BEIRUT: 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 that President Barack Obama signed that the detention center be 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. counterterrorism official. “They’re one and the same guy,” said the official, who insisted on anonymity because he was discussing an intelligence analysis. “He returned to Saudi Arabia in 2007, but his movements to Yemen remain unclear.”
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 – financed in part by the United States – 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.
Although the Pentagon has said that dozens of released Guantánamo detainees have “returned to the fight,” its claim is difficult to document and has been met with skepticism. In any case, few of the former detainees, if any, are thought to have joined the leadership of a major terrorist organization like Al Qaeda in Yemen, a mostly homegrown group that experts say has been reinforced lately by an infusion of foreign fighters.
Long considered a haven for jihadists, Yemen, a desperately poor country in the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, has witnessed a rising number of deadly attacks over the past year. U.S. officials say they suspect that Shihri may have been involved in the double car bombings outside the U.S. Embassy in Sana on Sept. 16 that killed 16 people, including six of the attackers.
In the Internet statement, Al Qaeda in Yemen identified its new deputy leader as Abu Sayyaf al-Shihri, saying he returned from Guantánamo to his native Saudi Arabia and then traveled to neighboring Yemen “more than 10 months ago.” That corresponds roughly to the return of Shihri, a Saudi who was released from Guantánamo in November 2007.
“Abu Sayyaf” is a nom de guerre, commonly used among jihadists in place of their real name or first name.
A Saudi security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Shihri had disappeared from his home in Saudi Arabia last year after finishing the rehabilitation program.
A Yemeni journalist who interviewed Al Qaeda’s leaders in Yemen last year, Abdulela Shaya, confirmed Thursday that the deputy leader was indeed Shihri, the former Guantánamo detainee. Shaya, in a telephone interview, said Shihri had described to him his journey from Cuba to Yemen and supplied his Guantánamo detention number, 372. That is the correct number, Pentagon documents show.
“It seems certain from all the sources we have that this is the same individual who was released from Guantánamo in 2007,” said Gregory Johnsen, a terrorism analyst and the editor of a forthcoming book, “Islam and Insurgency in Yemen.”
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 later he told American 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, issued by an extremist cleric.
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 Riyadh.” They also say that he denied any knowledge of terrorists or association with any, and that he “related that if released, he would like to return to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, wherein he would reunite with his family.”