The strange case of the dangerous detergent

Whatever happened to the 16 alleged terrorists that Spain seized in January? Justin Webster reports

A life-saving anti-terror swoop. A major terrorist attack thwarted. This was how Spanish authorities reported the arrest, in the early hours of 24 January, of 16 North Africans in their homes in the suburbs of Girona and Barcelona. Wobbly police video of corridors lit up by flashlights, balaclava-wearing security forces bursting through narrow doorways, the handcuffing of dazed suspects and tables laden with bomb-making equipment led the evening news in Spain.

"Police operation in Catalonia against al-Qaeda's European network", El PaIs trumpeted the next day. And even the New York Times online got excited: "Prime Minister Jose MarIa Aznar said today that Spanish police officials had arrested 16 militants suspected of links to al-Qaeda, breaking up two cells and confiscating electronic material and containers of unidentified chemicals."

In the British media, the chemicals were quickly "identified" as ricin. This turned into "unconfirmed reports of ricin" when, on closer inspection, it turned out that the three-page interior ministry press release referred to "resina", Spanish for resin.

Aznar claimed unequivocally that those arrested "were preparing attacks with explosives and chemical material". At the time, the diplomatic tension at the UN was reaching its climax, with Colin Powell preparing diagrammatic evidence of links between al-Qaeda and Iraq, including a square for the "Spanish cell". Tony Blair would fly to Madrid for consultations within the week. Aznar was under pressure to justify his support for George W Bush in the Cortes (the Spanish parliament) - so he was understandably eager to hype up the arrests.

But last month, Guillermo Ruiz Polanco, the examining magistrate in charge of the case, released 14 of the 16 suspects arrested, citing lack of evidence. Judicial sources say he will release the last two suspects within the next few days. "Very weak", is his view of the evidence the police have presented so far against the Algerians and Moroccans accused of plotting mass murder.

First, there was the small matter of the chemicals. Those specified in the press release were "two drums with liquids which in the first analysis contain aliphatic hydrocarbons, and a bottle, also with liquid, in which appear substances present in resins and synthetic rubber". That was it. Analysed in military laboratories, the chemicals were soon pronounced harmless. The Spanish police requested and were granted a week's grace to call in US experts for a ricin test on powder they had found in one of the flats; the suspect substance turned out to be detergent.

The second pillar of the prosecution proved equally dubious. The swoop had been set in motion because a French examining magistrate, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, now dubbed Europe's leading al-Qaeda investigator, had requested it. Bruguiere had claimed that four of the Algerians arrested by French police in December in connection with the planned bombing of Strasburg cathedral had been in contact with the suspects. The arrests in Spain were proof of European judicial co-operation.

But when Polanco - with the 16 North Africans safely locked up - asked to see the French court's evidence, he was met with bureaucratic delay. Then, a month after the arrests, Bruguiere communicated he would not be asking for the extradition of any of the 16. Even Mohamed Amine Benaboura, who allegedly lived with one of the French al-Qaeda suspects, or Mohamed Tahraoui, who was found with a false French passport, aroused no interest from Paris.

An even more obvious display of French disdain for the alleged Spanish triumph over al-Qaeda came earlier this month, when Polanco decided to go to Paris: Bruguiere said he was too busy to see him, and would remain too busy for months.

Another puzzling detail of the case emerged in the Catalan daily La Vanguardia. In police photographs of the rather harmless-looking collection of electronic equipment seized (mobile phones, timing devices, wires), there was also - clearly visible - a pistol. Yet no reference was made to any arms in the court documents. When challenged, the police said the mysterious pistol was in fact for firing blanks, like a starting gun, which was why it had not been listed as a firearm.

Most of the 14 North Africans released have gone back to their families. One arrived to see his daughter for the first time - she'd been born during his 56-day detention. Another, Sohuil Kouka, told the press that the whole experience had taught him to be careful with chemicals: "I will not be buying any more bleach," he said.

Rather than the smoking gun Powell needed, the Spanish case has revealed only a smoking starting pistol. Powerful evidence - in the first analysis, as the ministry of interior might put it - that it's open season for playing on our fears of al-Qaeda attacks.