WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Seventy-four, or one out of every seven, terrorism suspects formerly held at the U.S. detention site at Guantanamo Bay are confirmed or suspected of having returned to terrorism, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.
Of more than 530 detainees transferred from the U.S. base in Cuba, 27 are confirmed and 47 suspected of “reengaging in terrorist activity,” according to a written Pentagon summary.
The total of 74 has more than doubled since May 2007, when the Pentagon said about 30 had gone back to terrorist activity, and increased slightly since January, when the figure stood at 61.
The Pentagon offered no specific reason for the increase.
“I don’t know that I could put any one particular reason to it,” spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
The figures were released amid intense debate in Washington over the prison opened by the Bush administration, which has been strongly criticized by many nations, including U.S. allies, and rights groups.
Human rights groups have voiced skepticism about previous Defense Department statements on former Guantanamo detainees taking part in terrorism. Some have suggested they are intended to stoke fear among Americans about its closing.
In one of his first acts after taking office in January, President Barack Obama ordered the Guantanamo detention center shut within a year.
Administration officials have said harsh treatment of detainees there and the detention of suspects for years without trial have tarnished America’s image and acted as a recruitment tool for terrorists.
But last week the U.S. Senate, controlled by Obama’s fellow Democrats, blocked funds the administration sought to shutter the prison, demanding a detailed plan on what would happen to the 240 terrorism suspects still held at Guantanamo.
Citing information from the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon provided the names and brief details of 15 former detainees it said had been confirmed as having returned to terrorism and 14 suspected of doing so.
The list included former detainees accused or convicted of terrorist offenses in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Russia.
Among the more recent cases mentioned were two men repatriated to Saudi Arabia in 2007, Abu Sufyan al-Azdi al-Shihri and Mazin Salih Musaid al-Alawi al-Awfi, said to have announced in a video message in January that they were leaders of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a new group.
Among those accused of the most serious offenses was Said Mohammed Alim Shah, also known as Abdullah Mahsud. Repatriated to Afghanistan in 2004, he blew himself up to avoid capture by Pakistani forces in July 2007, the summary said.
According to a Pakistani official, he directed an April 2007 suicide attack that killed 31 people, it said.
The Pentagon said it required “a preponderance of evidence” such as fingerprints, DNA or photographs, to confirm that a former detainee had been involved in terrorism.
“For the purposes of this definition, engagement in anti-U.S. propaganda alone does not qualify as terrorist activity,” the report said.
An ex-detainee was suspected of having engaged in terrorism on the basis of “significant reporting” or “unverified or single-source, but plausible reporting,” the Pentagon said.
Reporting by Andrew Gray; editing by Patricia Zengerle