Four years after the 9/11 attacks, European courts are becoming more skilled at prosecuting Islamist terrorists. Yet convictions for participation in large-scale attacks, like those that took place in New York and Madrid, remain difficult to obtain.
In a landmark decision Monday by Spain's national court, Syrian-born Imad Eddin Barakhat Yarkas became just the second person in the world to be convicted of crimes related to the 9/11 attacks. Almost halfway through the 447-page sentence appear the chilling words, "He knew about the sinister plans ... of Ramzi [bin Shibh] and Mohammed el-Emir Atta and ... assumed them as his own."
While successful by many measures, the trial underscored the challenge of procuring evidence that will meet the strict standards of Western courts.
"The Al Qaeda network is very clever at making it as difficult as possible for authorities to secure their communications, for example," says Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at Scotland's University of St. Andrews. "They're trained to avoid detection and to resist questioning. And convictions will only occur when the evidence holds up."
Of the 24 men who stood trial in Madrid, eighteen were found guilty of belonging to or collaborating with Al Qaeda. Of the three also charged with abetting 9/11, one, Driss Chebli, received a prison term of six years for membership in a terrorist organization, and another, Ghasoub al-Abrash Ghalyoun, was acquitted of all charges. Mr. Yarkas, condemned for "conspiracy" in the New York attacks, received a sentence of 27 years, a substantially shorter term than the 74,337 years requested by the prosecutor. Taysir Alony, an Al Jazeera journalist, also received a prison term of six years for collaboration.
In the months following the New York attacks, Spanish police arrested the men for belonging to a suspected Spanish Al Qaeda cell. Mr. Chebli and Yarkas, believed to have provided logistical support to Mr. bin Shibh and Mr. Atta when the two met in Tarragona just before 9/11, were charged with the more serious crime of accessory to murder. And Mr. Abrash, for whom the prosecutor sought a sentence of more than 74,000 years in prison, shot the now-infamous 1997 "scouting" tape of the World Trade Center and other US landmarks. (Abrash said it was a vacation video, a claim which the Spanish judges apparently accepted.)
Pedro Rubira, the prosecutor in the trial, told the press earlier that he sought "an exemplary sentence" that would show that "neither war nor detention camps were necessary to fight Islamist terrorism." Some terrorism experts felt the verdict had done just that.
"It's good news," says Rogelio Alonso, professor of political science at Madrid's King Juan Carlos University. "It shows that we can put people on trial successfully, which means that the police have been effective in tracking them down, and in finding enough evidence to convict them."
Calling the verdict "a significant breakthrough," Professor Wilkinson adds, "It demonstrates that criminal justice systems can deal with these matters. It's an exoneration of the system."
But other experts were disappointed with the decision.Jessica Almqvist, a researcher at the Foundation for International Relations and Dialogue in Madrid, says, "As a human rights expert who believes it is important to fight terrorism through the courts, I want to see the verdict as a success. But the fact that they couldn't tie Yarkas specifically to the crime, and that they lowered his sentence so drastically, is a setback."
In that sense, the Spanish case echoes the German trial of two men suspected of belonging to Atta's Hamburg cell. In that case, the court acquitted one man and, after appeal, reduced the sentence of the other, Mounir al-Motassadeq, to seven years for belonging to a terrorist cell - acquitting him of having had a role in the 9/11 attacks.
Both trials suggest that the prosecution of accessory to murder charges in the 9/11 attacks remains difficult. Antonio Elorza, a political scientist at Madrid's Complutense University, believes fear may also be a factor.
"The same thing happens with ETA," Mr. Elorza says, referring to the Spain-based Basque separatist group. "When there is a organization that has the capacity for violent action like this one does, it's clear: The judges don't want to have their throats slit."
The trial was watched closely for signs of what it might reveal about another judicial proceeding scheduled to begin in a few months: the trial of those arrested in the 2004 Madrid bombings. For Ms. Almqvist, those signs are not encouraging. "They're going to face the same problem of tying the main actors to the crime," she says. "I fear the victims are going to be disappointed."