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Al Qaeda in Spain founder obtained citizenship through sham marriage

Group’s one-time number four used marriage of convenience to get freedom of movement

Osama Bin Laden y Mustafá Setmarian Ampliar foto
Mustafa Setmariam with Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora in 2001.

On July 10, 1985 a young man about 1.70 meters tall, with fair skin, green eyes, red hair and sporting a well-kempt beard turned up at Madrid’s Civil Registry with a 29-year Spanish woman called Pilar Toledo. After a brief ceremony, the two signed their wedding papers and kissed each other. They wouldn’t meet again for another three years when they signed their divorce papers on November 11, 1988.

The young man was a Syrian national called Mustafa Setmariam, also known as Abu Musab al-Suri, the founder of an Al Qaeda cell in Spain, and number four in the organization until the death of Osama Bin Laden. Setmariam sowed the seeds of radical Islam in Spain, spreading the Salafist word that would encourage other young men to set up jihadist groups to raise money and recruit fighters for the conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan.

Setmariam had a $5 million bounty put on his head by the FBI after the attacks on the Twin Towers

The Al Qaeda leader, who had a $5 million bounty put on his head by the FBI after the attacks on the Twin Towers, was able to obtain Spanish citizenship as a result of his marriage of convenience, according to an investigation by the Spanish police that EL PAÍS has seen. His bride had no idea of his intention: to gain a residency permit that would allow him to move freely around Europe.

Photographs recently published by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York show that Setmariam was not lying when in the autumn of 2001 he told his followers that he had bade farewell to Bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora in Afghanistan, and that he had been tasked with designing a new military strategy based on chemical and bacteriological warfare. The United States had just invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

The Muslim Brotherhood way

J.M.I.

Like many other members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mustafa Setmariam found a way to settle in Europe by a marriage of convenience, which in his case, allowed him to quickly attain Spanish citizenship, according to police.

“Mustafa Setmariam could have entered Spain in 1985 after fleeing to Jordan following routes taken by other Syrians who came to our country years earlier,” reads a recent police report. “Some of these, among them Setmariam, decided to arrange marriages of convenience and soon after separate, with the sole objective of attaining residency and then a year later, obtaining citizenship, and then annulling the marriage.”

Setmariam was not alone in later establishing a serious relationship and marrying again. His right-hand man and friend Imad Eddin Barakat, also known as Abu Dahdah, who took over in Spain when Setmariam joined the Al Qaeda leadership, married Marisa Martín, a former actress who briefly worked with filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar and later converted to Islam. Barakat is now serving a 14-year jail sentence in Spain for his involvement in the September 11 attacks.

The Syrian’s marriage was carefully organized. On May 23, 1985, the first time he is recorded as being in Spain, a man called Nabil Al-Abdalla, who already possessed Spanish nationality, contacted a lawyer called María Montalvo and gave her the details of “a friend” called Mustafa Setmariam who was intending to marry a Spanish woman. The lawyer began processing the paperwork. A couple of years later, Setmariam would contact her again, this time to handle the divorce proceedings and to apply for Spanish citizenship. “I had no idea that this was a marriage of convenience. I didn’t know them. I just took care of the paperwork. That was my job. He contacted me through a certain Nabil, an Arab who I believe was in the fur trade,” says Montalvo.

Setmariam was born in the Syrian city of Aleppo, and joined the Muslim Brotherhood when he was at university studying engineering. In 1982, Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president of Syria, launched a manhunt against the organization, besieging its stronghold of Hama.

Along with many others from the Muslim Brotherhood, Setmariam fled Syria, heading to Jordan, from where they would choose a European country in which they could settle and restart their activities clandestinely.

His marriage to Pilar Toledo provided Setmariam with the perfect cover. Just one month after the wedding, he traveled to France. On August 10, the Spanish embassy in Paris issued him with a 30-day visa, although the next day he returned to Spain via the border at Irún, in the Basque Country, headed for Madrid. On August 13, he applied for Spanish citizenship. Later in the year he began studying Spanish, meeting Helena Moreno, with whom he began a relationship, once again returning to Paris, as shown by the Spanish consulate’s records there.

In January 1987, two years after he had moved to Spain, Abu Musab al-Suri met again with lawyer María Montalvo to ask her to handle his application for citizenship. “I don’t remember,” she says. “I handled the paperwork for dozens of citizenship applications. There was nothing suspicious about it.” On October 23 of that year, Setmariam was granted citizenship, and in February 1988, was issued with a Spanish identity card. At that point he was living close to Helena Moreno in the Madrid suburb of Moratalaz, and would marry her the following year. Moreno’s parents opposed the marriage and refused to attend the ceremony.

The police investigation shows that the two witnesses at the marriage, held in Madrid’s main mosque, were Adnan Fallaha and Fajer Kalaje, the latter a Syrian with whom the couple would live two years later in Pakistan, who died fighting in Afghanistan in 1991.

Moreno and Setmariam had five children, and aside from Pakistan, also lived in the southern Spanish city of Granada, as well as in London. Setmariam was eventually arrested in 2005 in Pakistan and handed over to the US authorities. His whereabouts are now unknown. Moreno, who lives in an unspecified Arab country, says she has no idea where her husband is being held.