CAIRO, Egypt — A Saudi man released from Guantanamo after spending nearly six years inside the U.S. prison camp is now the No. 2 of Yemen's al-Qaida branch, according to a purported Internet statement from the terror network.
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. Many of the remaining detainees are from Yemen, which has long posed a vexing terrorism problem for the U.S.
The terror group's Yemen branch _ known as "al-Qaida 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, which is Osama bin Laden's ancestral home.
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-Qaida," 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.
Saudi Arabian authorities wouldn't 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.
Yemen is a U.S. ally in the fight against terror, but it also has been the site of numerous high-profile, al-Qaida-linked attacks including the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the Gulf of Aden, which killed 17 American sailors.
Yemen's government struggles to maintain order. Many areas of the California-size country are beyond government control and Islamic extremism is strong. Nearly 100 Yemeni detainees remain at Guantanamo, making up the biggest group of prisoners.
Al-Shihri's case highlights the complexity of Obama's decision to shut down the detention center within a year despite the absence of rehabilitation programs for ex-prisoners in some countries, including Yemen. The Pentagon also has said more former ex-detainees appear to be returning to the fight against the U.S. after their release.
Rep. Jane Harman, D-California, who heads the House Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence, said the reports about al-Shihri should not slow the Obama administration's determination to quickly close the prison.
"What it tells me is that President Obama has to proceed extremely carefully. But there is really no justification and there was no justification for disappearing people in a place that was located offshore of America so it was outside the reach of U.S. law," she told CBS's "The Early Show."
But Rep. Pete Hoekstra, of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, criticized the executive order Obama signed Thursday to close the facility as "very short on specifics."
Interviewed on the same program, he said there are indications that as many as 10 percent of the men released from Guantanamo are "back on the battlefield. They are attacking American troops."
The militant Web statement said al-Shihri's identity was revealed during a recent interview with a Yemeni journalist. That journalist, Abdelela Shayie, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview on Friday that 35-year-old Saudi man had joined the kingdom's rehabilitation program after his release and got married before leaving for Yemen.
Shayie said al-Shihri told him that several other former Guantanamo detainees had also come to Yemen to join al-Qaida.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is an umbrella group of various cells. Its current leader is Yemen's most wanted fugitive Naser Abdel Karim al-Wahishi, who was among 23 al-Qaida figures who escaped from a Yemeni prison in 2006.
Since the prison break, al-Qaida managed to regroup. It set up training camps, has attracted hundreds of young men and launched dozens of bloody attacks against Westerners, government institutions and oil facilities. Most recently, gunmen and two vehicles packed with explosives attacked the U.S. Embassy in Yemen in September, killing 17 people, including six militants. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the attack.
According to the Defense Department, al-Shihri was stopped at a Pakistani border crossing in December 2001 with injuries from an airstrike and recuperated at a hospital. Within days of his release, he became one of the first detainees sent to Guantanamo.
Al-Shihri allegedly traveled to Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, provided money to other fighters and trained in 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.
He also was accused of meeting extremists in Iran and briefing them on how to enter Afghanistan, according to the documents.
Al-Shihri, however, said he traveled to Iran to buy carpets. He said he felt bin Laden had no business representing Islam, denied any links to terrorism and expressed interest in rejoining his family.
Associated Press writer Ahmed al-Haj in San'a, Yemen contributed to this report.