Ex-Guantanamo detainee arrested in Spain tied to infamous al Qaeda cell
A former Guantanamo detainee named Lahcen Ikassrien was arrested earlier this month in Spain. Authorities suspect that he has led a network responsible for sending jihadist recruits off to fight in Syria and Iraq. Members of Ikassrien's group reportedly fought for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), although it is not clear when they did so.
Ikassrien's arrest is the latest twist in a story that stretches back to the late 1990s, when Spanish investigators first came to suspect that Ikassrien was involved in al Qaeda's international jihadist network.
Indeed, counterterrorism officials from both Spain and the US concluded that Ikassrien was part of an al Qaeda cell led by Imad Yarkas (also known as Abu Dahdah).
According to numerous accounts, Yarkas served as one of bin Laden's most trusted lieutenants in Europe. Spanish investigators think that Yarkas' men even helped orchestrate a critical planning meeting for the 9/11 attacks in the summer of 2001. Ramzi Binalshibh, al Qaeda's key point man for the 9/11 plot, and Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker, met in Tarragona, Spain in July 2001. According to the 9/11 Commission's final report, US intelligence officials did not find any evidence that suspects other than Binalshibh or Atta were involved in the meeting. But Spanish officials insist otherwise.
Regardless of his putative 9/11 role, Yarkas was arrested in late 2001 and later convicted on terror-related charges by a Spanish court; he was released in May 2013 after serving a reduced sentence. The members of Yarkas' cell who avoided jail went on to help execute the March 11, 2004 train bombings in Madrid.
At the time of the 3/11 attacks, Ikassrien was still detained at Guantanamo. But according to leaked files authored by the State Department and Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), he knew some of the attackers well.
Evidence ruled inadmissible by Spanish court
In late 2001, Ikassrien was captured alongside Taliban members by US forces in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan.
He was transferred to Spanish custody on July 18, 2005. The plan was for Ikassrien to stand trial, but he avoided a conviction. Leaked State Department cables reveal that the Spanish courts excluded the most incriminating evidence against Ikassrien, including communications intercepted prior to his detention at Guantanamo. That evidence tied Ikassrien directly to Yarkas' cell.
In a cable dated Oct. 20, 2006, the US Embassy in Madrid described the problems that arose in Ikassrien's legal proceedings. The section of the cable discussing Ikassrien's case is entitled, "High-profile Al-Qaeda Suspects."
"Spain's National Court on October 11  acquitted Lahcen Ikassrien after finding insufficient evidence that he was a member of either al Qaeda or of the Abu Dahdah terror cell in Spain, or that he fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan," the cable reads.
The evidence backing up these allegations existed, but it was excluded from Ikassrien's proceedings. "The court refused to admit any prosecution evidence that was obtained during his detention in Guantanamo or any information gleaned from intercepted phone calls in Spain."
Another leaked State Department cable, sent on July 28, 2006, describes the contents of the intercepted communications. "According to press reports," the cable reads, "the Spanish police intercepts place Ikassrien in Istanbul, Turkey in November 2000 along with suspected terrorists Amer Azizi and Said Berraj."
Both Azizi and Berraj worked for Yarkas. Azizi was subsequently killed in a US drone strike in northern Pakistan. Western counterterrorism officials connected Azizi to a constellation of al Qaeda actors, including those responsible for the March 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings. Azizi may have also played a role in coordinating the infamous Tarragona meeting between the 9/11 planners. Said Berraj was reportedly involved in the 3/11 train bombings.
"In a separate intercept," the July 28, 2006 cable continues, "Ikassrien requested assistance with [travel] documentation from al Qaeda cell leader [Imad] Yarkas."
These same intercepts were ruled inadmissible during the legal proceedings for Yarkas and other members of his cell. Prosecutors were able to overcome this hurdle with other evidence tying Yarkas to terrorism. But they could not overcome the same evidentiary hurdle with respect to Ikassrien.
The Spanish prosecutor "had sought an eight-year jail sentence" for Ikassrien, according to the Oct. 20, 2006 State Department cable. If the prosecutor had been successful in getting a conviction, and the sought-after sentence, then Ikassrien might have been imprisoned until later this year. But the prosecution could not move forward with its case, despite "noting publicly that Spanish authorities had obtained more than enough evidence of Ikassrien's membership in the Abu Dahdah [i.e., Yarkas] terror cell prior to his stay in Guantanamo."
There was an additional complicating factor in the Spanish prosecutor's attempt to try Ikassrien. His case had become linked to that of another former Guantanamo detainee, and the Spanish court's ruling in that matter nixed the prosecution's plan for trying Ikassrien.
Hamed Abderrahaman Ahmed, dubbed the "Spanish Taliban" by the press, was transferred from Guantanamo to Spain on Feb. 13, 2004. Abderrahaman was convicted on terrorism charges and sentenced to six years in prison in September 2005. However, on July 24, 2006, the Spanish Supreme Court annulled the sentence, finding that Abderrahaman's admissions to Spanish investigators during his time at Guantanamo were inadmissible.
The Spanish Supreme Court ruled that "although it is not for [this Court] to issue a pronouncement regarding the situation of those held in indefinite detention, we must state that, as [Abderrahaman] was held in detention under the authority of the US military since he was turned over [to the US] on an undetermined date, all information obtained under such conditions must be declared totally null and nonexistent."
As noted in the State Department's cables, the Spanish court went on to denounce Guantanamo, saying the detention of "hundreds of people, among them [Abderrahaman], without charges, without rights, without controls, and without limits" is "impossible to explain, much less justify."
The court's anti-Guantanamo decision in Abderrahaman's case had an "immediate effect" on the ability of prosecutors to seek Ikassrien's conviction, according to the State Department's July 28, 2006 cable. Ikassrien had been held in preventative detention since his transfer to Spain in 2005, but prosecutors suddenly recommended that he be released on bail. This about-face came "less than a month after prosecutors filed formal charges against Ikassrien."
The evidence compiled by prosecutors for Abderrahaman's trial was the same type of evidence they planned to use against Ikassrien. "The case against Ikassrien is based on three police interviews with him when he was being held at Guantanamo (by the same investigators who interviewed Abderrahaman) and on telephone intercepts developed in the course of the [Imad] Yarkas investigation," the State Department noted. This was the "same evidence thrown out in the Abderrahaman case."
Interestingly, prosecutors also "maintained that Ikassrien's own testimony since his transfer from Guantanamo incriminate[d] him since he has acknowledged traveling to Afghanistan to 'collaborate with the Islamist regime,'" meaning the Taliban. But this was apparently not enough. And "court observers" claimed that "Ikassrien's statements to the National Court have been substantially less incriminating than those of Abderrahaman."
A "high" risk, according to leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment
Although Spanish authorities had intelligence directly connecting Ikassrien to Imad Yarkas' operations, Ikassrien apparently never admitted this connection during his time at Guantanamo. A one-page memorandum prepared for his combatant status review tribunal (CSRT) noted that he "admits being a member of the Taliban" and to associating with members of al Qaeda-affiliated groups. But there is no mention of Yarkas in the memo.
A separate, leaked threat assessment authored by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), and dated Nov. 8, 2004, does describe Ikassrien's ties to Yarkas' al Qaeda cell. But JTF-GTMO had to rely on other sources to piece together the story, because Ikassrien did not admit that he was a part of Yarkas' operation.
"Although cooperative with his debriefers," the JTF-GTMO threat assessment reads, Ikassrien's "accounts remain vague and inconsistent when questioned on topics of a sensitive nature." Ikassrien "has yet to admit being part of al Qaeda and continues to deny any knowledge of [sic] any terrorist affiliation."
Ikassrien's denials of "any incriminating information" were not atypical, JTF-GTMO's memo notes. "This is a common anti-interrogation technique used by numerous JTF-GTMO detainees, as well as by known members of al Qaeda."
JTF-GTMO did not believe that Ikassrien's denials were credible, finding he was a "high" risk and recommending that he "be retained under Department of Defense control."
"As early as 1998," the JTF-GTMO reads, Ikassrien "was meeting on a regular basis to discuss the jihad going on in Afghanistan with Amer al Azizi."
Ikassrien's ties to Azizi were noted in the Spanish press. On Oct. 27, 2004, the Spanish daily El Mundo reported that Azizi stayed in a flat in Turkey with Ikassrien and others sometime in 2000. Azizi was "on his way to Chechnya and Afghanistan" at the time. The paper did not say if Ikassrien joined Azizi.
According to JTF-GTMO, other jihadists were involved in the "regular" meetings between Ikassrien and Azizi that began in 1998 as well. The meetings allegedly included some of the same men who went on to carry out the 3/11 Madrid train bombings. One of them was Jamal Zougam, who worked for Yarkas prior to 9/11 and reportedly provided the cell phone detonators used in the 3/11 attacks. Zougam "assisted" Ikassrien "financially on his trip to Afghanistan," the JTF-GTMO file reads.
Another 3/11 suspect and member of Yarkas' network, Mohammed Haddad, "admitted to giving his Moroccan travel document and a copy of his resident permit to" Ikassrien, "who used these documents to attempt to travel to Afghanistan." The JTF-GTMO file does not indicate when Haddad allegedly made this admission.
"Not resting quietly at home"
In early April 2009, US officials met with their Spanish counterparts to discuss the possibility of resettling additional Guantanamo detainees in Spain. Among the attendees, according to a leaked State Department cable summarizing the meeting, was Luis Felipe Fernandez de la Pena, who was then the Director General for North America, Asia and the Pacific in the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation.
Fernandez De la Pena said the Spanish government's "position of principle" is to take a "positive, constructive approach to the issue," according to the cable, dated April 2, 2009. However, he "cited a number of legal and security-related concerns," including the court decision in Abderrahaman's case. "The ruling later became a precedent which prevented another former detainee, Lahcen Ikassrien, from being prosecuted in Spanish courts," the cable reads.
Citing "reports from [Spain's] security services," Fernandez De la Pena said "these same individuals are 'not resting quietly at home.'"
The only two "individuals" mentioned in the cable before this comment are Abderrahaman and Ikassrien. It appears, therefore, that Spanish counterterrorism officials suspected Ikassrien was assisting his jihadist brethren in 2009 -- that is, well before his arrest again earlier this month.