August 11, 2002
SALOU, Spain -- A few months before Sept. 11, several al-Qaida operatives slipped into this Spanish beachside resort, blending in with the tourist crowds to hold what investigators increasingly suspect was a pivotal rendezvous in planning the terrorist plot.
A senior Spanish official said authorities think the mid July gathering was the last face-to-face encounter between hijack ringleader Mohammed Atta and his al-Qaida liaisons in Europe. The main details of the conspiracy to crash commercial jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were largely in place by the time the meetings were over, the official told the Associated Press.
American investigators think al-Qaida conducted more than a dozen mid- to high-level meetings in Spain in the five years before the attack and the U.S. official said investigators are looking for evidence of financial transactions the group might have made here.
Spanish and FBI detectives have been in Salou and other resorts on Spain's Gold Coast, scouring hotels, travel agencies, car hire firms, regional airfields and an amusement park for traces of the men.
They have interviewed about 20 witnesses who say they might have seen the al-Qaida plotters during their rendezvous, according to the Spanish official.
Suspected participants in the meetings, possibly at a safe house, are believed to have included Atta, Ramzi Binalshibh, hijackers Ziad Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi and two other Arab men.
Based on nearly a yearlong investigation, authorities have pieced together much of Atta's travels but little on what he and others discussed in connection with Sept. 11.
On July 7, 2001, Atta, who had been attending flight school in Florida, flew from Tampa via Miami to Madrid, according to the evidence. He checked into a hotel in Barajas, a town by the airport.
He then drove halfway across the country and checked into Hotel Sant Jordi in Tarragona, 5 miles north of Salou
While Atta was driving east, Binalshibh, Atta's Yemeni former roommate in Hamburg, landed at Reus regional airport, a few miles inland from Salou.
Binalshibh checked in to the Hotel Monica in Cambrils, a coastal resort on the southern outskirts of Salou.
The absence of other hotel stays, signed receipts or credit card stubs has led investigators to believe that the men might have met in a safe house provided by other al-Qaida operatives in Spain.