WASHINGTON – U.S. officials on Tuesday downplayed reports of Usama bin Laden's security personnel being among the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The officials told Fox News they do not doubt that among the 564 detainees are people who have protected the leader of Al Qaeda, but they pointed out that almost all of the detainees have been in custody in Afghanistan and later in Guantanamo for many months.
To the extent that any news services are implying that this means bin Laden is dead or that his security personnel were captured while they were protecting him, defense officials say this is nonsense. To say that some of these Al Qaeda members guarded bin Laden some time in their careers with the terror network is not surprising and is not really news, the officials say.
Some of bin Laden's bodyguards have been captured and are among the prisoners at the U.S. military base in Cuba, U.S. officials told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
The men were part of bin Laden's entourage, assigned to personally protect the exiled Saudi millionaire. But how much information about bin Laden they can -- or will -- give to U.S. authorities remains unclear.
The bodyguards are among the suspected Taliban or Al Qaeda members being held in metal cells at the Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Most of the detainees were captured in Afghanistan or Pakistan during the U.S.-led war which began Oct. 7.
Military officials said Tuesday they did not know how many members of bin Laden's personal security detail were detainees or when and where they were captured.
A senior U.S. official with knowledge of the matter said the bodyguards have been in U.S. custody since February. Some of them have served bin Laden for years and have traveled extensively with the Al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Bin Laden has a reputation for being meticulous about his security, choosing bodyguards for their loyalty and willingness to sacrifice themselves to protect him.
While the detained bodyguards were among those who stayed closest physically to the Al Qaeda leader, their job was to provide muscle, not advice. His bodyguards aren't expected to know much about attacks in the works beyond the stray snippets of conversations they may have overheard between bin Laden and his lieutenants, officials said.
But they could provide U.S. interrogators with information about bin Laden's movements and security precautions -- although these are things bin Laden would be expected to change if his bodyguards were captured.
Officials have said one of bin Laden's many sons, Mohammed, is part of his father's security detail. Mohammed bin Laden is not believed to be in custody. U.S. officials another of bin Laden's son, Saad, is gaining influence as an Al Qaeda leader.
Bin Laden's security chief is an Egyptian named Saif al-Adl. He is wanted in connection with Al Qaeda's 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. Al-Adl is regarded as a key leader in Al Qaeda, and officials have suggested he is capable of running the organization if bin Laden is killed.
But the fact that some of bin Laden's bodyguards have been captured does not necessarily indicate bin Laden is dead. Recent military intelligence reports have not supported that idea, and the military believes bin Laden could be alive, according to a Defense Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Still, bin Laden's last appearance on video was more than seven months ago, and FBI counterterrorism chief Dale Watson said earlier this month he believes bin Laden is dead. The last time U.S. officials acknowledged they had a credible fix on his location was in December, when he was believed to be in the Tora Bora region. He is thought to have fled as America's Afghan allies approached.
U.S. and Canadian experts later exhumed 23 elaborately marked graves in Tora Bora, the rugged Afghan mountain region near the Pakistan border dotted with reinforced caves. Those graves held the bodies of other members of bin Laden's security detail.
Other evidence suggests bin Laden may have ditched most of his entourage in favor of just a few highly trusted associates: Published reports said a video found by allied forces in February showed bin Laden camping with just a few other people.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week he did not know if bin Laden was dead or alive.
"I've not heard hide nor hair of him since December," Rumsfeld said. "He's either dead, which is fine from our standpoint, or he's alive and for some reason decides he does not want to live up to his reputation as enjoying going on videos and letting the world know that he's alive."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.