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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)

"I escaped as part of a group that included mostly Saudis and Yemenis towards Pakistan, until we were arrested by Pakistani authorities at a border crossing point and then afterwards handed over to American authorities," he told Moroccan interrogators in August 2004.

Zahrach, Tabarak's attorney, confirmed that his client was caught near the border and handed over to the U.S. military. But he denied Tabarak helped bin Laden escape from Tora Bora. He dismissed the interrogation reports as forgeries. He said Moroccan officials have no evidence for their allegations but are too embarrassed to admit it.

"They have to charge him with something in Morocco to prevent him from talking," Zahrach said. "They have to keep him tied up in court and keep him under pressure." Tabarak's next scheduled court appearance is Friday in Rabat. Officials with the Moroccan Communications Ministry declined to comment on the case.

Mohammed Darif, a Moroccan terrorism analyst and political science professor, said Moroccan intelligence officials have overstated Tabarak's role in al Qaeda. He said bin Laden relied almost exclusively on fellow Saudis and tribal relatives from Yemen to provide for his personal safety and was unlikely to accept an uneducated, poor Moroccan into his inner circle.

"People who have known him all along say that Tabarak was a serious player but that perhaps his reputation is a little overblown," said Darif, who interviewed Tabarak after his release from Guantanamo. "He may have been a loyal worker, but he's not sophisticated. When you talk to him, you see pretty clearly that the guy does not have a strong personality."

But other intelligence sources in Europe and the Middle East suggest that his behavior at Guantanamo is further confirmation of his importance. There, they say, he developed a reputation as a tough-minded leader among the detainees. Moroccan officials have described him as an "emir" of the camp who resisted his American interrogators and catalyzed hunger strikes among prisoners.

Defense Department memos obtained by The Washington Post in 2004 show that Guantanamo officials repeatedly prevented inspectors from the International Committee of the Red Cross from seeing Tabarak.

Although the Red Cross was supposed to have access to all persons in military custody, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller told Red Cross inspectors on Oct. 9, 2003, that they could not visit Tabarak or three other detainees "because of military necessity," according to the memos. On a follow-up visit Feb. 2, 2004, Miller informed Red Cross officials that they could see anyone at the base, except Tabarak. Miller once again cited "military necessity." A Defense Department spokesman declined to comment on the memos.

Tabarak has told his attorney and other detainees that he was kept in an isolation cell during most of his stay at Guantanamo. For about one year, he said, he was interrogated only while blindfolded, so he could not see his captors or even know for certain if he was in Cuba or another country.

Staff writer Scott Higham and researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.


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