AFTER GUANTANAMO A Detainee's Growing Rage

From Captive To Suicide Bomber

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2009

A little more than two years after his release from the Guantanamo Bay military prison, Abdallah Saleh al-Ajmi knelt in front of a white wall, clutched the upturned barrel of an AK-47 rifle and delivered a message before a video camera.

The scraggly beard that his young son once loved to play with had been shaved off, leaving only an exiguous moustache. His curly, shoulder-length locks had been clipped down to a crew cut. Gone, too, were the crisp, white headdress he often wore and any semblance of the good humor once familiar to his family. He was sullen and angry -- still bitter about being locked up for almost four years at the high-security U.S. detention center on the southeastern coast of Cuba.

"Praise be unto God, who evacuated me from Guantanamo prison and joined me with the Islamic State of Iraq," he intoned. As the camera's light cast an outsize shadow behind his head, he wagged his finger and issued a vow: "We are going, with permission from God, to God -- glory be unto him. We will enter the nests of apostasy."

At 6:15 a.m. on March 23, 2008, not long after making the video, Ajmi drove a pickup truck filled with 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of explosives, hidden in what appeared to be white flour sacks, onto an Iraqi army base outside Mosul. He barreled though the entrance checkpoint and past a fusillade of gunfire from the sentries, shielded by bulletproof glass and makeshift armor welded to the cab.

The Easter Sunday blast killed 13 Iraqi soldiers, wounded 42 others and left a 30-foot-wide crater in the ground. It remains the single most heinous act of violence committed by a former Guantanamo detainee.

As President Obama takes the first tentative steps toward fulfilling his campaign promise to close Guantanamo, the case of Abdallah Ajmi has become a symbol of the vexing challenge his administration faces in adjudicating the fates of terrorism suspects held by the United States, a process that almost certainly will result in the release of additional detainees among the approximately 245 now in custody there.

What makes Ajmi's journey from inmate to bomber so disturbing to top government officials is the fact that he never was deemed to be among the worst of the worst. He was not one of the former top al-Qaeda operatives considered "high value" detainees; nor was he regarded as someone who posed a significant, long-term threat to the United States.

Compared with what other Guantanamo detainees were believed to have done, the principal accusation leveled against him -- that he fought for the Taliban -- was unremarkable. At his Combatant Status Review Tribunal, he was not accused of perpetrating any specific violent acts other than "engaging in two or three fire fights with the Northern Alliance," according to a summary of evidence presented by the military.

As one former U.S. government official involved in detainee issues put it, Ajmi was "never on anyone's top 10 list of people we expected to return to the fight."

Since his death, U.S. intelligence agencies have sought to determine when Ajmi became a hard-core jihadist. Was it in the late 1990s, when he came under the sway of a radical preacher while serving in the Kuwaiti army? Was it in 2001, when he allegedly joined the Taliban? Was it upon his release in 2005, when extremists back home celebrated him as the "Lion of Guantanamo"?

Or is the answer potentially more alarming: Was his descent into unrepentant radicalism an unintended consequence of his incarceration?

This account of Ajmi's religious and political journey is based on interviews with his attorneys in Washington and Kuwait, his family, and U.S. government officials familiar with his case, as well as U.S. military documents, court filings in the United States and Kuwait, and other records provided by sources close to the case.

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