Nation & World

Ex-Guantánamo detainee dies fighting Assad in Syria

An Islamic opposition group in Syria has posted a video of the funeral of a former Guantánamo prisoner, the first known report that one of the 500 or so captives released during the Bush administration joined the Syrian insurgency to topple Bashar Assad.

The Syrian Islamic Movement posted the video Monday on YouTube. It shows the body of a fallen fighter in his 30s or 40s and a rebel leader, Sheik Abu Ahmad al Muhajir, eulogizing the man as Mohammed al Alami, a Northwest African veteran of the jihad in Afghanistan “who went through hardship for the sake of God in the prison of the Americans in Guantánamo for five years.”

U.S. Defense Department officials who help track released Guantánamo detainees had no comment Tuesday.

Aaron Zelin, editor of the jihadology blog from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the posting from the Aug. 5 funeral confirmed reports of a former Guantánamo prisoner’s death in Syria that had been floating around the Internet for weeks.

“We finally have evidence with this video from a credible media outlet within the jihadi media sphere,” said Zelin, who had already seen it when a Miami Herald reporter contacted him Tuesday about the overnight posting.

“Obviously there’ve been cases of people [Guantánamo detainees] who’ve gone back to continue the fight,” he said. “It’s not surprising. But it is interesting.”

Wednesday morning, a post on the jihadology blog identified the white-haired man delivering the eulogy as a fellow Moroccan who did time as a prisoner at Guantánamo too, Ibrahim Bin Shakran. According to his Guantánamo file, he was born in Casablanca and would be 34 years old today.

Shakran was repatriated to Morocco in July 2004. The Defense Intelligence Agency listed him among “confirmed” former Guantánamo recidivists on a fact sheet released by the Department of Defense in April 7, 2009. He was described as an al-Qaida recruiter in Iraq.

Some might argue that the appearance of a former Guantánamo detainee among the fighters in Syria was only a matter of time.

Foreign fighters aligned with al-Qaida have become a growing presence there, with Egyptians, Saudis, Tunisians, Libyans and even Britons and Canadians filling out the ranks of Islamist extremist fighting groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham and Jaish al Muhajireen, or the Army of the Immigrants, which reportedly is led by a Chechen.

“Syria is probably the biggest jihad since the jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s,” Zelin said, and for “foreigners seen as more of a clean jihad” than attacking U.S. troops and targets.

The foreign fighters’ growing influence — the al Qaida-linked groups are considered the most effective of the rebel fighting forces — has complicated U.S. efforts to support anti-Assad rebels.

Alami was brought to Guantánamo from Afghanistan on Feb. 2, 2002, and repatriated Feb. 7, 2006, in a transport that released two other Moroccans, a Ugandan citizen and seven Afghans during a period when the Bush administration was thinning the prison camps, according to Pentagon records made public through the Freedom of Information Act and by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

They show Alami was born in Fez, Morocco, on Jan. 19, 1976, claim he fought U.S.-backed Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan after 9/11.

Once at Guantánamo, he recanted an admission to U.S. interrogators that he received al-Qaida training, saying in a transcript that he was “beaten and threatened with death.”

The records do not make clear why he was let go.

Zelin said Morocco’s king probably jailed the returned Guantánamo prisoners, “but he pardoned a lot of people” in recent years.

The Pentagon today holds 164 detainees at Guantánamo, including two Moroccans — one cleared for release by a 2010 Obama administration task force, another classified as an “indefinite detainee.” During the Bush years, the Pentagon repatriated more than 530 of the 779 prisoners held at Guantánamo since Jan. 11, 2002. Obama, vowing to close the prison, had his administration repatriate or resettle about 70 more.

From the eulogy

“He went to the jihad in Afghanistan with his family and children to aid the downtrodden in the name of God.

He went through hardship for the sake of God in the prison of the Americans in Guantánamo for five years and he was patient through his plight and he did not change, waited until God lifted him and he was released.

He then went to the land of al Sham (Syria) ... He saw death and dispossession and destruction, so he went in response to God.

... I knew him, God have mercy on his soul, one of the best youth of the community of believers. He was pious, devout and honest and had God on his tongue at all times. In his heart he had a love for God and Muslims.”

Translated from Arabic by Muna Shikaki

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