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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)

A son, Omar, fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan in late 2001 and was captured by Afghan allies of the Americans. When he was released in a prisoner swap, bin Laden threw a feast to celebrate, according to Tabarak's statements to interrogators.

Defense Department officials declined to say why Tabarak was released from Guantanamo, in August 2004, when he and four other Moroccan detainees were handed over to authorities in Rabat. "The decision to transfer or release a detainee is based on many factors, including whether the detainee is of further intelligence value to the United States and whether the detainee is believed to pose a continuing threat to the United States if released," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman.

According to interviews in Rabat with people who are familiar with Tabarak's case, however, Moroccan officials had pressed the U.S. military for many months to hand over Tabarak, arguing that they would have a better chance of persuading him to reveal secrets about al Qaeda.

Moroccan interrogators visited Tabarak and other Moroccan detainees at Guantanamo on two occasions and urged them to cooperate, according to his attorney and two fellow prisoners. "They came to see us and brought us coffee and sandwiches," said Mohammed Mazouz, one of the Moroccans who was later released with Tabarak. "But the Americans, they would just abuse us."

During a courtroom appearance in Rabat last year, Tabarak looked gaunt and wore a black baseball cap low on his forehead. After consenting to an interview through his attorney, he changed his mind at the last minute; guards in the courthouse audibly warned him not to speak with an American reporter.

In interviews with Arab journalists, Tabarak has given conflicting accounts, sometimes denying membership in al Qaeda or ties to bin Laden. But interrogation records show that he has described in detail to authorities a long and intimate connection with the network.

He left Morocco in 1989, he has said, on the advice of a mentor from a Casablanca mosque who urged him to become involved with Islamic fighters who were battling the communist-backed Afghan government.

After first making a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, Tabarak recounted, he traveled to Pakistan, a staging area for guerrillas fighting in Afghanistan, and joined bin Laden's network. He received military training at two camps near Khost, Afghanistan, and met with bin Laden at a guest house in the Pakistani city of Peshawar.

Tabarak told his interrogators that he received the equivalent of $250 a month to help funnel foreign fighters into Afghanistan. When Pakistani authorities decided to crack down on outsiders in their country, he followed bin Laden to Sudan. There he worked on a farm raising cattle, served as a bodyguard and performed other tasks.

By the time bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996, Tabarak was taking on more important roles. He said he worked for a while in a "precious stones" smuggling operation that raised money for al Qaeda. Eventually, he joined bin Laden's personal security detail, accompanying the Saudi on trips across the country to meet with other figures from al Qaeda and the Taliban movement.

Escape From Tora Bora

Tabarak said he had no warning of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but helped protect bin Laden after U.S. forces went to war in Afghanistan the following month. He said he spent 20 days hiding with bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders in Tora Bora, in rugged mountainous terrain near the Pakistani border, as U.S. forces and their Afghan militia proxies closed in.

According to Moroccan and other foreign intelligence officials, Tabarak sacrificed himself so the others could escape. He took bin Laden's satellite phone, which the al Qaeda leader apparently assumed was being tracked by U.S. spy technology, and walked toward the Pakistani border as the al Qaeda leadership fled in the opposite direction. The ruse worked, although Tabarak and others were captured.

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