Imad Yarkas, a 42-year-old Syrian, said he had never heard of a group called Soldiers of Allah until he was arrested in November 2001 and read about the group in Spanish news reports.

"It is an invention," Yarkas said as he took the stand on Monday in Madrid in the trial of 24 accused members of al-Qaida - Europe's biggest against suspected members of Usama bin Ladin's network.

"I have never heard of it - only in this investigation."

Yarkas is accused of directing a Spain-based cell that allegedly provided logistical cover for the September 11 plotters, including Muhammad Atta, who is believed to have piloted one of the two hijacked planes that destroyed the twin towers in New York.

Aljazeera reported that the Spanish authorities have thrown a tight security net around the court in Madrid.

Aljazeera correspondent Taysir Alluni, who is charged with transferring money to al-Qaida network, appeared before the court. Alluni is the only defendant currently free on bail.

Spanish law

Two alleged accomplices of Yarkas also face charges of helping plot the September 11 assault, and prosecutors are seeking sentences of nearly 75,000 years for the three - 25 years for each of the nearly 3000 people killed in the attacks.

However, Spanish law limits time served for terrorism to 40
years.

Out of the 24 suspects there is
only one Spaniard

Twenty-one others are charged with belonging to a terrorist group, illegal weapons possession and other offences.

Judge Baltasar Garzon, who conducted an eight-year investigation into alleged terror activities in Spain, says the cell was formed at a Madrid mosque in 1995 and became affiliated with al-Qaida, eventually helping to organise the airborne attacks against the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in 2001.

Prosecutor Pedro Rubira questioned Yarkas about his contact with the other defendants and suspected fighters abroad.

Yarkas insisted he knew them only as acquaintances at mosques.

Syrian fugitive

Rubira did not ask Yarkas point-blank if he had anything to do with September 11.

Among those Yarkas said he knew in Madrid in the 1990s was Mustafa Sitmariam, a Syrian fugitive believed to be a senior al-Qaida operative.

The accused deny any role in the
11 September 2001 attack plot

Yarkas said he lost track of Sitmariam when the latter moved from Spain to Britain, then to either Pakistan or Afghanistan.

Asked about a London cleric known as Abu Qatada and if he knew the man was engaged in "radical" activities, Yarkas said: "What does 'radical' mean? I don't know what it means."

Spain is the second country after Germany to try suspects in connection with the September 11 attacks. The only man charged in the US, Zacarias Musaui, pleaded guilty on Friday to helping al-Qaida carry out the attacks.

One of Yarkas' alleged accomplices, Ghusub al-Abrash Ghalyun, took detailed video of the World Trade Centre during a 1997 visit to the US.

Knowledge denied

Garzon said the footage eventually was passed on to al-Qaida operatives and became "preliminary information" for plotting the September 11 attacks.

But Yarkas on Monday denied any knowledge of the tapes or of Ghalyun's trip to the US.

Ghusub Ghalyun allegedly shot a
video of the Trade Centre towers

Yarkas said he came to Spain from his native Syria in 1985 or 1986 to study, but ended up working, acting as an intermediary between wholesalers and selling everything from cars and clothes to honey - "anything I could make a profit on", he told the court.

Asked at one point about wiretapped conversations in which people referred to him as "leader", Yarkas said it was a common honorific among Arabic speakers. "You cannot translate our culture and way of speaking as a crime," he said.

Yarkas looked relaxed and spoke in Spanish. He looked thinner than he did when he was arrested in November 2001 in raids ordered by Garzon.

Indonesia visit

Earlier, another defendant, Luis Jose Galan - the lone Spaniard among the 24 suspects - depicted himself as a peace-loving Muslim who took part in a rally denouncing the 2001 attacks in the US.

 "You cannot translate our culture and way of speaking as a crime"

Suspect Imad Yarkas

Galan, a Madrid native who converted to Islam more than a decade ago, denied prosecutors' allegations that he underwent terrorism training at a camp in Indonesia after Yarkas made a recruiting visit to that country in 2001.

Galan said he never saw or heard about the camp when he visited the Indonesian city of Poso. He noted he would have been too old for military training anyway, and said he rejected terrorism outright.

"It is not my way of approaching life. I have other
values," Galan, 39, said.