretary, Wadih El-Hage; al-Qaida’s former chief financial officer, Seedi al-Tayyib, who was also involved in the ship deal, and Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, described by U.S. prosecutors as a founding member of al-Qaida, who had Darkazanli’s home number programmed into his cell phone when he was arrested in Munich in 1998.

Salim, with whom Darkazanli also shared a Hamburg bank account, was recently sentenced to 32 years in federal prison for stabbing a corrections officer in the eye with a sharpened comb. Salim, 43, is accused in German court papers of having attempted to purchase uranium in Sudan as part of bin Laden’s unsuccessful effort to construct a nuclear weapon.

Darkazanli’s apparently defunct Hamburg-based import-export business was the first company in the world to be designated a “global terrorist entity” by the Bush administration. At that time, Darkazanli’s German bank accounts were also frozen at the request of the United States.

Although U.S. law-enforcement officers implored their German counterparts to arrest Darkazanli then, German prosecutors have been hampered by that country’s pre-Sept. 11 laws, which did not make it illegal to support a foreign terrorist organization like al-Qaida.

The law has since been amended but it is not retroactive.

Darkazanli acknowledges having known Mohamed Atta, the Sept. 11 operational commander, and some of Atta’s accused co-conspirators, but has denied foreknowledge of the Sept. 11 hijacking plot. Although Atta and Darkazanli were both in Spain two months before Sept. 11, no evidence has emerged that they saw each other during that time.

Atta is believed to have piloted the first plane to strike the World Trade Center. Darkazanli denies having known Marwan al-Shehhi, the suspected pilot of the second plane to hit the World Trade Center, but police files contain wiretap evidence suggesting the two were also closely acquainted.

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The Spanish charges against Darkazanli stem from his involvement with several accused members of an alleged al-Qaida cell in the Spanish capital, nearly all of whom are in jail awaiting trial.

In a deposition taken by an attorney for one of the Spanish defendants, wealthy Madrid real estate developer Mohamed Kaleb Kalaje Zouaydi, Darkazanli acknowledged that “I worked with 20 or 22 firms … that had, according to the Americans, ties to bin Laden.”

Like Darkazanli, several of the others named by Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzon in September 2003 are Syrian-born members of the ultra-radical Muslim Brotherhood who were given political refuge in Spain after fleeing Syria in the 1980s.

More than a dozen of those named in Garzon’s report are expected to stand trial beginning in January.

Garzon charges that Sept. 11 extended in part to Spain because of a July 2001 meeting between Atta and admitted co-conspirator Ramzi Binalshibh to discuss the progress of the hijacking plot, according to Binalshibh’s statements to U.S. interrogators since his capture in Pakistan on the first anniversary of Sept. 11.

Germany’s chief federal prosecutor, Kay Nehm, who continues to investigate Darkazanli’s alleged money laundering on behalf of bin Laden, including some $300,000 from a Saudi conglomerate that passed through several Darkazanli bank accounts, says “it’s very likely” that Darkazanli himself is a member of al-Qaida.


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