Former Guantanamo detainees fuel growing al-Qaeda cell

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

SANAA, YEMEN -- Former detainees of the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have led and fueled the growing assertiveness of the al-Qaeda branch that claimed responsibility for the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. airliner, potentially complicating the Obama administration's efforts to shut down the facility.

They include two Saudi nationals: the deputy leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Said Ali al-Shihri, and the group's chief theological adviser, Ibrahim Suleiman al Rubaish. Months after their release to Saudi Arabia, both crossed the kingdom's porous border into Yemen and rejoined the terrorist network.

Shihri and Rubaish were released under the Bush administration, as was a Yemeni man killed in a government raid this month while allegedly plotting an attack on the British Embassy. A Yemeni official said Tuesday that the government thinks he is the first Yemeni to have joined al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula after being released from Guantanamo.

That a group partially led by former Guantanamo detainees may have equipped and trained Nigerian bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is likely to raise more questions about plans to repatriate those prisoners to Yemen. Six were released last week; 80 Yemenis are now left at Guantanamo, nearly half the remaining detainee population. Many are heavily radicalized, with strong ties to extremist individuals or groups in Yemen, said U.S. officials and terrorism analysts.

Republicans have in recent months urged the Obama administration to rethink sending detainees to Yemen. They have cited al-Qaeda's growing footprint in the country, its instability and the case of Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, who is charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., after exchanging e-mails with a radical Yemeni American cleric.

"This is a very dangerous policy that threatens the safety and security of the U.S. people," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.).

A senior Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said al-Qaeda has used the prison "as a rallying cry and recruiting tool." Closing the facility, the official said, "is a national security imperative."

A second administration official said the government had little choice with the six detainees released last week. A federal judge had already ordered one to be released. The officials said the government concluded it did not have enough evidence to win against the remaining five in hearings in which the detainees had challenged their imprisonment under the doctrine of habeas corpus. The prospect of losing in federal court is likely to trigger other releases, the official said.

"We do not want a situation where the executive is defying the courts," the official said. "That's a recipe for a constitutional crisis."

Wolf, who did not object when the Bush administration repatriated 14 Yemeni detainees to their homeland, said that "conditions in Yemen have dramatically changed" with the emergence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Wolf added that he had access to classified biographies of the six Yemenis sent back last week.

"Did they read the bios? They are dangerous people," Wolf said.

A third administration official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Yemenis sent back had been carefully screened to assess their potential for being recruited by al-Qaeda upon their return. He also expressed confidence in the Yemeni government's ability to handle their reintegration: "We have been exceptionally pleased with the dialogue and cooperation with Yemen over the last 11 months."

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