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Released Detainees Rejoining The Fight

By John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 22, 2004; Page A01

At least 10 detainees released from the Guantanamo Bay prison after U.S. officials concluded they posed little threat have been recaptured or killed fighting U.S. or coalition forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to Pentagon officials.

One of the repatriated prisoners is still at large after taking leadership of a militant faction in Pakistan and aligning himself with al Qaeda, Pakistani officials said. In telephone calls to Pakistani reporters, he has bragged that he tricked his U.S. interrogators into believing he was someone else.


Abdullah Mehsud told reporters he fooled authorities at Guantanamo Bay for two years before his release. (AP File Photo)

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Another returned captive is an Afghan teenager who had spent two years at a special compound for young detainees at the military prison in Cuba, where he learned English, played sports and watched videos, informed sources said. U.S. officials believed they had persuaded him to abandon his life with the Taliban, but recently the young man, now 18, was recaptured with other Taliban fighters near Kandahar, Afghanistan, according to the sources, who asked for anonymity because they were discussing sensitive military information.

The cases demonstrate the difficulty Washington faces in deciding when alleged al Qaeda and Taliban detainees should be freed, amid pressure from foreign governments and human rights groups that have denounced U.S. officials for detaining the Guantanamo Bay captives for years without due-process rights, military officials said.

"Reports that former detainees have rejoined al Qaeda and the Taliban are evidence that these individuals are fanatical and particularly deceptive," said a Pentagon spokesman, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Flex Plexico. "From the beginning, we have recognized that there are inherent risks in determining when an individual detainee no longer had to be held at Guantanamo Bay."

The latest case emerged two weeks ago when two Chinese engineers working on a dam project in Pakistan's lawless Waziristan region were kidnapped. The commander of a tribal militant group, Abdullah Mehsud, 29, told reporters by satellite phone that his followers were responsible for the abductions.

Mehsud said he spent two years at Guantanamo Bay after being captured in 2002 in Afghanistan fighting alongside the Taliban. At the time he was carrying a false Afghan identity card, and while in custody he maintained the fiction that he was an innocent Afghan tribesman, he said. U.S. officials never realized he was a Pakistani with deep ties to militants in both countries, he added.

"I managed to keep my Pakistani identity hidden all these years," he told Gulf News in a recent interview. Since his return to Pakistan in March, Pakistani newspapers have written lengthy accounts of Mehsud's hair and looks, and the powerful appeal to militants of his fiery denunciations of the United States. "We would fight America and its allies," he said in one interview, "until the very end."

Last week Pakistani commandos freed one of the abducted Chinese engineers in a raid on a mud-walled compound in which five militants and the other hostage were killed.

The 10 or more returning militants are but a fraction of the 202 Guantanamo Bay detainees who have been returned to their homelands. Of that group, 146 were freed outright, and 56 were transferred to the custody of their home governments. Many of those men have since been freed.

Mark Jacobson, a former special assistant for detainee policy in the Defense Department who now teaches at Ohio State University, estimated that as many as 25 former detainees have taken up arms again. "You can't trust them when they say they're not terrorists," he said.

A U.S. defense official who helps oversee the prisoners added: "We could have said we'll accept no risks and refused to release anyone. But we've regarded that option as not humane, and not practical, and one that makes the U.S. government appear unreasonable."

Another former Guantanamo Bay prisoner was killed in southern Afghanistan last month after a shootout with Afghan forces. Maulvi Ghafar was a senior Taliban commander when he was captured in late 2001. No information has emerged about what he told interrogators in Guantanamo Bay, but in several cases U.S. officials have released detainees they knew to have served with the Taliban if they swore off violence in written agreements.

Returned to Afghanistan in February, Ghafar resumed his post as a top Taliban commander, and his forces ambushed and killed a U.N. engineer and three Afghan soldiers, Afghan officials said, according to news accounts.

A third released Taliban commander died in an ambush this summer. Mullah Shahzada, who apparently convinced U.S. officials that he had sworn off violence, rejoined the Taliban as soon as he was freed in mid-2003, sources with knowledge of his situation said.

The Afghan teenager who was recaptured recently had been kidnapped and possibly abused by the Taliban before he was apprehended the first time in 2001. After almost three years living with other young detainees in a seaside house at Guantanamo Bay, he was returned in January of this year to his country, where he was to be monitored by Afghan officials and private contractors. But the program failed and he fell back in with the Taliban, one source said.

"Someone dropped the ball in Afghanistan," the source said.

One former detainee who has not yet been able to take up arms is Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane, a Dane who also signed a promise to renounce violence. But in recent months he has told Danish media that he considers the written oath "toilet paper," stated his plans to join the war in Chechnya and said Denmark's prime minister is a valid target for terrorists.

Human rights activists said the cases of unrepentant militants do not undercut their assertions that the United States is violating the rights of Guantanamo Bay inmates.

"This doesn't alter the injustice, or support the administration's argument that setting aside their rights is justified," said Alistair Hodgett, a spokesman for Amnesty International.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company