Escape spotlights troubled US detention efforts

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For years now, the US has been able to count on countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, and Egypt to abduct alleged Al Qaeda operatives and deliver them extralegally into American hands.

The argument for the controversial practice has been that US interrogators are better, and that keeping the men in partly secret US custody would prevent trial details that could help other alleged terrorists from emerging.

That logic was knocked hard last week by the US military's revelation that four detainees, including Omar al-Faruq - the most senior Al Qaeda operative ever arrested in Southeast Asia - escaped from Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan last July.

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His escape, and the fact it came to light in the context of an abuse trial, puts yet another spotlight on the US military's troubled detention programs.

Human Rights Watch, which is campaigning against abusive interrogation in US prisons, says techniques like those used against Mr. Faruq violate the Geneva Conventions. "Torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading practices should be as unthinkable as slavery,'' the group says.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and top counterterrorist official Maj. Gen. Ansyaad Mbai complained they were kept in the dark about Faruq's escape. General Mbai scrambled to tighten security, saying the break could "energize terrorists in Southeast Asia."

The US announced the escapes in July - but gave an unfamiliar alias for Faruq and perhaps the other three. The truth came out because Faruq was to testify by video against Sgt. Alan Driver, who is accused of repeatedly striking Faruq and others.

"I don't think they intentionally hid this from the Indonesians. I think they were very confident they'd be able to apprehend him and didn't want to give anything away,'' says Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at Singapore's Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies. "In hindsight, it was a mistake, but mistakes are always made in counterterrorism."

In a video claimed to have been made in a Afghan Taliban camp and aired Oct. 18 by the Arab network Al Arabiya, the four gloated about their escape from the heavily guarded prison. They showed maps of the compound and explained how they picked cell locks, hid on the base for a few days, and then made their way out with Taliban assistance.

Faruq had admitted earlier in detention that he served for years in Southeast Asia, mostly in Indonesia, as the link between Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and militant groups like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which emerged as the area's most dangerous terrorists.

After what regional intelligence officials say were weeks of sleep deprivation and other "soft torture" in 2002, like fluctuating temperatures in his cell, Faruq talked, claiming there were pending attacks in Southeast Asia targeting US embassies and other facilities. That led to the first US "orange alert" since Sept. 11.

After training at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in 1991 and 1992, the Kuwaiti national went to the Philippines and then Indonesia to contact alumni of the Afghan jihad. In addition to JI, he worked with Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines, which has carried out attacks on Americans.

He brought funds and motivation to the men behind the bombing of dozens of Christian churches in Indonesia on Christmas Eve 2000; helped fuel the Christian-Muslim war in Indonesia's Maluku Provinces that killed thousands; and had close ties to the Bali nightclub attacks in 2002 that killed more than 200 people.

"He's a very committed, very intelligent man," says Mr. Gunaratna, "and I expect him to be deeply involved with Al Qaeda again now that he's free."

US allies say the US hasn't shared what it gleaned. Indonesian prosecutors said they failed to convict JI spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir on more serious terrorism charges earlier this year because the US refused to allow Faruq and Riduan Issamudin, the Indonesian operations head of JI, to testify.

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