Reporting from Washington — As the U.S. ratchets up security on cargo packages and digs deeper into the plot to send bombs from Yemen, officials are concerned that a number of high-ranking members of Al Qaeda in Yemen were released from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a Saudi rehabilitation program for militants.
The No. 2 leader for the group in Yemen is Saudi national Said Shihri, who was captured by the U.S. in Afghanistan in 2001 and released from Guantanamo in 2007 to the Saudi program. He was featured in a 2009 video announcing the merger of the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni branches of Al Qaeda. His brother was killed in an October 2009 shootout on the Yemeni border while attempting to smuggle suicide vests into Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis have told U.S. officials that the four-step rehabilitation program has an 80% success rate at reforming militants once held by the U.S. But U.S. intelligence officials note that a crucial cadre of those who were released have slipped over the border into Yemen and become key figures in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
"A hard-core group of terrorists have either fooled the system or beat the system, and that is a concern," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice).
The sophisticated bombs discovered last week hidden inside desktop printers bear the hallmarks of a bomb maker in the Yemeni organization. Ibrahim Hassan Asiri is a Saudi fugitive but has not been held in Guantanamo.
Another figure of concern is Uthman Ghamdi, who was released from Guantanamo into the Saudi program in 2006 and is considered a close aide to the American-born cleric Anwar Awlaki, who has become a master strategist and propagandist for Al Qaeda in Yemen. Ghamdi wrote a passage in the jihadi online magazine Inspire, released in October, describing his flight to Guantanamo on a cargo plane.
Last January, the Obama administration suspended transfers of Guantanamo detainees to Yemen after learning that the man accused of trying to set off a bomb last Christmas on a Detroit-bound plane had received training from Al Qaeda there. The Pentagon also announced that it would not repatriate any more Saudi detainees from Guantanamo.
The changes were made after disclosure of a Pentagon report that estimated one-fifth of the detainees who have been released from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo have taken up extremist activity.
In 2009, Saudi Arabia released a list of its 85 most wanted terrorists. Of those, seven who were held in Guantanamo and released from the Saudi program are believed to be at large in Yemen, according to Christopher Boucek, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has researched the impact of Saudi Arabia's rehabilitation programs.
"There are people who cannot be rehabilitated," Boucek said. The program "is not a silver bullet. It is part of a bigger effort."
There is a question about whether some of the jihadists who were released from the Saudi rehabilitation program and returned to Al Qaeda became double agents helping the Saudi government. Jabir Jubran Fayfi, a former Guantanamo detainee who was released through the program, rejoined Al Qaeda in 2006. Then the Saudi Interior Ministry announced Oct. 15 that Fayfi had surrendered in Yemen. Fayfi reportedly was the source of the intelligence that stopped the package bomb plot.
To combat the immediate threat in Yemen, the U.S. has halted all mail from the country. It has also deployed a six-person team of Transportation Security Administration trainers and technicians with scanning equipment to Yemen to ensure that, when the mail resumes, any cargo leaving that country for the U.S. will be carefully checked.
Members of Congress are already squaring off about whether more legislation is needed to tighten the screening of cargo, or whether to allocate additional resources to the Department of Homeland Security instead.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) plans to introduce a new cargo-screening law when Congress reconvenes Nov. 15. "America's aviation system remains at the top of Al Qaeda's terrorist target list," Markey said Monday. "The cargo industry and business community must recognize more needs to be done to secure cargo planes."
Some representatives, such as Michael McCaul (R- Texas), are hesitant to pass additional legislation. He would prefer that Homeland Security have greater resources and flexibility to increase inspections of cargo planes. He also would like the TSA to accelerate efforts to inspect 100% of cargo on passenger planes coming to the U.S., a level scheduled to be accomplished in 2012.
"I'm not sure more legislation is needed," McCaul said. "The response has to be threat-based."
The most recent law governing cargo screening on passenger planes was passed in 2007.
Markey has long been frustrated at what he sees as industry reluctance to tackle the vulnerabilities of air cargo shipping.