WASHINGTON—The Pentagon announced Wednesday that it has transferred an Islamic activist from Somalia to its prison for war-on-terror captives at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, underscoring what appears to be a growing U.S. interest in terrorist activities in the Horn of Africa.
A Defense Department announcement identified the newest arrival at the remote U.S. Navy base as Abdullahi Sudi Arale and described him as a ''suspected'' al Qaida member from East Africa who'd served as a courier between the Horn of Africa and Pakistan.
The Pentagon alleged that he'd held a leadership role in the Council of Islamic Courts, the fundamentalist Islamist coalition that ruled most of southern Somalia for much of last year before a U.S.-backed Ethiopian campaign ousted it in December. The United States considers the Islamic Courts in league with al Qaida, arguing that it has given sanctuary to al Qaida members and sympathizers.
But a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, and a staff member of an international group that monitors Somalia both said they weren't familiar with the name. Arale also isn't among the six al Qaida operatives whom U.S. officials in East Africa have identified in the past as key targets in anti-terror operations in Somalia. The six include three men wanted in connection with terrorist attacks in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and 2002 and three leaders of the Islamic Courts.
Pentagon officials refused to say where or when Arale had been captured. The announcement accused him of running guns and explosives and trafficking in counterfeit documents to help foreign fighters get into Somalia. It said he'd been in Pakistan until eight months ago, when he returned to Somalia.
The Pentagon's decision to send the new captive to Guantanamo appears to be part of a recent emphasis on tilting interrogation there toward the Horn of Africa amid growing evidence of U.S. military operations in the region targeting al Qaida.
In March, the Pentagon announced the transfer to Guantanamo of Abdul Malik, who allegedly was involved in the 2002 suicide bombing of a Mombasa, Kenya, hotel that Israelis frequent. Seventeen people were killed and dozens were hurt in the attack on the Paradise Hotel, which occurred on the same day as an ill-fated effort to down an Israeli passenger plane with air-to-ground missiles.
Guantanamo's intelligence chief, Paul Rester, said in an interview last month that Malik was of "significant interest" and that he was being interrogated. U.S. officials have declined to provide other details, including his nationality and where he was captured.
Last Friday, a U.S. Navy warship fired cruise missiles at suspected Islamist militants in northern Somalia, according to local Somali officials. The Pentagon hasn't confirmed the attack, but officials in Somalia's Puntland region have said the missiles killed at least eight militants, including one who was carrying an American passport. It was at least the third U.S. attack on suspected militants in Somalia this year.
The U.S. military also provided intelligence and surveillance support to Ethiopia when it drove the Islamic Courts from power in December.
The Pentagon didn't immediately provide details on the newest captive's age or how long he's been in U.S. custody. Spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith said he arrived at Guantanamo ''this week.'' The Defense Department also declined to release his photo.
Smith said a delegate from the International Committee of the Red Cross would be allowed to see Arale, but didn't clarify whether the ICRC had already seen him.
Dozens of people have been taken prisoner in the months since the Ethiopians ousted the Islamic Courts, some of whom FBI agents and CIA officers have questioned. At least two Americans have been detained, one of whom was later charged in Houston federal court with supporting a terrorist organization and another who was imprisoned in Ethiopia for several weeks before he was allowed to return to his New Jersey home.
Arale's arrival came only two days after two U.S. military judges separately tossed out war crimes charges against two detainees because the accused had been classified as ''enemy combatants,'' without distinguishing whether they were permitted to engage in war under international law or were so-called ``unlawful combatants.''
Wednesday's announcement said Arale would go before a Combatant Status Review Tribunal ``to review an unclassified summary of the evidence against him and contest his enemy combatant status.'' It made no mention of the current controversy surrounding those status hearings.
(Shashank Bengali in Nairobi, Kenya, and special correspondent Mahad Elmi in Mogadishu, Somalia, contributed to this report. Rosenberg works for The Miami Herald.)