Image: Obama, Biden and retired military officers
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
President Barack Obama is joined by Vice President Joe Biden and retired military officers in the Oval Office on Thursday after signing executive orders, including one to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
msnbc.com news services
updated 1/23/2009 4:24:30 PM ET 2009-01-23T21:24:30

A released Guantanamo Bay terror detainee has re-emerged as an al-Qaida commander in Yemen, highlighting the dilemma facing President Barack Obama in shaping plans to close the detention facility and decide the fates of U.S. captives.

A U.S. counterterror official confirmed Friday that Said Ali al-Shihri, who was jailed in Guantanamo for six years after his capture in Pakistan, has resurfaced as a leader of a Yemeni branch of al-Qaida.

"By Allah, imprisonment only increased our persistence in our principles for which we went out, did jihad for, and were imprisoned for," al-Shihri said in a video posted on a militant-leaning Web site Friday. It was the second time this week a reference to al-Shihri has shown up on the Web site. He was mentioned in an online magazine on Jan. 19 with a reference to his prisoner number at Guantanamo, 372.

Al-Shihri was released by the U.S. in 2007 to the Saudi government for rehabilitation. But this week a publication posted on a militant-leaning Web site said he is now the top deputy in "al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula," a Yemeni offshoot of the terror group headed by Osama bin Laden. The group has been implicated in several attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen's capital Sana.

The announcement from the militant site came the same day that Obama signed an executive order directing the closure of the jail at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year.

A key question facing Obama's new administration is what to do with the 245 prisoners still confined at Guantanamo. That means finding new detention facilities for hard-core prisoners while trying to determine which detainees are harmless enough to release.

'Returned to the fight'
According to the Pentagon at least 18 former Guantanamo detainees have "returned to the fight" and another 43 are suspected of resuming terrorist activities. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell declined to provide the identity of the former detainees or what their terrorist activities were.

It is unclear whether al-Shihri's name would be a new addition to that list of 61.

Al-Shihri is one of a small number of deputies in the Yemeni group, the U.S. counterterror official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive intelligence.

The militant Web site referred to al-Shihri under his terror nom de guerre, "Abu Sayyaf al-Shihri." The video refers to him as "Abu Sufyan al-Azdi al-Shahri."

An online magazine posted to the Internet site said al-Shihri is the group's second-in-command in Yemen. "He managed to leave the land of the two shrines (Saudi Arabia) and join his brothers in al-Qaida," the statement said.

Included in the site's material was a message to Yemen's populace from al-Qaida figure Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's top deputy. SITE Intel Group, which monitors extremist Web sites, provided a partial translation of the magazine article and the video.

According to Pentagon documents, al-Shihri was stopped at a Pakistani border crossing in December 2001 with injuries from an airstrike and recuperated at a hospital in Quetta for a month and a half. Within days of leaving the hospital, he became one of the first detainees sent to Guantanamo.

Al-Shihri allegedly traveled to Afghanistan two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, provided money to other fighters and trained in urban warfare at a camp north of Kabul, according to a summary of the evidence against him from U.S. military review panels at Guantanamo Bay.

An alleged travel coordinator for al-Qaida, he was also accused of meeting extremists in Mashad, Iran, and briefing them on how to enter Afghanistan, according to the Defense Department documents.

Terrorist battleground
Al-Shihri, however, said he traveled to Iran to buy carpets for his store in Riyadh. He said he felt bin Laden had no business representing Islam, denied any links to terrorism, and expressed interest in rejoining his family in Saudi Arabia.

Yemen is rapidly re-emerging as a terrorist battleground and potential base of operations for al-Qaida and is a main concern for U.S. counterterrorism officials. Al-Qaida in Yemen conducted an "unprecedented number of attacks" in 2008 and is likely to be a launching pad for attacks against Saudi Arabia, outgoing CIA Director Michael Hayden said in November.

The most recent attack, in September, killed 16 people. It followed a March mortar attack, and two attacks against Yemen's presidential compound in late April.

The impoverished country on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula has a weak central government and a powerful tribal system. That leaves large lawless areas open for terrorist training and operations.

Yemen was also the site of the 2000 USS Cole bombing that killed 17 American sailors. Seventeen suspects in the attack were arrested; ten of them escaped Yemen's jails in 2003. One of the primary suspects in the attack, Jamal al-Badawi, escaped jail in 2004. He was taken back into custody last fall under pressure from the U.S. government.

Key Dem urges caution
Rep. Jane Harman, D-California, who heads the House Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence, said the reports about al-Shihri should not slow the Obama administration's determination to quickly close the prison.

"What it tells me is that President Obama has to proceed extremely carefully. But there is really no justification and there was no justification for disappearing people in a place that was located offshore of America so it was outside the reach of U.S. law," she told CBS's "The Early Show."

But Rep. Pete Hoekstra, of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, criticized the executive order Obama signed Thursday to close the facility as "very short on specifics."

Interviewed on the same program, he said there are indications that as many as 10 percent of the men released from Guantanamo are "back on the battlefield. They are attacking American troops."

Terrorist in the neighborhood
Obama’s three executive orders, coming on Day Two of his presidency, sought to show that the United States does not torture and abides by domestic and international laws governing the treatment of detainees.

The Obama administration is looking at three military prisons — in Kansas, California and South Carolina — along with the civilian Supermax prison in Colorado as potential sites for the Guantanamo detainees.

Video: Questions “I don’t know of any city that would be thrilled to have Khalid Sheik Mohammed or Abu Zubaydah living down the street,” Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said of two high-level al-Qaida operatives who are being held at Guantanamo.

In a related development, a federal judge decided to give the Obama administration time to weigh in on some of the legal cases brought by U.S.-held terror detainees.

U.S. District Judge John Bates gave the new president and his Justice Department until February to tell him whether they want to change the government's position on the definition of "enemy combatant." Prisoners from U.S. detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan are challenging their detention as so-called enemy combatants in federal court.

"The new presidential administration may wish to review the government's current position regarding the appropriate definition of 'enemy combatant' to be used in these and other habeas cases," Bates said Thursday.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Where to go after Gitmo?

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