A Saudi man who was released from Guantanamo after spending six years inside the U.S. prison camp has joined Al Qaeda's branch in Yemen and is now the terror group's No. 2 in the country, according to a purported Internet statement from Al Qaeda.
The announcement, made this week on a Web site commonly used by militants, came as President Barack Obama ordered the detention facility closed within a year.
The Yemen branch — known as "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula" — said the man, identified as Said Ali al-Shihri, returned to his home in Saudi Arabia after his release from Guantanamo about a year ago and from there went to Yemen. The Internet statement, which could not immediately be verified, said al-Shihri was the group's second-in-command in Yemen and his prisoner number at Guantanamo was 372.
"He managed to leave the land of the two shrines (Saudi Arabia) and join his brothers in Al Qaeda," the statement said.
Documents released by the U.S. Defense Department show that al-Shihri was released from the facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in November 2007 and transferred to his homeland. The documents confirmed his prisoner number was 372.
"The lesson here is, whoever receives former Guantánamo detainees needs to keep a close eye on them," an American official told the New York Times.
Saudi Arabian authorities would not immediately comment on the statement. A Yemeni counterterrorism official would only say that Saudi Arabia had asked Yemen to turn over a number of wanted Saudi suspects who fled the kingdom last year for Yemen, and a man with the same name was among those wanted. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the press and would not provide more details.
Al-Shihri was stopped at a Pakistani border crossing in December 2001 with injuries from an airstrike and recuperated at a hospital in Quetta for a month and a half, according to the Defense Department. Within days of his release, he became one of the first detainees sent to Guantanamo.
A congresswoman says the reports should not slow the Obama administration's determination to quickly close the Guantanamo facility.
Rep. Jane Harman, a Democrat from California, said that President Obama has to "proceed extremely carefully" in closing the prison.
Al-Shihri allegedly traveled to Afghanistan two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, provided money to other fighters and trained at an urban warfare at a camp north of Kabul, according to a summary of the evidence against him from U.S. military review panels at Guantanamo Bay.
An alleged travel coordinator for Al Qaeda, he was also accused of meeting extremists in Mashad, Iran and briefing them on how to enter Afghanistan, according to the Defense Department documents.
Al-Shihri, however, said he traveled to Iran to buy carpets for his store in Riyadh. He said he felt Osama bin Laden had no business representing Islam, denied any links to terrorism and expressed interest in rejoining his family in Saudi Arabia.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.