WASHINGTON - A suicide bomber in Iraq was identified yesterday as a former Taliban fighter who was held for more than three years at the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before he was handed over to authorities in his native Kuwait in 2005 and subsequently released.
The news that Abdullah Salih Al Ajmi, 29, had driven a car bomb into an Iraqi police patrol renewed the debate over the justification for holding hundreds of men the Bush administration has labeled "enemy combatants" at the controversial facility.
Human rights activists as well as politicians across the spectrum have demanded President Bush close the prison and transfer the inmates to the US federal justice system. They contend that the imprisonment of hundreds of men without due process - amid allegations of abuse by their US captors - has seriously damaged America's moral authority and fanned the flames of Islamic extremism across the Muslim world.
But Pentagon officials yesterday said Ajmi, who was among more than 500 former Guantanamo inmates who have been released or transferred to other countries, was a dramatic reminder of the danger in releasing those who are avowed terrorists - even to US allies who promise to ensure they will not pose a future threat.
The Pentagon press office yesterday listed a dozen former Guantanamo inmates who it contends returned to fight against the United States and its allies upon their release. Several were recaptured or killed in Afghanistan, and others were arrested for planning attacks in countries ranging from Russia to Turkey.
US military officials said Ajmi, known as "Captive 220" during his 3 1/2 years of detention in Guantanamo, helped carry out a triple suicide car bombing in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on April 26, killing seven Iraqis and wounding 28. They said he had recently traveled to Iraq through Syria, a popular entry point for foreign militants.
His photo appeared yesterday on a jihadist website that hailed him as a hero.
"There is an implied future risk to US and allied interests with every detainee who is released or transferred from Guantanamo," said Navy Commander Jeff Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman. "Our reports indicate that a number of former [Guantanamo] detainees have taken part in anticoalition militant activities after leaving US detention. Some have subsequently been killed in combat and participated in suicide bomber attacks."
The Defense Intelligence Agency, meanwhile, estimates that as many as 37 former inmates have been "confirmed or suspected" of returning to terrorist activities, according to Pentagon officials who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak about intelligence matters. Calls to the law firm that represented Ajmi were not returned yesterday.
Yet critics of Guantanamo said they believe that the anger the prison has stoked in the Muslim world and beyond - including indefinite detention, alleged desecration of the Koran, allegations of inhumane treatment, and even torture there - has probably inspired more violent militants than it has released.
"You also have to ask how many terrorists has Guantanamo generated through the outrage throughout the world in the face of America detaining people endlessly without trial," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "I assure you that US misconduct in Guantanamo has generated far more terrorists than the release of detainees have."
Roth also said that he doesn't think that even the highest estimate of inmates who have returned to terrorist acts is enough to make him rethink his position on Guantanamo.
"Thirty-seven out of 500 is much better than the recidivism rate out of any US prison," said Roth, whose organization has lobbied for closing Guantanamo and has participated in a variety of legal efforts to lift the veil of secrecy over the prison and advocate for trying the inmates in civilian courts. "It is a lot less dangerous than the release of a prisoner in the United States."
Still, Ajmi appears to be unique as the first Guantanamo inmate believed to have chosen to take his own life to murder others.
"It is unknown what motivated him to leave Kuwait and go to Iraq," Commander Scott Rye, a US military spokesman in Baghdad, told reporters. "His family members reportedly were shocked to hear he had conducted a suicide bombing."
A "summary of evidence" report partially declassified by the Pentagon after Ajmi's release from Guantanamo described how he ended up at Guantanamo.
According to the summary, Ajmi had deserted the Kuwaiti military, apparently before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and traveled to Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban enlisted him to fight, issuing him an AK-47 assault rifle and grenades.
While in detention, Ajmi had admitted to spending eight months on the front lines fighting against the Northern Alliance, which had joined forces with the United States when it invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 for harboring Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Ajmi later retreated to Tora Bora and was captured by US-led coalition forces as he tried to escape to Pakistan, according to the Pentagon report.
Guantanamo prison officials described Ajmi as an aggressive, belligerent inmate who allegedly told officials in 2004 that he wanted to "kill as many Americans as he possibly can," according to the Pentagon documents.
At a Guantanamo hearing convened to determine whether he still fit the definition of an enemy combatant who had forfeited his legal rights, Ajmi denied all the allegations against him.
Yet even though Pentagon records show that he was still considered a threat to the United States, the board recommended his transfer to Kuwait, and authorities there took him into custody in November 2005.
Ajmi was soon freed on bail awaiting trial on charges that he fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan and helped fund an Afghan charity with ties to the Al Qaeda network. Ajmi and four other former Guantanamo inmates were acquitted in July 2006.
Of the more than 500 detainees that have been released from Guantanamo since it opened in January 2002, 38 have been determined to pose no future threat and no longer considered enemy combatants who might pose a security threat. The remaining 462 were returned to home countries or third-party nations, and are still considered threats.
The 270 detainees who are still in Guantanamo include 65 who were cleared for return to their native countries but have yet to be transferred for various reasons.
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