WASHINGTON — U.S. military officials said Wednesday they had returned a suspected al Qaeda operative long held at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to his home country, Saudi Arabia.
Ghassan al Sharbi’s transfer was the latest aimed at emptying the Guantanamo military prison of those detainees who have either never been charged or have finished their sentences following the U.S. military’s global roundup of extremist suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
U.S. officials over the years depicted al Sharbi as a loyal al Qaeda supporter and collaborator. Al Sharbi featured in a now famous memo by a Phoenix FBI agent – little heeded at the time – who correctly warned months before the 9/11 attacks that Middle Eastern students appeared to be taking flying lessons for the purpose of attacks involving civil aviation.
The U.S. says al Sharbi fled to Pakistan after the Sept. 11 attacks for training in bomb-making. He was arrested there the next year, allegedly tortured in custody, and sent to Guantanamo.
U.S. military efforts to convict al Sharbi were frustrated as court rulings and congressional directives evolved in the face of challenges to the military tribunal’s legal authority to try the Guantanamo detainees.
A review board last year found that al Sharbi was no longer enough of a threat to the U.S. to be held in military detention. It recommended he be transferred out of Guantanamo subject to “a comprehensive set of security measures including monitoring, travel restrictions and continued information sharing.”
Saudi Arabia – the country from which most of the 9/11 hijackers came – long has had facilities for detaining and rehabilitating extremists.
Al Sharbi becomes at least the fourth Guantanamo detainee released and sent to another country so far this year. Guantanamo held about 600 prisoners at its peak in 2003. With al Sharbi’s transfer, it holds 31, including 17 others considered eligible for transfer if a stable country can be found to accept them.