MADRID, Spain – Al Qaeda's suspected leader in Spain denied Monday that he founded a radical Muslim cell accused of helping plot the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States.
Imad Yarkas (search), a 42-year-old Syrian, said he had never heard of a group called Soldiers of Allah (search) until he was arrested in November 2001 and read about the group in Spanish news reports.
"It is an invention," Yarkas said as he took the stand in the trial of 24 suspected Al Qaeda (search) members. "I have never heard of it, only in this investigation."
Yarkas is accused of directing a terrorist cell that allegedly provided logistical cover for Sept. 11 plotters, including Mohamed Atta (search), who is believed to have piloted one of the two hijacked planes that destroyed the World Trade Center towers.
Two alleged accomplices of Yarkas also face charges of helping plot Sept. 11, and prosecutors are seeking jail terms of nearly 75,000 years for the trio — 25 years for each of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the attacks.
Judge Baltasar Garzon (search) has said the group was formed at a Madrid mosque in 1995, was led by Yarkas and affiliated itself with Al Qaeda, eventually helping organize the terror attacks in the United States.
Yarkas was peppered with questions from prosecutor Pedro Rubira about his contacts with other defendants in the trial and suspected militants abroad. Yarkas insisted he knew them only as acquaintances who attended the same mosques.
One man he said he knew in the 1990s in Madrid is Mustafa Setmariam, a fugitive Syrian believed to be a senior Al Qaeda operative and who was indicted in Spain along with Yarkas in September 2003. Yarkas said he lost track of Setmariam when the latter moved from Spain to Britain and then to either Pakistan or Afghanistan.
Yarkas looked relaxed and spoke in Spanish. He wore blue jeans and a navy blue suit jacket.
Asked whether he knew a cleric named Abu Qutada in London and if the man was engaged in "radical" activities, Yarkas said, "What does radical mean? I don't know what it means."
Rubira asked detailed questions about Yarkas' dealings with other suspects and financial dealings but did not ask directly whether he had anything to do with the Sept. 11 attacks.
The proceedings have made Spain only the second country after Germany to try suspects in the Sept. 11 attacks. The only man charged in the United States, Zacarias Moussaoui (search), pleaded guilty Friday to helping Al Qaeda carry out the attacks.
One of Yarkas's alleged accomplices, Ghasoub al-Abrash Ghalyoun, took detailed videos of the World Trade Center and other landmarks during a visit to the United States in 1997. Garzon says this footage was passed on to Al Qaeda and became the "preliminary information" on the Sept. 11 attacks.
Yarkas on Monday denied any knowledge of these tapes or Ghalyoun's trip to America.
Earlier, the lone native-born Spaniard among 24 men accused depicted himself as a peace-loving Muslim who rejected terrorism and once participated in a rally denouncing the 2001 attacks.
Luis Jose Galan (search), a Madrid native who converted to Islam more than a decade ago, denied prosecutors' allegations that he received terrorism training at an Indonesian camp after a 2001 recruiting visit to that country by Yarkas.
Galan said he never saw or heard of such a camp when he visited the Indonesian city of Poso, would have been too old for military training anyway and rejected terrorism.
"It is not my way of approaching life. I have other values," Galan, 39, said.
Galan and 20 others are accused of illegal weapons possession and belonging to Al Qaeda, but are not accused of helping plan the Sept. 11 attacks.
Galan said neither Yarkas nor any of the defendants had ever approached him about engaging in radical Islamic activities.
"If they had, I would have gone away. I have another mind-set," he said.
Defense attorney Nieves Fernandez cited a photo that is part of the trial's 100,000 pages of police documents which shows Galan appearing at a Madrid rally in the autumn of 2001, protesting against the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I condemn not just the death of 3,000 people but the death of a single person," Galan said.