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Terrorism suspect denies all Add to ...

He's a former Montrealer who has been described as a vital link between two major al-Qaeda plots -- the terrorism suspect who recruited the 9/11 ringleaders before he helped a conspiracy to blow up the Los Angeles Airport.

From a prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the 34-year-old West African is finally talking, to a U.S. tribunal delving into his terrorist connections. And he says that, far from wanting to destroy America, he actually wants to move there.

While Mohamedou Ould Slahi recently admitted to ties to al-Qaeda, he denies involvement in any terrorist plots, and swore on the Koran he has turned his back on the fealty he once pledged to Osama bin Laden. In fact, he is even asking his captors to give him sanctuary. When the tribunal asked whether he would like to live in the United States, he said simply, "I do."

That's unlikely to occur. When Mr. Slahi last lived in North America in the late 1990s, he ruefully recalls, Canadian spies were doing everything they could do to make him feel unwelcome. "Wherever I went, I had people right behind me at the market watching my butt," he told the tribunal.

The terrorism suspect's account of his fascinating life is buried within more than 5,000 pages of Guantanamo Bay transcripts released grudgingly on Friday by the U.S. Department of Defence.

The Associated Press used a freedom-of-information request to force the disclosure of the documents from the U.S. government, which has widely invoked national-security considerations to shield the stories of detainees at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay.

Many describe themselves as nothing more than simple shepherds, hapless shopkeepers and Muslim missionaries who were in the wrong place at the wrong time when captured after the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

Mr. Slahi was thought to be more significant.

The U.S. documents do not name Mr. Slahi, but all the details discussed in the transcript are consistent with what was known about the Mauritanian-born man who has not been heard from or charged since his arrest in 2001.

Guilty or innocent, Mr. Slahi has demonstrated an uncanny ability to insert himself into places of significance to terrorists.

Born in the West African country of Mauritania, Mr. Slahi says he went to Afghanistan in 1990 to fight against the Soviets. He admits he learned how to fire guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

"I was knowledgeable I was fighting with al-Qaeda, but [back]then al-Qaeda didn't wage jihad [holy war]against America," he told the tribunal.

Mr. Slahi says he left Afghanistan in 1992 and "never, never, never, never" returned. Instead, he said he moved to Germany to study electrical engineering.

At the very least, this was an unfortunate choice, given that three other Muslims studying engineering in Germany around that time eventually became the lead hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

The U.S. commission that probed the attacks said that Mr. Slahi was a pivotal figure. It found that, before being indoctrinated into al-Qaeda, the lead hijackers approached Mr. Slahi in Germany for advice on whether they should join Muslim militants fighting Russian forces in the breakaway republic of Chechnya or train with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Oddly, the 11-page transcript released last week makes no mention of Mr. Slahi's alleged connection to the hijackers.

It does, however, give his account of his links to Ahmed Ressam, the so-called Millennium Bomber, who was caught in late 1999 with a carload of explosives at the Canada-U.S. border.

Mr. Slahi left Hamburg in 1998 to become a landed immigrant in Montreal. "I wanted to immigrate there because of unemployment in Germany," he says, adding that "at least I could come to Canada and start a new life."

He says he got to know some of the men that Mr. Ressam knew in Montreal, but was not otherwise involved with the "very bad friends" who took part in the plot.

Regardless, after Mr. Ressam's capture, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service began making life difficult for Mr. Slahi. He testified he grew weary of being under a microscope. "I said, 'Hey, man, you can keep your country for yourself,' so I went back to my country."

Once back in Mauritania, Mr. Slahi says he tried to live a normal life. He said he refused the efforts of his cousin -- an alleged al-Qaeda lieutenant, with a multimillion-dollar bounty on his head -- who sought to bring him back into the fold.

Mauritanian authorities arrested Mr. Slahi in the fall of 2001, and he said he was jailed for eight months in Jordan, before being sent to Guantanamo Bay.

He refused to tell the tribunal whether he was tortured. But he says he made a confession that he has since recanted. "Your government captured me for the wrong reasons; they thought I was part of this millennium plot," Mr. Slahi told the Guantanamo Bay tribunal. ". . . Because there was so much pressure and bad treatment, I admitted to this."

 

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