A near real-time system for assimilation and forecasts of aerosols, greenhouse and trace gases, extending the ECMWF Integrated Forecasting System (IFS), has been developed in the framework of the Global and regional Earth-system Monitoring using Satellite and in-situ data (GEMS) project. The GEMS aerosol modeling system is novel as it is the first aerosol model fully coupled to a numerical weather prediction model with data assimilation. A reanalysis of the period 2003-2009 has been carried out with the same system. During its development phase, the aerosol system was first run for the time period January 2003 to December 2004 and included sea salt, desert dust, organic matter, black carbon, and sulfate aerosols. In the analysis, Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) total aerosol optical depth (AOD) at 550 nm over ocean and land (except over bright surfaces) was assimilated. This work evaluates the performance of the aerosol system by means of case studies. The case studies include (1) the summer heat wave in Europe in August 2003, characterized by forest fire aerosol and conditions of high temperatures and stagnation, favoring photochemistry and secondary aerosol formation, (2) a large Saharan dust event in March 2004, and (3) periods of high and low sea salt aerosol production. During the heat wave period in 2003, the linear correlation coefficients between modeled and observed AOD (550 nm) and between modeled and observed PM2.5 mass concentrations are 0.82 and 0.71, respectively, for all investigated sites together. The AOD is slightly and the PM2.5 mass concentration is clearly overestimated by the aerosol model during this period. The simulated sulfate mass concentration is significantly correlated with observations but is distinctly overestimated. The horizontal and vertical locations of the main features of the aerosol distribution during the Saharan dust outbreak are generally well captured, as well as the timing of the AOD peaks. The aerosol model simulates winter sea salt AOD reasonably well, however, showing a general overestimation. Summer sea salt events show a better agreement. Overall, the assimilation of MODIS AOD data improves the subsequent aerosol predictions when compared with observations, in particular concerning the correlation and AOD peak values. The assimilation is less effective in correcting a positive (PM2.5, sulfate mass concentration, Angstrom exponent) or negative (desert dust plume AOD) model bias.