Evidence presented in the trial of alleged Barcelona suicide bomber leaves key questions unanswered

F1's phone call to his handlers at the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), France's counter-terrorism intelligence service, arrived late in the afternoon of January 17, 2008. His last call, F1 said, was to his wife—the last, he had been told, he would ever make to her. In a few hours, F1 went on, he would walk into the Barcelona metro and blow himself up.

Minutes after midnight, Spanish authorities raided a cluster of homes and prayer halls around Maçanet street, the base from which F1— guaranteed anonymity by witness-protection laws — said the suicide bombings he was tasked with were to begin. Fourteen men would be held, 11 of whom were identified by F1 as members of the plot.

Mumbai businessman Roshan Jamal Khan has been in prison since that evening, sentenced to eight-and-half years on four terrorism counts. Mr. Khan's family, which is preparing to move the European Court of Human Rights to seek his exoneration, has long insisted he is innocent — and documents obtained by The Hindu show there is little but F1's story to suggest that is untrue.

From his own testimony at the Barcelona terror trial, F1's terror story began in 2005, when he joined a Europe-based network handling funds for the Lashkar-e-Taiba, as well as Baitullah Mehsud's organisation, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. In 2006, F1 claimed to have travelled to Mehsud's training camps in Pakistan's north-west — camps which, the 26/11 operative David Headley was later to recall, were filled with recruits to al-Qaeda's cause from a dozen countries.

It is not clear from court documents just when, or how, F1's relationship with the DST began, but two separate sources told The Hindu the French intelligence service came to regard him as “pure, gold.”

F1, court documents record, left Paris on January 16 to meet with cell-leader Maroof Ahmad Mirza — the deputy Imam at Barcelona's Tariq bin Ziyad mosque. He knew he was to participate in a bombing, but didn't know when — or how. The realisation, F1 said, came only when a convicted cell member, told him that his January 17 call to his wife was to be his last.

Panicked by F1's phone call, records show, DST contacted its Spanish counterpart, the Centro Nacional de Inteligencia. CNS agents staked out the men — and soon followed that up with raids. For prosecutors, the case was closed.

Lawyers for the defence noted several flaws in F1's story, which suggest otherwise. For one, investigators never recovered anything resembling an actual bomb. Eighteen grams of nitrocellulose and potassium chlorate, extracted from fireworks, were found inside the mosque, as well as metal balls that could be used as shrapnel — far from enough to stage a lethal attack.

“You might just be able to commit suicide with that much explosive,” a senior Indian forensic official told The Hindu, wryly, “but it's certainly not enough to kill anyone else”.

Even stranger, the explosive turned out to have been taken from French-made fireworks, leaving prosecutors arguing that F1 could well have carried the material with him from Paris. Prosecutors, court records show, responded that the French-made fireworks could have been purchased in Spain, and that the group could have been expecting delivery of a bomb — but offered no evidence to back up these claims.

Sketchy testimony

F1's testimony on Mr. Khan was particularly sketchy. Though he described the Mumbai businessman as Mr. Mirza's assistant, there is nothing on record to show precisely what kind of help he allegedly provided. Mr. Khan's fingerprints were not found on the explosives or bomb-equipment; nor did F1 describe him as giving a single terrorism-related instruction or advice. F1, the court records made clear, did not even know Mr. Khan's name.

No evidence surfaced to show that Mr. Khan had ever been in Pakistan, participated in a conversation that included plans to stage a terrorist attack — or, indeed, that he had met with Mr. Mirza for reasons other than the cleric's religious calling.

In the years since, fresh leads have emerged — but not been followed-up. Prosecutors introduced a covert videotape, in which Mehsud's spokesperson Maulvi Said Muhammad claimed responsibility for the Barcelona plot. In August, 2009, Mr. Muhammad was held by Pakistani authorities. Spain, however, has made no formal request to extradite him, though his testimony could prove key.

From the balance of evidence, it is possible to argue that the Pakistani nationals in Barcelona were indeed preparing for a terrorist strike. It is even possible that Mr. Khan was recruited by the group, during the three months he spent in Barcelona, regularly visiting Mr. Mirza.

Hard evidence to back up F1's claims, though, is conspicuous by its absence.

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