Gitmo Prisoner Freed by Obama Administration Reported to Have Rejoined Taliban

A Guantánamo detainee released last December has now returned to the battlefield to fight with Taliban insurgents, according to three U.S. counterterrorism officials who have reviewed intelligence reports on the matter. If the reports are accurate, the detainee, known as Abdul Hafiz, would be the first Guantánamo inmate released by the Obama administration to have returned to the front lines of terrorism.

Among other alleged terrorist activities, Hafiz was accused by U.S. authorities to have been implicated in the murder of an International Committee of the Red Cross worker. But an interagency task force conducting the administration’s review of the cases of all Gitmo detainees concluded that the evidence against him was murky and uncertain so he should be freed. Administration officials noted that several government departments involved in national security—including intelligence agencies, the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Justice Department, State Department and Homeland Security—unanimously have to approve the release of individual Gitmo detainees.

 A U.S. counterterrorism official acknowledged: “He’s a bad guy and it’s no surprise that he’s doing bad things.” This Justice Department press release, dated Dec. 20, 2009, confirms that Abdul Hafiz was one of a group of four Afghan detainees sent back from Gitmo to Afghanistan at that time.

Though reports of Abdul Hafiz’s alleged recidivism are still fragmentary, they instantly caught the attention of Obama administration critics. Keep America Safe, a conservative political group headed by Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, led its Web site with the headline: “Obama’s First Recidivist?,” linked to a post about Abdul Hafiz on the Long War Journal, a Web site which covers counterterrorism issues closely.

But an Obama administration official noted that even if Abdul Hafiz, who also has gone by the name Abdul Qawi, has returned to the battlefield, so far his case is an isolated one, compared to dozens of detainees who were released by the Bush administration and are suspected of engaging in terrorist activity since then, including Abdul Qayum Zakir, the new Taliban deputy chief and military commander. The official said that during deliberations of the Obama administration task force on releasing detainees, U.S. military officials were generally more willing to release Afghans on the grounds that Afghanistan is a war zone. The U.S. military rationale for such releases, said the official, was, “At least we can kill them in Afghanistan.”  

"I'm completely shocked," said Steven Killpack, a Utah public defender who represented Abdul Hafiz in a federal lawsuit challenging his detention, when told today of reports that his client was now fighting with the Taliban.  "There was absolutely nothing that was brought to our attention that he constituted a danger to any Americans or that he had any ongoing affiliation with any group that was hostile to America. He never indicated any hostility to the American government." Killpack also said that, as far as he knew, Abdul Hafiz was not facing any outstanding charges in Afghanistan and he was being returned to his homeland to "resume his regular life."    

The first public report that a Gitmo detainee released by the Obama administration had returned to the battlefield was posted by the Long War Journal. The Web site cited a Declassified report from earlier this week which said that Mullah Mohammed Omar, the fugitive leader of the Afghan Taliban, had recently anointed two successors to the captured deputy Taliban leader, Mullah Baradar, one of them being Zakir, a former Gitmo detainee who had been released from the detention facility by the Bush administration in 2007. The Long War Journal speculated that Hafiz might be the same person as the unnamed Gitmo detainee who our report said had been assigned to head a Taliban committee in charge of dealing with charities operating in areas under Taliban influence and handling ransom payments from the families of Taliban kidnapping victims.

However, it remains unclear as to whether Hafiz is, in fact, the unnamed former detainee in question. Sami Yousafzai, the NEWSWEEK correspondent in the region who co-authored Declassified's item, reported that Taliban sources he contacted hadn’t heard of a former Gitmo detainee known as Abdul Hafiz.

The New York Times Web site carries a link to a two-page summary, dated February 2005, of evidence against Hafiz. It says that the detainee was implicated in two killings in Kabul, one of them apparently involving an international Red Cross worker. When captured, the document says, Abdul Hafiz was trying to phone someone else who had been implicated in the Red Cross worker's murder.

Perhaps Hafiz was released because the dossier cited weak evidence against him—implying that Hafiz had knowledge of the murder because when he was questioned about the Red Cross worker's death, the detainee denied knowledge of where "he" was killed. The dossier says that Hafiz was never told before questioning that the murder victim was a man.

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