Just after the 2008 election, the Pentagon quietly escorted Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s former chauffeur, out of his cell at Guantánamo and flew him back to his homeland in Yemen to serve out the last weeks of his five-and-a-half-year sentence for providing material support to terrorism.
Now, in an ironic twist of fate, Hamdan—the first detainee to be convicted by a U.S. military commission—is not merely a free man in Yemen: he and his wife are celebrating the birth of a baby boy.
The baby was born on Jan. 11—14 months after Hamdan returned to Yemen and resumed life with his wife, whom he had first met while working for bin Laden, said Harry Schneider, a Seattle lawyer who defended Hamdan during his 2008 trial before the military commission. “He’s doing better than he has been in the last 10 years,” said Schneider. “He’s a happy man and he’s in good spirits. He’s very excited about his baby boy.”
Hamdan’s newfound happiness, first reported by The Miami Herald, provides an odd new wrinkle to the heated debate over whether to try accused Qaeda terrorists in military commissions or civilian courts.
While Republican critics hammer the Obama administration for seeking to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other 9/11 conspirators in federal court, some lawyers and U.S. law-enforcement officials point out that the record of U.S. military commissions shows they are untested—and if anything, more lenient—vehicles to bring terrorists to justice.
Hamdan may be the best example: although the Bush administration pressed its right to try Hamdan before a military commission all the way to the Supreme Court, and military prosecutors later sought to have him sentenced to 30 years in prison, the military-commission jury ultimately gave him only 66 months, and he was credited for all but the last six months because of his years of detention at Guantánamo. Hamdan served the last month of his sentence in Yemen before he was let go.
All this continues to annoy some former U.S. government officials who worked for years to keep Hamdan behind bars. “He’s back on the streets—and you think he’s not talking to [Al Qaeda]?” said Ali Soufan, a former FBI counterterrorism agent who testified against Hamdan at his 2008 trial.
Soufan—who strongly supports civilian trials for terrorists—notes that it was under the Bush administration, not President Obama, that Hamdan was flown back to Yemen.
But Schneider, Hamdan’s lawyer, said he is confident his client is no longer associating with Al Qaeda in Yemen, which has become a stronghold for the terrorist organization. “He’s kind of a model example of somebody who’s trying to stay out of trouble,” he said.
Still, Schneider acknowledged, Hamdan is finding it difficult to find steady employment. Hamdan is still working as a driver and even served as a chauffeur last year for a Canadian journalist who was reporting on a story on the fate of former Guantánamo detainees in Yemen. But driving jobs are not so easy to come right now. “As you can imagine,” Schneider said, “tourism in Yemen is not that great these days.”