Al Qaeda Detainee's Mysterious Release

Abdallah Tabarak, an al Qaeda member captured as he fled Afghanistan, was freed from U.S. detention at Guantanamo in August 2004. He still faces minor charges in Morocco.
Abdallah Tabarak, an al Qaeda member captured as he fled Afghanistan, was freed from U.S. detention at Guantanamo in August 2004. He still faces minor charges in Morocco. (By Karim Selmaoui -- Le Journal Hebdomadaire)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 30, 2006

RABAT, Morocco -- For more than a decade, Osama bin Laden had few soldiers more devoted than Abdallah Tabarak. A former Moroccan transit worker, Tabarak served as a bodyguard for the al Qaeda leader, worked on his farm in Sudan and helped run a gemstone smuggling racket in Afghanistan, court records here show.

During the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, when al Qaeda leaders were pinned down by U.S. forces, Tabarak sacrificed himself to engineer their escape. He headed toward the Pakistani border while making calls on Osama bin Laden's satellite phone as bin Laden and the others fled in the other direction.

Tabarak was captured and taken to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he was classified as such a high-value prisoner that the Pentagon repeatedly denied requests by the International Committee of the Red Cross to see him. Then, after spending almost three years at the base, he was suddenly released.

Today, the al Qaeda loyalist known locally as the "emir" of Guantanamo walks the streets of his old neighborhood near Casablanca, more or less a free man. In a decision that neither the Pentagon nor Moroccan officials will explain publicly, Tabarak was transferred to Morocco in August 2004 and released from police custody four months later.

Tabarak's odyssey from Afghanistan to Guantanamo and back to his native land illustrates the grit and at times fanatical determination of one bin Laden recruit. Yet his story also shows how little is known publicly about al Qaeda figures who were captured after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Major gaps remain in his account, and terrorism experts and intelligence officials continue to debate whether he was a member of al Qaeda's inner circle or its rank and file.

His case also highlights mysteries of U.S. priorities in deciding who to keep and who to let go. As the Pentagon gears up to hold its first military tribunals at Guantanamo after four years of preparations, it has released a prisoner it called a key operative. At the same time, it retains under heavy guard men whose background and significance are never discussed.

Eighteen months after he left Guantanamo, Tabarak, 50, still faces minor criminal offenses in Rabat, the capital, such as passport forgery and conspiracy. But his attorney predicts that it's only a matter of time before the case is dropped and all allegations of terrorist activities are dismissed.

The attorney, Abdelfattah Zahrach, said his client's importance as an al Qaeda figure has been exaggerated, although he acknowledged that Tabarak knew bin Laden and worked for one of his companies.

"He was in bin Laden's environment, but he didn't play an operational role," Zahrach said. "Do you think that if he was really the bodyguard of bin Laden that the Americans would have let him come back to Morocco?"

A Family Affair

A review of Moroccan court documents, including records of his interrogations by Moroccan investigators, shows the U.S. military had good reason to consider Tabarak a valuable catch. In addition to his firsthand knowledge of how bin Laden survived Tora Bora, he had worked for the al Qaeda leader since 1989 and was often at his side as he built the terrorist network from bases in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan.

According to the documents, details of which other foreign intelligence officials confirmed, Tabarak served as a jack-of-all-trades for members of the inner circle. For several years, he received his orders and a regular salary from Saeed Masri, an al Qaeda financier, military training camp leader and relative of bin Laden.

Tabarak also dedicated his family to the cause. One daughter, Asia, married a top al Qaeda operations commander, Abu Feraj Libi, who was captured in Pakistan in May 2005 and is blamed for assassination plots against Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company