1/23/2009 NY Times
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The emergence of a former Guantánamo Bay detainee as the deputy
leader of Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch has underscored the potential complications in carrying out the executive order President Obama signed Thursday ordering the detention center shut down within a year.
The militant, Said Ali al-Shihri, is suspected of involvement in a deadly bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sana, in September. He was released to Saudi Arabia in 2007 and passed through a Saudi rehabilitation program for former jihadists before resurfacing with Al Qaeda in Yemen.
His status was announced in an Internet statement by the militant
group and was confirmed by a U.S. counter terrorism official.
The development came as Republican legislators criticized the plan to close the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in the absence of any measures for dealing
with current detainees. But it also helps explain why the new administration wants to move cautiously, taking time to work out a plan to cope with the complications.
Almost half the camp’s remaining detainees are Yemenis, and efforts to repatriate them depend in part on the creation of a Yemeni rehabilitation program similar to the Saudi one. The Saudi government has claimed that no graduate of its program has returned to terrorism.
“The lesson here is, whoever receives former Guantánamo detainees
needs to keep a close eye on them,” the U.S. official said.
Long considered a haven for jihadists, Yemen has witnessed a rising number of attacks over the past year. U.S. officials say they suspect that Shihri may have been involved in the car bombings outside the U.S. Embassy in Sana last September that killed 16 people, including six attackers.
Abdulela Shaya, a Yemeni journalist who interviewed Al Qaeda’s leaders in Yemen last year, confirmed Thursday that the deputy leader was indeed Shihri. Shaya said Shihri had supplied his Guantánamo detention number, 372. That is the correct number, Pentagon documents show.
Shihri, 35, trained in urban warfare tactics at a camp north of Kabul, Afghanistan, according to documents released by the Pentagon as part of his Guantánamo dossier. Two weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he traveled to Afghanistan via Bahrain and Pakistan, and he later told U.S. investigators that his intention
was to do relief work, the documents say. He was wounded in an airstrike and spent a month and a half recovering in a hospital in Pakistan.
The documents state that Shihri met with a group of “extremists” in Iran and helped them get into Afghanistan. They also say he was accused of trying to arrange the assassination of a writer, in accordance with a fatwa, or religious order.
However, under a heading describing reasons for Shihri’s possible
release from Guantánamo, the documents say he claimed that he traveled to Iran “to purchase carpets for his store” in Saudi Arabia.
ROBERT F. WORTH