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Former Guantanamo detainees fuel growing al-Qaeda cell
The Yemeni former Guantanamo detainee who joined al-Qaeda was among four suspects killed by Yemeni forces in a Dec. 17 raid north of the capital, according to a Yemeni official and a human rights activist. Hani Abdo Shaalan, who was released from the U.S. facility in June 2007, and three other suspected militants were planning to bomb the British Embassy and other Western sites, said a Yemeni official who was briefed on the operation.
Shaalan, 30, had traveled to Afghanistan by way of Pakistan in July 2001. He was searching for work, according to his Combatant Status Review Tribunal. He eventually found work as a chef's assistant in a Taliban camp and was at Tora Bora during the U.S. air campaign there. Pakistani forces captured him in their country, near the Afghan border.
Human rights lawyer Ahmed Amran, who assists the repatriated detainees, said Shaalan's family reported his disappearance last year.
After their release from Guantanamo, Shihri and Rubaish, both of whom trained and fought with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, were sent to a Saudi rehabilitation program that uses dialogue and art therapy to reform militants. In February, the Saudi government released a list of 85 most wanted Saudi terrorists. At least 11 were graduates of the program, including Shihri and Rubaish.
Shihri, now 36, became al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's deputy leader after the Yemeni and Saudi Arabian branches of al-Qaeda merged in January. Rubaish, now 30, is the branch's mufti, or Islamic scholar, responsible for religious guidance and theological justification for committing violence.
Another former Guantanamo detainee, Mohammed al-Awfi, was one of the merged group's key field commanders for months. He, too, had gone through the Saudi rehabilitation program, then fled to Yemen along with Shihri. In January, he appeared on a video by the group announcing that he had joined al-Qaeda. But a month later, his relatives in Saudi Arabia persuaded him to surrender to Saudi authorities.
Yemen has struggled with its handling of former militants.
A prison-based rehabilitation program was widely considered a failure. Graduates had no follow-up support, and many later traveled to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some were thought to have taken part in a September 2008 al-Qaeda attack on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen that killed 16, including six assailants.
Other suspects became radicalized inside Yemeni prisons and joined al-Qaeda, according to human rights activists. All the surviving suspected al-Qaeda militants involved in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the southern city of Aden, which killed 17 American sailors, have either been released by Yemen's government or escaped in a 2006 jailbreak from a maximum-security prison. Among those who escaped was Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the current leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Yemeni officials say they are capable of rehabilitating detainees but lack the resources.
Amran, the human rights lawyer, said that he does not know why Shaalan joined al-Qaeda but that the government needs to improve its reintegration programs. "The Yemen government doesn't assist detainees. No employer wants to hire them without a guarantee," said Amran, who works for the Yemeni group Hood. "If there's no help for the detainees, they will join al-Qaeda."
Staff writer Peter Finn and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.