For years, the Pentagon has shielded them from public scrutiny: few people have seen alleged teen terrorist Omar Khadr's shrapnel-clouded blind eye, confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed on his knees in prayer, or the shy grin of Yemeni Suleiman al Nadhi.
The Miami Herald has collected portraits that offer a rare glimpse at war-on-terror captives inside Guantanamo — a snapshot in time before some are moved to the United States for trial, and others are released.
"They just look like, you know, pious Muslims," marvels former CIA analyst Jarret Brachman, an expert on Islamic extremism who studied the collection. "You can't really distinguish between the mass-murder killers and the wrong-place, wrong-time guys. It's a microcosm for the complexity of the fight."
Taken in 2009 and scattered around the world, the photographs are among the most extensive public collection of detainee portraits anywhere. Only the closed files of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which took the photos, and U.S. Defense agencies have more.
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While the White House will miss President Barack Obama's Jan. 22 closure deadline, the prison camps enter their eighth year Monday at a sensitive time and with no new closure date set.
Obama, who still vows to close the camps, stopped all transfers of cleared captives to Yemen, the nation of nearly half the 198 prisoners today, after U.S. intelligence tied two former Saudi captives in the troubled Arabian Peninsula nation to the Christmas Day terror attempt on a Northwest airliner headed to Detroit.
Meantime, the collection of 15 portraits gives the most intimate look ever of the detainees — an unintended outcome of an agreement between the Red Cross and Defense Department to let the men send photos home.
Brachman discovered two of the most controversial images in the collection on an Arabic language electronic message board: The widely circulated image of a spiritual-looking Mohammed kneeling in prayer and gazing serenely at the camera at Guantánamo, where he once boasted he was responsible for 9/11 "from A to Z" and now awaits transfer to New York to a trial that could cost $200 million to secure.
The doe-eyed image is a startling contrast to the CIA's leaked 2003 gotcha photo of the disheveled kingpin at his capture in Pakistan -- before U.S. agents waterboarded him 183 times to get him to spill the terror group's secrets.
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