Gitmo Board Reviews Once-Prominent Yemeni

      WASHINGTON (CN) — Guantanamo Bay’s review board focused Thursday on a well-connected Yemeni whose advocates attribute his continued detention to CIA intelligence-gathering, more so than threat prevention.
     Human Rights Watch has described Abd al-Salam al-Hilah as a “Yemeni intelligence colonel.”
     “His position meant that he had a close relationship with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, as well as with a broad array with Arab and Western intelligence services, and members of the militant groups themselves,” the group says in a briefing paper.
     Islamists who denied al-Hilah’s involvement with al-Qaida or other terror groups confirmed that he facilitated exit from the country for thousands, the group notes.
     That task “should have been recognized as aiding the West in its efforts to combat terrorism,” a representative for the detainee told Guantanamo’s periodic review board this morning.
     But Human Rights Watch said that work pegged him as an intelligence asset.
     “Those familiar with the Islamist scene in Yemen say his knowledge of the Islamists’ exodus routes out of his country made him a valuable source of information for the CIA,” the Human Rights briefing paper asserts.
     Al-Hilah was on a short business trip to Cairo when Egypt’s secret police Mukhabarat captured him in September 2002.
     In an era of extraordinary rendition, Egyptian intelligence sent al-Hilah to a secret CIA “dark prison” in Afghanistan. Al-Hilah did not arrive at the prison camp in Cuba until September 2004. He has been there without charge or trial ever since.
     At his hearing this morning before Guantanamo’s periodic review board — streamed live to the Pentagon — al-Hilah wore a short-sleeved white shirt and sat mostly still through the public portion of the proceedings.
     The 48-year-old’s case is a tale of two starkly conflicting narratives.
     An unclassified profile for YM-1463, as the detainee is known to the U.S., says “he entered into extremist circles at a young age and rose to be a prominent extremist facilitator who leveraged his position within the Yemeni Political Security Organization (PSO) to provide refuge and logistical support to extremist groups.”
     “He has expressed continued support for extremists and terrorist groups, including ISIL,” according to the profile, which a female voice read aloud during his hearing, abbreviating the name of the group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
     A previously classified profile says al-Hilah is a member of al-Qaida and had foreknowledge of terror attacks — including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden. It claims he probably knew about the 9/11 attacks, too.
     But al-Hilah’s personal representative and his attorney, who has represented him for more than a decade, paint an entirely different picture – one of a well-respected businessman who rose to prominence at a young age and, as his representative said, “had a great deal of tribal, political and business influence” in his native Yemen.
     “Abd al-Salam has never had any intentions to harm the United States, her allies or the people of the Western Democracies,” his anonymous, male representative told the board in a publicly available statement.
     Al-Hilah crossed his arms over his midsection as this representative read his statement to the review board.
     The death of his father thrust al-Hilah into a leadership role within his family at 12 years old, when he began helping his mother raise his brothers and sisters, his representative said.
     His leadership in business and tribal affairs caught the attention of political parties in Yemen, and al-Hilah later joined Yemen’s largest political party, the General Congress Party, at the president’s request,” he added.
     “He helped bring international companies to Yemen to build bridges, roads, airports, power plants, and increase the efforts of energy exploration,” his representative said.
     David Remes, the attorney, described al-Hilah as “a strong and justifiably proud man,” and a mediator. Al-Hilah uncrossed his arms just before Remes began reading his public statement to the board.
     “President Ali Abdullah Saleh enlisted him to mediate disputes between the government and the tribes, and the tribes enlisted him to mediate disputes among themselves,” Remes said. “Abd al-Salam was among those chosen by President Saleh to help manage the deportation of jihadists who had settled in Yemen after defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with assistance from the United States.”
     Human Rights Watch meanwhile says the transfer of Arab Islamists to other countries was intended to help them to seek asylum.
     His unclassified profile is vague about his compliance at Guantanamo, though it notes only a “moderate number of infractions,” and says he directs comments in interviews toward the political and security conditions in Yemen.
     He “appears to calibrate his cooperation with Joint Task Force-Guantanamo personnel to extract his preferred living conditions,” the female voice read from his unclassified profile.
     The U.S. says al-Hilah has had direct contact with two extremists while detained at Guantanamo. One is his brother, though his public profile notes the U.S. cannot confirm that he still supports extremist activity. The other is a former, unnamed Guantanamo detainee who the U.S. suspects might have re-engaged in terrorism.
     “He probably would have multiple avenues to reengage in terrorism if he chose to do so because of these contacts, his expansive extremist connections from before his detention, and because his family resides in an area of Sanaa known for extremist activity,” his public profile states.
     But his representative said al-Hilah longs to reunite with his wife and four children, of whom he is extremely proud.
     Remes noted that he has met with members of al-Hilah’s family in their homes during most of his 11 trips to Yemen since 2005. Al-Hilah looked down when Remes noted that he was devastated by the death of his mother and two sons, who were killed by a live hand grenade.
     Remes says al-Hilah should have no trouble reestablishing himself as a businessman.
     “He used to conduct business throughout Europe; he speaks English; and he is cosmopolitan. Building an import-export business for products to be sold to Yemen is an obvious possibility,” Remes said.
     Remes said the board should not consider al-Hilah a continuing threat to the U.S. based on old associations. “He is nearing 50 and is through with government and politics,” Remes said. “He has no ideology. Wherever he is resettled, Abd al-Salam wants to build, not tear down. He will submit to rehabilitation and close supervision. I urge the board to recommend his transfer.”
     The board should issue a decision within the next two months.
     Around the same time of al-Hilah’s hearing Thursday, a federal judge in Washington tossed a motion in which the detainee sought to see “the allegations made by the government against him as well as the purported factual bases for the allegations.”

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