San Juan: The first photographs of the self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind at Guantanamo Bay have cropped up on the Internet, and experts say the images of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed are being used by terrorist groups to inspire attacks against the United States.
The photographs, taken in July by the Red Cross at the detention centre on a US naval base in Cuba, show Mohammed sitting serenely wearing a white robe, a red-patterned headdress and a long salt-and-pepper beard.
They are the first known images of Mohammed since a widely distributed shot taken upon his capture in Pakistan in March 2003 showing him in a stretched white T-shirt, with dishevelled hair and a moustache. Since then, only courtroom sketches from his war-crimes trial have been available.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which photographs Guantanamo prisoners as part of its mission to monitor their treatment, confirmed on Wednesday that it took the images in July and sent them to his family. Spokesman Bernard Barrett did not identify the location of the family or specify their relationship.
Barrett said the photos were given only to the family and were not intended for public release, but the organisation does not impose conditions on detainee families.
The military began to allow the Red Cross to photograph Guantanamo detainees in February and the group has taken pictures of 107 inmates. Detainees are allowed to select two shots and the ICRC sends five prints to their families, along with personal messages.
Mohammed`s photos began appearing in recent days on Internet sites that have previously been used by al Qaeda and sympathisers to communicate with each other, said Jarret Brachman, the former research director at the Combating Terrorism Centre of the US Military Academy at West Point.
Brachman, now an independent terrorism researcher based in Fargo, North Dakota, said he fears the photos could breed sympathy for a man who has proudly proclaimed his role in the September 11 attacks, as well as other incidents of terrorism, while also alleging he has been tortured by the US.
"What`s problematic for me is it really humanises the guy," Brachman said. "I understand the value of these photos for family members, but at the same time this is the guy who planned 9-11."
An Australian counter-terrorism expert, Leah Farrall, said she first noticed one of the photographs on September 3 on an Internet forum that al Qaeda has used to communicate messages. She said it has since "gone viral”, with some users posting online statements of support for Mohammed.
"`We`ll come and get you` is one message that I saw," said Farrall, a former terrorism analyst with the Australian federal police.
Navy Lt Cmdr Brook DeWalt, a spokesman for the prison where the US holds about 225 men, said the military is not concerned with distribution of the images and takes no position on how families of prisoners handle their photos.
Mohammed faces the death penalty if convicted by the military tribunal at Guantanamo. But his trial has been suspended as President Barack Obama, who said he wants to close Guantanamo in January, decides how to proceed with the war crimes prosecutions begun under his predecessor.
The terrorist leader, who is from Pakistan and believed to be in his mid-40s, is held in Camp 7, an ultrahigh security section of Guantanamo reserved for "high value detainees." Even the location of the unit on the base in Cuba is classified and not publicly known.