SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — As a prisoner at Guantanamo, Said Ali al-Shihri said he wanted freedom so he could go home to Saudi Arabia and work at his family's furniture store.
Instead, al-Shihri, who was released in 2007 under the Bush administration, is now deputy leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a group that has claimed responsibility for the Christmas Day attempted bomb attack on a Detroit-bound airliner.
His potential involvement in the terrorist plot has raised new opposition to releasing Guantanamo Bay inmates, complicating President Barack Obama's pledge to close the military prison in Cuba. It also highlights the challenge of identifying the hard-core militants as the administration decides what to do with the remaining 198 prisoners.
Like other former Guantanamo detainees who have rejoined al-Qaida in Yemen, al-Shihri, 36, won his release despite jihadist credentials such as, in his case, urban warfare training in Afghanistan.
‘Increased our persistence’
He later goaded the United States, saying Guantanamo only strengthened his anti-American convictions.
"By God, our imprisonment has only increased our persistence and adherence to our principles," he said in a speech when al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula formed in Yemen in January 2009. It was included in a propaganda film for the group.
Al-Shihri and another Saudi released from Guantanamo in 2006, Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish, appear to have played significant roles in al-Qaida's expanding offshoot in Yemen. While the extent of any involvement in the airliner plot is unclear, al-Rubaish, 30, is a theological adviser to the group and his writings and sermons are prominent in the group's literature.
After the group's first attack outside Yemen, a failed attempt on the Saudi counterterrorism chief in August, al-Rubaish cited the experience in Guantanamo as a motive.
"They (Saudi officials) are the ones who came to Guantanamo, not to ask about us and reassure us, but to interrogate us and to provide the Americans with information — which was the reason for increased torture against some," he said in an audio recording posted on the Internet.
Pentagon figures indicate that al-Shihri and al-Rubaish are a small if dramatic minority among the released detainees: Overall, 14 percent of the more than 530 detainees transferred out of Guantanamo are confirmed or suspected to have been involved in terrorist activities since their release.
Still, three other Saudis released from Guantanamo under the Bush administration surfaced with al-Qaida in Yemen over the last year. They include field commander Abu al-Hareth Muhammad al-Oufi, who later surrendered and was handed over to Saudis, and two fighters who were killed by security forces: Youssef al-Shihri and Fahd Jutayli. All five men passed through a Saudi rehabilitation program praised by U.S. authorities before crossing the southern border into Yemen.
At least one Yemeni from Guantanamo apparently rejoined the fight.
A Yemen Defense Ministry newspaper said last week that Hani al-Shulan, who was released in 2007, was killed in a Dec. 17 air strike that targeted suspected militants.
Playing down terror links
At Guantanamo, some of the men had played down their links to terrorism.
Said al-Shihri, who is now formally known as the secretary general of the al-Qaida branch, told American investigators that he traveled to Afghanistan two weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to aid refugees, according to documents released by the Pentagon.
The file also says he received weapons training at a camp north of Kabul and was hospitalized in Pakistan for a month and a half after he was wounded by an airstrike.
Although he allegedly met with extremists in Iran and helped them get into Afghanistan, he claimed he went to Iran to buy carpets for his store. He said that if released, he wanted to see a daughter born while he was at Guantanamo and try to work at the family store in Riyadh, according to the documents.
In contrast, Youssef al-Shihri, who was killed in October near the Yemeni border with Saudi Arabia, openly declared rage against America to his captors at Guantanamo. He is not related to Said al-Shihri.
"The detainee stated he considers all Americans his enemy," according to documents from his Guantanamo review hearings. "Since Americans are the detainee's enemy, he will continue to fight them until he dies. The detainee pointed to the sky and told the interviewing agents that he will have a meeting with them in the next life."
120 Saudi detainees repatriated
The U.S. has repatriated 120 Saudi detainees from Guantanamo, including some still considered to pose a threat, in part because of confidence the Saudi government can minimize the risk. The Saudi rehabilitation program encourages returning detainees to abandon Islamic extremism and reintegrate into civilian life.
The deprogramming effort — built on reason, enticements and counseling — is part of a concerted Saudi government effort to counter extremist ideology. Returning detainees have lengthy talks with psychiatrists, Muslim clerics and sociologists at secure compounds with facilities such as gyms and swimming pools.
Bruce Hoffman, a security studies professor at Georgetown University, stressed that the large majority of those going through the program have not rejoined extremist groups.
"It's unrealistic to say none of them will return to terrorism," he said. "Is two too many? I don't know how to make that judgment. But you have to look at it in the broader perspective.... There's also a risk in imprisoning people for life and throwing away the key."
For the roughly 90 Yemeni detainees remaining at Guantanamo, the recent terror plot's Yemeni roots will add new layers of scrutiny to any transfers. Repatriation talks with the Yemeni government have stalled for years over security issues, with the U.S. sending back only about 20 Yemenis out of concern over the impoverished nation's ability to contain militants.
‘They are dangerous people’
U.S. Congress members have called on the Obama administration to stop releasing any detainees to Yemen or other unstable countries.
"I have read the classified biographies of the detainees to be released. They are dangerous people. I am troubled by every one of the detainees who is being sent back," said U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican.
Six Yemenis were sent home from Guantanamo in December, and detainees' attorneys say about 35 more have already been cleared for release by an administration task force. They are the largest group left at Guantanamo, so finding new homes for them is key to Obama's pledge to close the prison. Their attorneys are not optimistic about the transfers going through.
"I'm fearful that will grind to a halt after the events of Christmas Day," said Rick Murphy, a Washington attorney who represents five Yemenis at Guantanamo.
Obama has vowed not to release any detainee who would endanger the American people.
A senior administration official said the U.S. has worked with Yemen's government to ensure that "appropriate security measures" are taken when detainees are repatriated. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss bilateral talks.
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