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US pressures Madrid to keep tabs "for life" on Al Qaeda's Spanish chief

Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, one of the founders of Al Qaeda in Spain, was arrested in Madrid weeks after the September 11, 2001 attacks

The US government has for years been pressuring the Spanish government to put an international terrorist designation on a Syrian national linked to the World Trade Center attacks, who could be released from jail in 2013.

Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, one of the founders of Al Qaeda in Spain, was arrested in Madrid weeks after the September 11, 2001 attacks. He was sentenced to 12 years following his conviction on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization and for conspiring to commit terrorist acts. The 44-year-old Syrian national is married to a Spaniard and has dual nationality. The father of five children, Yarkas may be offered parole in less than two years.

A series of US Embassy cables between diplomats and Spanish officials shows how Washington has been upping the pressure on Madrid to ensure that Spain include him on a United Nations-sponsored blacklist of those figures and organizations that finance terrorism. The negotiations have been tense and difficult, but US officials have not backed off.

The UN list of designated terrorists associated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban was created in 1999 and has come under attack by lawyers and human rights groups, who claim that all it serves to do is stigmatize people for the rest of their lives. UN member states are responsible for including their nationals in the so-called UN Security Council Designation and agreeing to embargo their assets and prohibit them from traveling abroad.

The list is circulated among financial institutions around the globe as well as among sea ports and airports in an effort to limit the actions and movements of those who appear on the registry. While UN members designate their nationals, the decision can be appealed through the courts. The United States has designated the most number of people on the UN watchlist.

In the 1980s, Yarkas was the founder of one of the first Islamist extremist cells in Spain, replacing Mustafa Setmarian, another Syrian-Spaniard, who became an important figure in Al Qaeda and fled with Osama Bin Laden during the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Setmarian was captured in Pakistan in 2005 and turned over to the United States. His whereabouts are unknown.

A number for Yarkas, who also goes by Abu Dahdah, was found in the telephone book of Said Bahaji, a close associate of Mohamed Atta, the mastermind behind the World Trade Center attacks. Abu Dahdah was arrested some weeks after the September 11 attacks and convicted of collaborating with the terrorists, but he was never linked to the suicide bombing mission as the police and prosecutors originally believed.

In a September 22, 2006 secret cable, US diplomats insisted that the Spanish government put Yarkas on the special designation list. "We should continue to expend energy on getting al-Qa'ida financier Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas designated," wrote Hugo Llorens, the US Embassy's then-Deputy Chief of Mission. "This should be relatively easy as he has already been convicted of membership in a terrorist organization. The practical effect of designating him may be limited as he is in jail, but it would certainly have some symbolic value."

On March 11, 2008, Robert Kimmitt, deputy US Treasury secretary, and Antonio Camacho, the Interior Ministry's under secretary of state, met to discuss Yarkas as well as other issues. The Interior Ministry had passed information to the Foreign Ministry to be used in UN Security Council designation, Camacho told Kimmitt, according to another cable.

Two months later, Gregorio Martínez, the chief of staff to Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, assured Llorens that it was up to the Foreign Ministry to decide whether to include Yarkas on the black list. They discussed an April 28 EL PAÍS article that alleged Yarkas was continuing to finance terrorism from his jail cell. Martínez said that he would get back to Llorens with "the facts" behind the story.

Llorens, the chargé d'affaires, said Yarkas was "a special American concern" because he had been connected to the September 11 plot and the United States had been "pressing Spain" to designate him for "several years."

"Martinez responded by saying that a designation would not have made a practical difference," Llorens wrote. US diplomats, however, countered if the Spanish government had designated Yarkas his assets would have been frozen and he would not have been able to move cash from his jail cell as the EL PAÍS article had pointed out.

"Martinez did not respond directly but said that the Interior Ministry did not oppose specific and ad hoc designations. In fact, Martinez said that the Ministry of Interior had recommended that the Spanish government designate Yarkas and others by getting the [Cabinet] to issue an executive order. However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was opposed to this proposal and preferred a more garantista (legally watertight) approach that would create a new 'mechanism' for designations," Llorens wrote.

The chargé later complained on July 10, 2008 to Washington about what he perceived was the lack of cooperation he was getting from Madrid. "The National Security Council has been interested in designating Barakat Yarkas for several years, and we have urged the Spanish government to do so. For reasons still not entirely clear to us, the Spanish government has desisted from designating Yarkas."

When asked by EL PAÍS about Yarkas, a Foreign Ministry source declined to give any information about why he had not been designated.