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A Second American Talib Might Be in U.S. Custody

Crime: Man held in Cuba was born in Louisiana, records appear to show. He was captured at the same Afghan prison as John Walker Lindh.

April 04, 2002|RICHARD A. SERRANO and GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government may have in its custody a second American who fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan, authorities said Wednesday after checking birth records that appear to support that he was born in Louisiana.

The young man, identified by government officials as 22-year-old Yasser Esam Hamdi, was captured after a late November prison uprising at Mazar-i-Sharif, the same site where the military seized John Walker Lindh, a Northern Californian who fought for the Taliban.

Hamdi is one of 300 detainees being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, authorities said.

Army Lt. Col. Dan Stoneking, however, cautioned that U.S. authorities have not confirmed that Hamdi was born in the United States.

Stoneking and other government officials noted that most of the detainees are giving false information about their backgrounds. At this stage of their investigation, however, they said Hamdi's claim of U.S. citizenship appears to be valid.

If true, Stoneking said, Hamdi probably would be removed from Guantanamo Bay and placed in the custody of federal law enforcement officials, much like Lindh, who is awaiting trial in Virginia on murder conspiracy charges.

"There is an individual among the detainees in [Guantanamo] who has indicated his place of birth is Baton Rouge, La.," Stoneking said. "The Department of Justice has recently informed us that they have uncovered a corresponding birth certificate in Baton Rouge.

"However, whether or not that means this detainee is a U.S. citizen may involve some more legal determination. So we're not prepared to answer that at this point."

Stoneking added that "it's our understanding his parents were employed in Louisiana at the time of his birth and then returned to Saudi Arabia when he was a toddler."

Justice Department officials confirmed that they had found a birth certificate that matched the birth date Hamdi gave U.S. authorities.

But, said one Justice Department official, "we're unclear whether he was telling them he was an American or whether the military, in doing checks on these guys, found out he is an American. The Pentagon holds these guys. We don't."

Stoneking said he and other authorities at Guantanamo have said that most of the detainees are giving false names to their U.S. interrogators as well as incorrect information about their pasts. In essence, they said, the detainees are being very uncooperative and making it extremely difficult for the U.S. to sort them out.

"Gitmo is full of bad people," Stoneking said, using the military nickname for Guantanamo. "And among their bad traits is being inveterate liars. That adds to the difficulties in further concluding who these people really are."

Authorities are attempting to determine whether Hamdi had dual citizenship with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

A State Department official said a search of records indicates that Hamdi never applied for an American passport to travel abroad. The official also could not say whether Hamdi had ever applied for a visa to return to the United States.

Lindh, who was raised in Marin County, is scheduled to go on trial in August. His lawyers say that he fought for the Taliban only against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and that he never attempted to betray his country.

Lindh and Hamdi were captured after the prison uprising, which cost the life of the first U.S. casualty in the war against terrorism, CIA officer Johnny "Mike" Spann.

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