SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Before he was released from Guantanamo, a Saudi detainee insisted he had only wanted to help refugees and was not a fighter. Now, as an al-Qaeda field commander sporting a bandolier of bullets, he is threatening the United States and has been hailed by a militant Web site as a veteran guerrilla and “a fomenter of war.”
The story of Abu al-Hareth Muhammad al-Oufi underscores the dilemma Barack Obama’s administration finds itself in: Keeping men locked up without trials invites global criticism but releasing them without a fair and diligent process to distinguish enemies from noncombatants exposes the U.S. and its allies to danger. It also shows how hard it is to separate truth from lies.
Al-Oufi was one of two former Saudi detainees at Guantanamo, the U.S. military prison in Cuba, who resurfaced last week in video clips as al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen. Their identities were confirmed in recent days by a U.S. counterterror official. Al-Oufi was detainee number 333 at Guantanamo.
On Wednesday, the SITE Intelligence Group, an organization that monitors extremist Web sites, provided a translation of al-Oufi’s biography contained in an online militant forum. The personal history was completely at odds with how al-Oufi had characterized himself as he tried to convince a panel of U.S. military officers at Guantanamo that he was an innocent man who had been swept up in Pakistan after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I was on my way to Quetta, Pakistan, to help people, the refugees,” al-Oufi told a military panel at Guantanamo, according to a transcripts reviewed by The Associated Press. He explained that he was arrested along with many other Arabs and sold to U.S. forces for bounties. Al-Oufi insisted he had never set foot in Afghanistan.
But the biography said he had fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Kashmir before he was captured, and had narrowly escaped death when “an American rocket” hit a house in Afghanistan where he and 13 other mujahedeen were sleeping. Al-Oufi was the only survivor and “was not hit by even one piece of shrapnel.”
The biography tries to present al-Oufi in a heroic light, using flowery language.
“He continued fighting until Afghanistan fell into the hands of the Americans,” said the biography. “He could not help but go to Pakistan and wait there until the Taliban started anew, and then he would return. But Allah determined for our lion to be imprisoned.”
Adam Raisman, a senior analyst at SITE, said al-Faloja, where al-Oufi’s biography was posted, is a jihadist forum. He said the entry was the user’s first posting so its authenticity could not be ascertained, but noted that it was not deleted by the forum administrators or questioned by it members. SITE, which has provided accurate information in the past, thought it was reliable enough to e-mail the contents to its subscribers.
Prisoner number 333 was released from Guantanamo on Nov. 11, 2007, according to the Pentagon. The military had listed his name as Muhamad Attik al-Harbi. The difference in names has been attributed to the common Arab practice of referring to men by an honorific, like the name of a son. Al-Harbi is a tribal designation.
In the video, al-Oufi wore a dark cap and camouflage shirt with a leather bandolier of bullets draped over a shoulder. He had a thick black beard and jabbed a finger into the air as he spoke.
“In the end, we say to the countries of the cross that are garrisoned on the land of (Saudi Arabia) and which support the crusader war against Muslims: By Allah, we are coming. By Allah, we are coming,” he said.
He railed against a Saudi government program to rehabilitate former Guantanamo detainees and other militants, saying it aims “to drive us away from our Islam” and said a Saudi “psychological investigation team” had gone to Guantanamo “to obtain our confessions under duress.”
Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment on the purported visit to Guantanamo. He said various countries have sent officials to Guantanamo but added that it is military policy not to describe specific cases.