Al Jazeera Too Close to Terror?


Sept. 24, 2003 — -- For Syrian-born journalist Tayssir Alouni, the biggest story of his life may turn out to be his own indictment.

Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon alleges Alouni, a correspondent with the Arab satellite channel al Jazeera, is a member of an al Qaeda terror cell who helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks on America. But with her husband in a Spanish jail cell, Alouni's wife is proclaiming his innocence.

Alouni, 48, was a high-profile correspondent for al Jazeera who had met with Osama bin Laden and was often the reporter who received al Qaeda tapes and messages from unknown sources.

But now Alouni, who was arrested on Sept. 5 in Granada, Spain, is being held at the Soto Del Real prison outside Madrid.

In a court hearing Wednesday, Alouni denied all relations with al Qaeda. He denied recruiting militants, transporting money, or cooperating with the organization in any way. The judge will make a decision regarding Alouni's request for probational release sometime in the next week.

In Madrid, Alouni's wife, Fatima Zohra Hamed Layesi, told ABCNEWS Tuesday her husband is innocent. "My husband is a good person," she said in Spanish. "He is a journalist, not a member of al Qaeda."

"The judge says that he thinks he has proof enough to say this man is a member of al Qaeda and that we must be clear that this person was using his job as a journalist as a perfect cover to be a member of al Qaeda, to be a courier and probably a recruiter, God knows what else," Gustavo Arestegui, the chairman of the Spanish Parliament's Intelligence Committee, told ABCNEWS.

Last week, five men suspected of being members of a Spanish al Qaeda cell were arrested on the orders of Garzon. Garzon alleges that all five madecontact with Alouni.

Spokespeople for the Qatar-based network say Alouni is an honest journalist. His outraged colleagues now wear "Free Tayssir" buttons on the air and the network is running a video montage of Alouni with prison bars superimposed over his image.

But others say Alouni's alleged involvement with al Qaeda raises new questions about al Jazeera.

"To what extent did one of its reporters cross the line from being a supporter of Islamist policies to being a member of an underground al Qaeda cell?" said Fawaz Gerges, an ABCNEWS consultant and professor of International Affairs and Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College. "What does the case say about al Jazeera? To what extent should al Jazeera pay more attention to the background of its reporters?"

Indictment Details Interactions with Al Qaeda

According to the 710-page indictment written in Spanish, Alouni was under surveillance for five years, before he went to work for al Jazeera. The indictment does not make any charges against al Jazeera.

The indictment details his travels and wiretapped phone conversations in which Alouni allegedly agrees to carry money and messages to al Qaeda operatives planning the Sept. 11 attacks. It also charges that Alouni later used his job at al Jazeera while based in Afghanistan to make it easier for him to pass money to al Qaeda members.

The indictment details Alouni's relationships with many al Qaeda members. Documents, mostly seized phone records, show that he was in frequent contact with Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, also known as Abu Dahdah, the leader of al Qaeda's activities in Spain. The indictment also maintains that both men were involved in recruiting and supporting a young group of extremists in Granada, where Alouni lived before moving to Madrid in 2000, and that after moving to Madrid, Alouni kept in frequent contact with the group in Granada.

According to the indictment, Yarkas helped Alouni with passport and visa renewals, and he also handled the documents to obtain Alouni's permanent resident status in Spain. The indictment also says Alouni often received money from Yarkas in order to support members of the group in Granada.

Alouni was also close to Mohamed Zaher, another defendant and member of the al Qaeda cell in Spain, the indictment says. After moving from Madrid to Granada in April 1999, Zaher often acted as Alouni's assistant — for example, he drove Alouni to the airport whenever Alouni traveled out of Spain. Alouni made numerous calls from Zaher's home, often before he traveled to Qatar, Pakistan, or Afghanistan. According to the indictment, both Alouni and Yarkas help Zaher get permanent residence in Spain and Alouni even allowed Zaher to use his home address on all his documentation.

Alouni also helped Mohammed Bahaiah, also known as Abu Khaled and a member of al Qaeda, get permanent residency in Spain, the indictment maintains. Bahaiah attended al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, but also stayed with both Yarkas in Madrid and Alouni in Granada. Alouni also allowed Bahaiah to use his mailing address on his immigration forms.

Finally, the indictment says that when Alouni started working for al Jazeera in Afghanistan in January, 2000, he brought money from Yarkas to Bahaiah, who was at the training camps.

Not About Racism

The Paris-based Arab Commission for Human Rights is organizing a large-scale campaign in support of Alouni, including establishing a defense team made up of several French lawyers and one Spanish lawyer.

Haitham Mannagh, the organization's representative, told ABCNEWS he knew Alouni personally and that if the group had any doubts about his innocence they would be the first to ask for his trial. Mannagh also said Alouni had criticized al Qaeda and the Taliban in the past.

Mannagh explained it is common for Arabs to carry money to deliver to relatives and family when they are traveling, while also pointing out that the amounts carried were too small to help fund any terrorist operations.

But Arestegui claimed the charges against Alouni are not about racism "or anti-Arabism or anti-Islamism," he said. "We're doing this because an independent judge of this country has found out that this man is directly connected to a terrorist cell that was directly connected to the most outrageous, horrible and bloody terrorist attack in the history of mankind."