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For two detainees who told what they knew, Guantanamo becomes a gilded cage

Together -- and they are reported to have become close -- they are known by some in the military as Guantanamo's "Odd Couple": The taciturn Sawah is 5-foot-10 and has, on occasion, ballooned to more than 400 pounds; the gregarious Slahi is short and slight.

Sawah, an enthusiastic painter, has decorated his place with his own watercolor scenes of the ocean and has been allowed chaperoned walks by the sea. Slahi has used his time at Guantanamo to write his memoirs.

"A little advertisement," he told a military panel in describing the project, while expressing the hope that it would one day be declassified and published. "It is a very interesting book."

A subject of interest

In the decade before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Slahi had periodically flickered on the radar of Western intelligence -- a player, perhaps, but one of uncertain caliber.

The son of a camel dealer in Mauritania, he traveled to Afghanistan for the first time in 1990 to fight the communist government in Kabul. He returned twice over the next couple of years and swore bayat, a loyalty oath, to Osama bin Laden, whose religious committee at the time was headed by Slahi's brother-in-law, Mahfouz Ould al-Walid.

Slahi later told the U.S. military that he believed Walid had used one of bin Laden's satellite phones to contact him about transferring money to family in Mauritania.

After he left Afghanistan, Slahi repeatedly found himself in the proximity of extremists.

In Germany, where he received an academic scholarship in 1998 and studied electrical engineering, his acquaintances included men who would later be tied to the bombing of a synagogue in Tunisia and a foiled plot to attack a resort on the French island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean. He also met two of the Sept. 11 pilots, as well as Ramzi Binalshibh, alleged to be a key organizer of the plot.

In Canada, where he arrived in November 1999, Slahi led prayers at a mosque attended by Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian who would later be convicted as part of the "millennium plot" to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve of that year.

Slahi's apparent links to extremists made him a subject of interest in 2001. A few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, when he was back home in Africa, Mauritanian security officials came calling. The Americans, they said, wanted to talk. Before long, Slahi was en route to Jordan, where he was held for eight months, and then to Guantanamo -- turned over, he said, "like a candy bar to the United States."

At one hearing at Guantanamo, he laid out what he presumed to be the military's case against him. He seemed to know that he was not leaving anytime soon.

"Look at me," he said. "I have contact with Osama bin Laden's operative, who was helping launder money, [am] in Canada attending a mosque where we believe a very dangerous group is attending, and [am] even the imam of the mosque. Something is going on."


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